European Human Rights Court Rules in Favor of Turkish Church


Christians hope decision will lead to greater religious freedom.

ISTANBUL, December 18 (CDN) — In a decision many hope will lead to greater religious freedom in Turkey, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that a Turkish court ruling barring a church from starting a foundation violated the congregation’s right to freedom of association.

Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a Turkish attorney and legal advisor for the litigants, said the decision earlier this year was the first time the ECHR has held that religious organizations have a right to exist in Turkey. Other issues the court addressed dealt with organizations’ rights to own property, he said.

Cengiz added that this case is just the first of many needed to correct conflicts within the Turkish legal system in regard to freedom of association, known in Turkey as the concept of “legal personality.”

“This case is a significant victory, but it is the first case in a long line of cases to come,” Cengiz said.

Ihsan Ozbek, pastor of Kurtulus Church in northeast Turkey, which set out to establish the foundation, said he was pleased with the court’s decision.

“It’s a good thing to have that decision,” he said. “It will help future churches and Christian organizations.”

On Dec. 21, 2000, Ozbek and 15 other Turkish nationals applied to a court in Ankara to form the “Foundation of Liberation Churches,” to provide assistance to victims of disasters. The court referred the matter to the Directorate General of Foundations, which opposed it because, according to its interpretation of the organization’s constitution, the foundation sought to help only other Protestants. Such a purpose would be in violation of the Turkish civil code, which states that establishing a foundation to assist a specific community at the exclusion of others was prohibited.

On Jan. 22, 2002, the church group appealed the decision to the higher Court of Cassation. They agreed that the constitution should be changed to more accurately reflect the true nature of the organization, which was to give assistance to victims of natural disasters regardless of their spiritual beliefs. In February of the same year, the court rejected their appeal.

Later that year, on Aug. 29, 2002, under the guidance of Cengiz, the group appealed the decision to the ECHR. Founded in 1959 by the European Convention on Human Rights, the ECHR is the highest civil human rights court in Europe. Of the 47 countries that are signatories to the convention, Turkey accounts for more that 11 percent of the court’s caseload.

On Oct. 11, 2005 the court agreed to hear the case. More than four years later, on June 10, it publicly issued a verdict.

In its decision, the court unanimously found that the Turkish Courts’ “refusal to register the foundation, although permitted under Turkish law, had not been necessary in a democratic society, and that there had been a violation of Article 11.”

Article 11 of the convention deals with the rights of people to associate and assemble with others.

“The applicants had been willing to amend the constitution of their foundation both to reflect their true aims and to comply with the legal requirements for registration,” the court decision stated. “However, by not allowing them time to do this – something they had done in a similar case – the Court of Cassation had prevented them from setting up a foundation that would have had legal status.”

The decision was issued by seven judges, one of them Turkish. The court awarded 2,500 euros (US$3,600) to each of the 16 members of the group, in addition to 5,200 euros (US$7,490) to the group as a whole.

After being forbidden to open a foundation, the Protestant group opened an association in 2004, after Turkish law had been amended allowing them to do so. Foundations and associations in Turkey differ mostly in their ability to collect and distribute money. The aims of the association were similar to that of the proposed foundation, with the exception of reference to supporting one particular community.

Ozbek said the directorate’s office has been the main obstacle in preventing people from forming Christian foundations.

“Now that they have the decision, they will be forced to say yes,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Unprecedented Christmas Gathering Held in Vietnam


With permission little and late, organizers work by faith to accommodate crowds.

HO CHI MINH CITY, December 14 (CDN) — On Friday evening (Dec. 11), history was made in communist Vietnam.

Christian sources reported that some 40,000 people gathered in a hastily constructed venue in Ho Chi Minh City to worship God, celebrate Christmas, and hear a gospel message – an event of unprecedented magnitude in Vietnam.

A popular Vietnamese Christian website and other reports indicated up to 8,000 people responded to the gospel message indicating a desire to follow Christ.

For the last two years, authorities surprisingly granted permission to unregistered house churches in Ho Chi Minh City to hold public Christmas rallies, and last year more than 10,000 people participated in one in Tao Dan Stadium.

This year visionary house church leaders approached the government in October and asked for a sports stadium seating 30,000; they were refused. Authorities offered a sports venue holding only 3,000, located 13 kilometers (eight miles) out of the city. This was unacceptable to the organizers. They pressed for another stadium in the city holding about 15,000, and officials gave them a verbal promise that they could have it.

The verbal promise did not translate into the written permission that is critical in the country – church leaders say such promises are empty until “we have the permission paper in our hand.” Christian leaders believed event planning had to proceed without permission and sent out invitations far and wide – only to have authorities deny the stadium they had promised.

Led by Pastor Ho Tan Khoa, chairman of a large fellowship of house church organizations, organizers were forced to look for alternatives. They found a large open field in the Go Vap district of the city. When permission was still not granted five days before the planned event, several church leaders literally camped for three days outside city hall, pressing for an answer.

Authorities, who often work to sabotage united action among Christians, tried urgently to find ways to talk the leaders out of going ahead, promising future concessions if they would cancel the event. Organizers stood firm. Ultimately they told the deputy mayor that refusal to grant permission at that point would have far-ranging, negative ramifications in Vietnam as well as internationally.

Finally, at the close of business on Dec. 9, just 48 hours before the scheduled event, officials granted permission that required clearance all the way to Hanoi. But the permission was only for 3,000 people, and many more had been invited.

Organizers had less than two days to turn a vacant field into something that would accommodate a stadium-size crowd. They had to bring in ample electricity, construct a giant stage, rent 20,000 chairs, and set up the sound and lighting. The extremely short time frame caused contractors to double the prices they would have charged with ample time.

Organizers also rented hundreds of busses to bring Christians and their non-Christian friends from provinces near the city. Thousands of students sacrificed classes to help with last-minute preparations and to join the celebration.

Just after noon on Friday (Dec. 11), word came that police had stopped busses carrying 300 Steing minority people from the west to the event scheduled for that day. Organizers, fearing all busses would be stopped, put out an emergency worldwide prayer request.

Christian sources said that authorities either did not or could not stop busses from other directions, and that by evening the venue became the biggest “bus station” in all of Vietnam. By 6 p.m. the venue was full to capacity, and at least 2,000 had to be turned away.

Christians described the event, entitled, “With Our Whole Hearts,” in superlative terms. For house churches, large gatherings are both very rare and very special, and for many this was their first glimpse of the strength of Vietnam’s growing Christian movement. Thousands of Christians joined a choir of more 1,000 singers in loud and joyful praise.

Sources said that the main speaker, the Rev. Duong Thanh Lam, head of the Assemblies of God house churches “preached with anointing” and people responding to his gospel invitation poured to the front of the stage “like a waterfall.” With space in front of the stage insufficient, the sources said, many others in their seats also indicated their desire to receive Christ.

Organizers along with many participants were overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude as the event closed. People spontaneously hugged each other and cried, “Lord, bring revival to all of Vietnam!” Other comments included, “Beyond our fondest imagination,” and, “Nothing could stop the hand of the Lord.”

The event raised more than 60 million dong (US$3,280) for a charity helping needy children. People were quite surprised to read a positive article on the event in the state-controlled press, which often vilifies Christians.

House churches in the north were hopeful that they could hold a similar event. Organizers in Hanoi have heard encouraging reports that they will get permission to use the national My Dinh sports stadium for a Christmas celebration, though they do not have it in hand. Sources said they have sent out invitations across a broad area to an event scheduled for Dec. 20.

Friday’s event also made history in that it was streamed live on the Vietnamese website www.hoithanh.com and viewed by thousands more in Vietnam and by Vietnamese people around the world.

Report from Compass Direct News 

ERITREA: THIRD CHRISTIAN THIS YEAR DIES IN MILITARY PRISON


LOS ANGELES, July 27 (Compass Direct News) – Another Christian imprisoned for his faith in Eritrea has died from authorities denying him medical treatment, according to a Christian support organization.

Sources told Netherlands-based Open Doors that Yemane Kahasay Andom, 43, died Thursday (July 23) at Mitire Military Confinement Center.

A member of the Kale-Hiwot church in Mendefera, Andom was said to be secretly buried in the camp.

Weakened by continuous torture, Andom was suffering from a severe case of malaria, Open Doors reported in a statement today.

“He was allegedly further weakened by continuous physical torture and solitary confinement in an underground cell the two weeks prior to his death for his refusal to sign a recantation form,” the organization said. “It is not clear what the contents of the recantation form were, but most Christians interpret the signing of such a form as the denouncement of their faith in Christ.”

Andom is the third known Christian to die this year at the Mitire camp, located in northeastern Eritrea. Mogos Hagos Kiflom, 37, was said to have died from torture at the same center in early January. On Jan. 16, Mehari Gebreneguse Asgedom, 42, died in solitary confinement at the Mitire camp from torture and complications from diabetes, according to Open Doors.

It was not immediately known whether Andom was married or how many family members survive him. He had spent the past 18 months at the Mitire camp.

Last October Open Doors learned of the death of another Christian, Teklesenbet Gebreab Kiflom, 36, who died while imprisoned for his faith at the Wi’a Military Confinement Center. He was reported to have died after prison commanders refused to give him medical attention for malaria.

In June 2008, 37-year-old Azib Simon died from untreated malaria as well. Weakened by torture, sources told Compass, Simon contracted malaria only a week before she died.

With the death of Andom last week, the number of Christians who have died while imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea now total nine. Along with the two Christians who died in January and Kiflom and Azib last year, Nigisti Haile, 33, tied from torture on Sept. 5, 2007; Magos Solomon Semere, 30, died from torture and pneumonia at Adi-Nefase Confinement Center, outside Assab, in February 2007; Immanuel Andegergesh, 23, died in Adi-Quala Confinement Center in October 2006 from torture and dehydration; and also at the Adi-Qaula center, Kibrom Firemichel, 30, died from torture and dehydration also in October 2006.

More than 2,800 Christians remain imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea, according to Open Doors.

The Eritrean government in May 2002 outlawed all religious groups except Islam and the Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran churches. The government of President Isaias Afwerki has stepped up its campaign against churches it has outlawed, once again earning it a spot on the U.S. Department of State’s latest list of worst violators of religious freedom.

Incarcerated Christians from throughout Eritrea have been transferred to the Mitire prison. In April Open Doors learned that 27 Christian prisoners held at police stations in the Eritrean capital of Asmara had been transferred to the Mitire military camp for further punishment.

They included a pastor identified only as Oqbamichel of the Kale-Hiwot Church, pastor Habtom Twelde of the Full Gospel Church, a pastor identified only as Jorjo of the Full Gospel Church, two members of the Church of the Living God identified only as Tesfagaber and Hanibal, Berhane Araia of the Full Gospel Church and Michel Aymote of the Philadelphia Church.

On April 17, according to the organization, 70 Christians were released from the Mitire military facility, including 11 women imprisoned for six months for allegedly failing to complete their required 18 months of military service. The Christians said that authorities simply told them to go home and that they had no idea why they had been released. They had been originally arrested in Asmara, Dekemhare, Keren, Massawa and Mendefera and transported to Mitire for punishment.

Eritrean officials have routinely denied that religious oppression exists in the country, saying the government is only enforcing laws against unregistered churches.

The government has denied all efforts by independent Protestant churches to register, and people caught worshipping outside the four recognized religious institutions, even in private homes, suffer arrest, torture and severe pressure to deny their faith. The Eritrean Orthodox Church and its flourishing renewal movement have also been subject to government raids.

Reliable statistics are not available, but the U.S. Department of State estimates that 50 percent of Eritrea’s population is Sunni Muslim, 30 percent is Orthodox Christian, and 13 percent is Roman Catholic. Protestants and Seventh-day Adventists, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Hindus, and Baha’is make up less than 5 percent of the population.

Report from Compass Direct News 

INDIA: REFUSAL OF VISAS TO U.S. PANEL STUNS CHRISTIANS


Commission on religious freedom would have found violence-torn Orissa far from normal.

NEW DELHI, June 29 (Compass Direct News) – The Indian government is silent on why it refused visas to allow members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to visit troubled Orissa state, but there are indications that it was ducking protests from Hindu nationalist groups.

The USCIRF team was to leave for India on June 12, but the Indian embassy in Washington did not give them visas in time, the religious panel said in a June 17 statement.

“Our Commission has visited China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and over 20 other countries,” Commission Chair Felice D. Gaer said in the statement. “India, a close ally of the United States, has been unique among democracies in delaying and denying USCIRF’s ability to visit. USCIRF has been requesting visits since 2001.”

The team was to discuss religious freedom with officials of the new government, which began its second five-year term on May 22, as well as with religious leaders, civil society activists and others in the wake of anti-Christian attacks in Kandhamal district of the eastern state of Orissa in December 2007 and August-September 2008.

The U.S. panel also intended to discuss conditions in the western state of Gujarat, where more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in a communal riot in 2002. The victims have reportedly not been properly rehabilitated, and many of their attackers remain at large. In 2005 the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was denied a visa to the United States to attend the World Gujarati Meet because of his alleged involvement in the violence.

In 2002 the USCIRF, a bipartisan federal commission, recommended India be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) following the 2002 violence in Gujarat. India was removed from the CPC list in 2005.

The Commission released its 2009 annual report on religious freedom across the globe on May 1 but put the India report on hold, planning to prepare it after the intended visit this month.

“I am profoundly surprised and distressed that it is the government of Dr. Manmohan Singh, in its second and so much secure term, which has denied visas to the USCIRF at the last moment,” said John Dayal, member of India’s National Integration Council.

Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), told Compass that such a decision would have been more expected under the previous administration of the BJP-led alliance.

“There would have been an acceptable, albeit very perverse, logic if a National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP federal government – as existed in New Delhi until 2004 – had refused visas to the USCIRF,” he said, “because they had so much to hide and because that government’s professed ideological moorings were in fascism and theocratic arrogance.”

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the left-of-center Congress Party, won the general elections in April and May of this year with a comfortable majority in. While the UPA got 262 of the 543 parliamentary seats, the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP, could bag only 160.

The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, said the Indian government’s decision was “very unfortunate.”

“Its visit and objective report would have helped in clearing the air of suspicion about the whole tragic episode in Kandhamal,” he said. “For, since the tragic events, there have been claims and counter-claims about what triggered and sustained the communal flare-up that caused unprecedented damage to life and property of people who were already in disadvantaged conditions.”

What USCIRF Would Have Found

The atmosphere in Orissa’s Kandhamal district has remained tense since a spate of attacks began in December 2007 that killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches. The attacks were carried out to avenge an alleged attack on a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.

Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal in August 2008 after the assassination of Saraswati by a Maoist group, though non-Marxist Christians were blamed for it. This time, the violence killed more than 100 people and resulted in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

Had the USCIRF team been able to visit Kandhamal, Christian leaders said, it would have found the situation far from normal even eight months after violence reportedly ended.

According to The Indian Express of May 31, the deployment of five companies of the Central Reserve Police Force, a federal agency, was extended for another month. One company comprises 100 personnel. The federal internal minister had earlier decided to withdraw the force from Kandhamal, but state Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik requested he retain some of the contingent.

The Rev. Ajaya Singh of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese said that around 3,000 victims were still living in government-run relief camps, and some 900 families were in village relief camps. Initially about 24,000 victims were housed in government relief camps. These internally displaced people cannot go back to their villages because of continuing threats from “fundamentalists and criminals,” he added.

Most of the people who carried out attacks remain at large, continue to pressure victims to withdraw complaints they filed against the rioters, and are still threatening harm to Christians who refuse to convert to Hinduism, he complained.

Singh told Compass that a legal aid center run by the Christian Legal Association (CLA) from a rented house in Phulbani, district headquarters of Kandhamal, had been ordered to move out after Hindu nationalist groups pressured the owner of the house.

“For the last one month, lawyers have been staying here to help the witnesses to speak the truth,” he said. “The momentum of the cases was picking up, but now the legal center itself is facing problems.”

Singh also said some witnesses were issued death threats on June 17. The witnesses were told not to go to court or else they would be killed.

“However, a complaint has been lodged at the police station and an affidavit submitted before a judge,” he added.

In addition to the 753 cases filed by police in connection with the August-September 2008 violence, the CLA has filed 63 private complaints, and 70 more will be filed in the coming days.

The Orissa United Forum of Churches (OUFC), a new interdenominational grouping, wrote to Chief Minister Patnaik recently, informing him that an administrative officer of the Raikia area had taken victims from the relief camp to their respective villages on June 6, but the local residents did not allow them even to enter their villages.

The OUFC added that there were around 2,000 Christians who were asked to go back to their villages, but that villagers chased them out. They are now living in marketplaces or on the outskirts of those villages in abject conditions.

According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), extremists on June 2 burned down three homes that were partially destroyed during the August 2008 violence in Sirsapanda area in Kandhamal to prevent victims from returning to their villages.

The Christians were able to identify the attackers, but police advised them against naming them, said the EFI report.

“Christian properties were seized by local villagers, and having the Christians back in the village means giving back the land to their owners,” said the EFI’s Ashish Parida.

A CLA team, which recently visited two camps in Kandhamal, also said that the Christians were consistently ostracized by their neighbors.

Orissa is ruled by a regional party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which was in partnership with the BJP when the violence took place. The BJD broke up with the Hindu right-wing party before the state assembly elections that were held simultaneously with the general elections.

Federal Internal Minister P. Chidambaram was in Kandhamal on Friday (June 26) to assess the law-and-order situation there and admitted police failure.

“What happened on Aug. 23 and thereafter was regrettable and condemnable. Moreover, it was the failure of the police for 30 to 40 days,” he said, according to The Hindu. “Now the situation is returning to normal but we cannot lower our guards.”

Chidambaram also said he wanted displaced Christians to return to their homes, seemingly because it will be difficult for the government to claim that normalcy has returned as long as they remain in relief camps.

“The government will ensure that no one harms you anymore. It is absolutely safe for you to return to your villages,” Chidambaram said at a relief camp in Raikia block, according to The Indian Express. “You have every right to practice your religion, build and pray in churches. You please return to your villages. I want to come back within one month and would like to see you in your homes in your villages.”

Christian leaders said that if the displaced people return home, many more reports of threats, attacks and ostracism are expected.

Why Visas Were Denied

Sources told Compass that both the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) were behind the government’s move to block the USCIRF from entering the country.

Compass persistently tried to contact the spokesperson of the MEA, Vishnu Prakash, without success. The spokesperson of the MHA, Onkar Kedia, was travelling.

According to the June 17 The Times of India, the Indian Embassy in Washington pleaded innocent, saying the visa applications of the USCIRF team had been forwarded to New Delhi, as is the standard practice for all such visits.

Sources in the government in New Delhi denied that the visas were deliberately withheld, saying the time was not “proper” for such a visit, according to the daily.

“We really don’t care about what they [USCIRF] report,” it quoted an official as saying. “But a high-profile visit seen as having government sanctions would have raised hackles in India.”

The visas were denied amid diatribes by Hindu right-wing groups against the proposed visit of the U.S. religious freedom panel. An influential Hindu leader, Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati, had called for refusal of entry to the USCIRF team. “We will not allow interference in our internal religious affairs by external bodies,” he said in a press conference in Mumbai on June 12, according to the Press Trust of India. “We see USCIRF as an intrusive mechanism of a foreign government which is interfering with the internal affairs of India.”

Jayendra Saraswati is known to be close to Hindu nationalist groups.

The U.S. branch of the Hindu extremist VHP had also criticized the intended visit of the U.S. Commission, calling it “incomprehensible,” reported The Times of India. “The largest functioning democracy in the world with an independent judiciary, a statutorily constituted Human Rights Commission, an independent press and other supporting organizations would appear to be quite capable of taking care of the religious freedoms and human rights of its citizens,” it said.

Later, on June 22, Ashok Singhal, international president of the VHP, said in a statement that the USCIRF was “a self-appointed committee as an expression of the big brother attitude of the USA to enquire into the status of religious freedom in other countries … This commission is concerned only about the Christians in other countries whenever there is a hue and cry by the church that the Christians are persecuted in such countries. They never bother about the status of religious and racial discriminations meted out to other religionists in the Western countries, including the U.S.”

Rev. Joseph of the Catholic Bishops Conference, however, said it was “preposterous” to construe the USCIRF’s visit as interference in India’s internal matters, “as the organization is recognized the world over as a credible watch-dog of human rights and religious freedom.”

“Everyone knows that the government of the day did/could not effectively check the communal frenzy,” he added. “And the failure of the state has to be investigated not by the officials of the same state themselves, but by someone who can objectively view and make independent judgment on it.”

The USCIRF is expected to release the pending India report in the next few weeks.

“The denial of visas seeks to make opaque an otherwise healthy transparency in India’s human rights discourse,” said the AICC’s Dayal. Added Joseph, “Probably India missed a chance to come clean on its track records on human rights and religious freedom.”

Report from Compass Direct News

BANGLADESH: MUSLIM VILLAGERS BEAT EVANGELISTS IN SOUTHEAST


Nearly four months later, Christian worker still suffering nerve damage.

FULGAZI, Bangladesh, June 1 (Compass Direct News) – Nearly four months after Muslim villagers in this southeastern Bangladesh sub-district furiously beat two evangelists for showing the “Jesus Film,” one of the Christians is still receiving treatment for nerve damage to his hip.

Christian Life Bangladesh (CLB) worker Edward Biswas, 32, was admitted to Alabakth Physiotherapy Centre on May 5. Dr. Mohammad Saifuddin Julfikar told Compass that injuries Biswas sustained from the Feb. 8 attack in Feni district, some 150 kilometers (93 miles) southeast of Dhaka, had led to neurological complications in his hip.

“His hip joint was displaced, and one bone in the hip was fractured,” Julfikar said.

Biswas told Compass that he and 21-year-old Dolonmoy Tripura first showed the film on Feb. 7 in a home in Chandpur village, where they also taught the more than 200 poor and mostly illiterate viewers about the dangers of arsenic in water, mother-and-child health care and AIDS prevention. United Nations Children’s Fund reports say more than 30 million people are exposed to high levels of arsenic in water in Bangladesh and India.

Azad Mia of the same village requested they show the film at his house the following day. They went to his home the evening of Feb. 8, but because one of Mia’s family members was ill they were unable to screen the film. As they returned home, Biswas said, some villagers told them to show the film at their home; the two evangelists suspected a trap.

“At first they tried to sweet-talk us into going to their house,” Biswas said. “On our refusal to show the film, they tried to force us to go. I smelled a rat and again refused to go. Later they forcefully took us deep inside the village.”

About 20 people gathered and began beating them, he said.

“Some of the elders of the village told them to release us, but they were adamant to see the movie,” Biswas said. “They took us to a schoolyard, where we showed the ‘Jesus Film’ under tremendous compulsion. After showing 20 minutes of the first reel of the film, Muslim villagers again started beating us as we were lying on the ground. They punched and kicked us.”

While 15 to 20 Muslims struck them, approximately 200 others present for the screening looked on, he said. The villagers also beat a Muslim who had transported the CLB workers about the village on a three-wheel rickshaw for the showing of the film.

The assailants also destroyed the film projector, generator, microphone and the four reels of the film, Biswas said.

“Several days after the beating, I came to know from some villagers that a family had become Christian around 10 years ago in the neighboring village, “Biswas said. “All the villagers were angry, and they evicted that family from the village.”

The attack was pre-planned, with the showing of the film seen as a legitimate pretext for beating them, he said. They also threatened Daud Mia, a Muslim villager who had allowed them to show the film in his house the previous day, said Biswas.

CLB Area Supervisor Gabriel Das took Biswas and Tripura to a local doctor for treatment. CLB Chairman Sunil Adhikary expressed concern about freedom of religion and the rights of minorities provided in the country’s constitution.

“The beating was a flagrant violation of our rights,” said Adhikary. “They showed the film, but they did not force anyone to be converted. We forgave the attackers and showed them the love of our God.”

Since 2003 at least three CLB workers in Bangladesh have been killed – likely by Islamic extremists, say police and local officials – and several hundred have been injured.

In April Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed spoke about freedom of religion, democratic governance and equal opportunity in Bangladesh with Gerard Valin, vice-admiral of the French Navy and commander of the French Joint Forces in the Indian Ocean, who was visiting the country. Hasina told the commander that Bangladesh would protect religious freedom for all faith groups, as well as ensure freedom of expression for all minorities.

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: CONVERT’S RELIGIOUS RIGHTS CASE THREATENS ISLAMISTS


Muslims said to fear that freedom to legally change religion would wreak societal havoc.

CAIRO, Egypt, May 12 (Compass Direct News) – In the dilapidated office here of three lawyers representing one of Egypt’s “most wanted” Christian converts, the mood was hopeful in spite of a barrage of death threats against them and their client.

At a court hearing on May 2, a judge agreed to a request by the convert from Islam to join the two cases he has opened to change his ID card to reflect his new faith. The court set June 13 as the date to rule on the case of Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary’s – who is in hiding from outraged Islamists – and lawyer Nabil Ghobreyal said he was hopeful that progress thus far will lead to a favorable ruling.

At the same time, El-Gohary’s lawyers termed potentially “catastrophic” for Egyptian human rights a report sent to the judge by the State Council, a consultative body of Egypt’s Administrative Court. Expressing outrage at El-Gohary’s “audacity” to request a change in the religious designation on his ID, the report claims the case is a threat to societal order and violates sharia (Islamic law).

“This [report] is bombarding freedom of religion in Egypt,” said lawyer Said Faiz. “They are insisting that the path to Islam is a one-way street. The entire report is based on sharia.”

The report is counterproductive for Egypt’s aspirations for improved human rights, they said. In the eyes of the international community it is self-condemned, the lawyers said, because it is not based on Egypt’s civil law, nor does it uphold the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights that Egypt has signed.

The report stated that those who leave Islam will be subject to death, described El-Gohary as an “apostate” and called all Christians “infidels.”

“During the hearing, they [Islamic lawyers] were saying that Christians are infidels and that Christ was a Muslim, so we said, ‘OK, bring us the papers that show Jesus embraced Islam,’” Faiz said, to a round of laughter from his colleagues.

Ghobreyal, adding that the report says El-Gohary’s case threatens public order, noted wryly, “In Egypt we have freedom of religion, but these freedoms can’t go against Islam.”

The trio of young lawyers working on El-Gohary’s case, who formed an organization called Nuri Shams (Sunlight) to support Christian converts’ rights, said they have received innumerable threats over the phone and on the Internet, and sometimes even from their colleagues.

Churches Challenged

To date no Christian convert in Egypt has obtained a baptismal certificate, which amounts to official proof of conversion.

Churches fear that issuing such certificates would create a severe backlash. As a result, converts cannot apply for a change of religion on their ID, but El-Gohary was able to travel abroad to get a baptismal certificate from a well-established church. In April a Coptic Cairo-based priest recognized this certificate and issued him a letter of acceptance, or “conversion certificate,” welcoming him to the Coptic Orthodox community.

El-Gohary’s baptismal certificate caused a fury among the nation’s Islamic lobby, as it led to the first official church recognition of a convert. A number of fatwas (religious edicts) have since been issued against El-Gohary and Father Matthias Nasr Manqarious, the priest who helped him.

“The converts have no chance to travel, to leave, to get asylum, so we have to help them to get documents for their new religion,” Fr. Manqarious told Compass by telephone. “So I decided to help Maher El-Gohary and others like him. They can’t live as Christians in broad daylight.”

For several months El-Gohary has been in hiding, relying on others to meet his basic needs. When Compass spoke with him by phone earlier this month, he said he lives in fear for his life and worries about his 14-year-old daughter’s safety.

“I’m hiding. Someone brings me my food and water. I haven’t gone out in a week,” said El-Gohary. “Many Muslims and sheikhs … say if anyone sees Maher Gohary, he must kill him. My life is very difficult.”

His original case, filed in August of last year, included an attempt to change the religious affiliation on his teenage daughter’s ID, but he later dropped it after further legal consultation. El-Gohary said that when radical Muslims recognize his daughter on the streets, they warn her that they will kill her father when they find him.

“She’s afraid for me,” he said.

His church acceptance letter has re-kindled discussion of a bill proposed by parliamentary members affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a hard-line Islamist opposition movement, which would make apostasy punishable by death, said El-Gohary’s lawyers. Human rights experts, however, say that such a bill does not stand a chance in the Egyptian Parliament and is primarily a smokescreen to induce fear in Egypt’s Christian converts from Islam.

Some Hope from Baha’is

Sources said the fact that the judge asked for a baptismal certificate and filed the letter of acceptance in the case represents progress in the ongoing struggle of Egyptian converts, who are not recognized in their own country.

Now that El-Gohary’s lawyers have produced the acceptance letter, the judge in the case finds himself in a bind, said Hassan Ismail, general secretary of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations.

“The judge is in a paradox with the document he asked for,” Ismail said. “It is difficult to accept it, and yet it is difficult having this document among those of the case.”

Ismail, who has worked for years defending the rights of both Baha’is and converts, said it is hard to predict what the judge will decide in June. Even with all the required documents and “proof” of El-Gohary’s conversion, he said, the judge may still deny his right to change religions.

“For us human rights activists, these decisions are political, not legal,” he said. “These sorts of documents put the government into a corner, and we are working hard to get them in order to push the government to make different decisions.”

At the age of 16 all Egyptians are required to obtain an ID that states their religion as Muslim, Christian or Jewish. These cards are necessary for virtually every aspect of life, from banking, to education and medical treatment.

Baha’is, who do not fall under the rubric of any of Islam’s “heavenly religions,” were forced to lie about their religion or not obtain cards until March, when in a historical decision Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court upheld a lower court’s 2008 ruling that all Egyptians have a right to obtain official documents, such as ID cards and birth certificates, without stating their religion.

The gains of Baha’is have been a gauge of sorts for the Christian convert community, even though in reality they are not granted the freedom to change their stated religion or leave it blank on their cards and the official registry.

“I’m very optimistic about the cases of minorities and converts in Egypt,” said Ismail. “I believe that the case of Baha’is was an indicator for converts … If we were able to push their case, then we can defend the rights of converts.”

The human rights activist said that although discrimination against converts who are seen as apostates from Islam is greater than that against those raised in other religions, ultimately converts will be able to gain legal ground. El-Gohary’s case, he said, will play an important role.

“After years of fighting, the Baha’is have rights,” he said. “I think converts will succeed even if it takes years. Many are expecting to see Maher’s case [succeed], because it’s well documented.”

Attorney Ghobreyal said that El-Gohary’s case is on solid legal footing based on Article 46 of the Egyptian Civil Code, which grants religious freedom to the country’s citizens.

In his mind it is irrational that the government gave rights to the Baha’is, who fall outside of the three heavenly religions, while not granting the same rights to Christian converts. His only explanation is that a governmental green light to people to leave Islam could wreak havoc.

Not only is there fear of the Muslim front reacting violently to such a decision, but “they’re afraid that if they allow it, then all Muslims will become Christians,” said Ghobreyal. “They know there are many converts, and they will all officially become Christians.”

The lawyer said there are rumors circulating that there are a few million converts eagerly awaiting the results of El-Gohary’s case. Egypt’s last census in 2006 did not factor in religion, so figures of the Coptic population are based on estimates. These range from 6 to 15 percent of the country’s 80-million population. It is not possible to estimate the number of converts, most of whom live in secrecy.

“Ten years ago, you never heard about a convert, but now you hear that someone is going to the court to ask to become a Christian,” said Ghobreyal.

Hegazy’s Hope

The first convert to file for a change on his ID card, Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, said he was pleased with the progress of El-Gohary’s case and hoped that more converts would take the risk of joining their cause.

“I think that every case added to the convert case will be a help,” said Hegazy.

An outspoken critic of the refusal of Egypt’s established churches to openly baptize converts, Hegazy said that in El-Gohary’s case publicity and criticism pushed the church to take a step in the right direction in producing the conversion certificate.

“But this is not a big step, and there are many more that need to be taken and have not been,” he said. “Just to be clear, the [Egyptian] church has not given a baptism certificate, it has given an acceptance letter, and the church has declared they are not going to give a baptism paper … but we can’t deny that the step that the priest took to give the certificate was audacious.”

Hegazy, who lost his case in January 2008 and is waiting for an appeal date, was never able to get a baptism certificate, nor can he travel since he does not have a passport. If he returns to his hometown to apply for one, he risks losing his life.

He said he still hopes any of Egypt’s churches will help him by baptizing him and giving him a certificate in time for his appeal or for a new case he plans to open soon. Hegazy said that although his case is not as public as it used to be, he still faces danger when he leaves his house.

Although he is also in hiding and fears for his life, El-Gohary said he hopes his case opens the way for other converts to experience freedom.

“I hope this for all of those who want to live in the light and the sun; there are many families,” he said of Egypt’s converts. “I want to live in peace as a Christian. I hope my country gives me the freedom to worship my God and gives me my human rights.”

Egypt is a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, an inter-governmental body made up of 47 states responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. On April 18, 2007, in its written statement applying for a seat to the Human Rights Council, the representative of Egypt to the U.N. stated that if elected it would emphasize promoting cultural and religious tolerance, among other human rights.

Report from Compass Direct News

AZERBAIJAN: WILL REVISED RELIGION LAW BAN UNREGISTERED WORSHIP?


Azerbaijan is apparently rushing restrictive amendments to its Religion Law through parliament, Forum 18 News Service has learnt.

“Only the parliamentary deputies have the text, and it will only be published after its adoption,” a parliamentary aide told Forum 18. The amendments – which reportedly include a ban on unregistered religious activity – have not been made public, and the full parliament is due to begin consideration of them on Friday 8 May.

The refusal to make the text public denies the opportunity for public discussion of the proposals, complains Eldar Zeynalov of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan. “Everything prepared in top secrecy is bad for human rights,” he told Forum 18.

Parliamentary Deputy Rabiyyat Aslanova, who chairs one of two committees which prepared the draft, told Forum 18 that state registration will be compulsory, but claimed that: “No one will be punished for practicing without registration, as long as they don’t preach against the national interest or denigrate the dignity of others.” She declined to discuss what this means, and confirmed that religious communities will have to re-register. Religious communities – especially of minority faiths – have struggled to re-register after previous changes.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

PERSECUTION IN KAZAKHSTAN


Baptist churches in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan are being persecuted by the government for refusing to register in that country’s system of closely monitoring Christian organisations.

Believers in Kazakhstan see the state’s attempts at forcing them to register are a violation of their religious freedom as clearly outlined in the constitution of Kazakhstan. Many believers have been heavily fined as a consequence of their refusal to register.

Baptists have not been the only group targeted by the government. Jehovah’s Witnesses have also been targeted and raided by government officials.

There is now a draft religion law in Kazakhstan that would further erode religious freedom in the country. The law would include further restrictive registration requirements, as well as reduce the number of religious groups allowed to operate in the country.