Pakistani Taliban Kills Three Foreign Christian Aid Workers

Kidnapped relief workers had come to provide aid to victims of massive flooding.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, August 27 (CDN) — Authorities on Wednesday (Aug. 25) recovered the bodies of three Christian relief workers who had been kidnapped and killed by members of the Pakistani Taliban in the flood-ravaged country, area officials said.

Swat District Coordination Officer Atif-ur-Rehman told Compass that the Pakistan Army recovered the bodies of the three foreign flood-relief workers at about 7 a.m. on Wednesday. An official at the international humanitarian organization that employed the workers withheld their names and requested that the agency remain unnamed for security reasons. Military sources who withheld news of the deaths from electronic and print media to avoid panicking other relief workers granted permission to Compass to publish it in limited form.

“The foreign aid workers have been working in Mingora and the surrounding areas,” Rehman said. “On Aug. 23 they were returning to their base at around 5:35 p.m. when a group of Taliban attacked their vehicle. They injured around five-six people and kidnapped three foreign humanitarian workers.”

Pakistan has been hit by its worst flooding in decades, with the United Nations now estimating more than 21.8 million people have been affected. Foreign aid workers are involved in relief activities across the country, including Swat district in Khyber-Paktunkhwa Province in northern Pakistan. At least 8 million people require emergency relief, with hundreds of thousands reportedly isolated from aid supplies.

An army Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) source said rangers have been deployed in Swat and other potential target areas to help provide security for relief workers.

“The Taliban had warned about attacks on foreigner aid workers and Christian organizations,” the ISPR source said. “All the international humanitarian organizations have been notified, and their security has also been increased.”

Rehman noted that the Taliban also has been trying to bring relief to flood victims.

“The Taliban are also trying to support the flood victims, and many other banned organizations have set up camps in southern Punjab to support the victims,” he said. “They intend to sympathize with the affected and gain their support.”

The president of advocacy organization Life for All, Rizwan Paul, said the bodies of the three relief workers had been sent to Islamabad under the supervision of the Pakistan Army.

“We strongly condemn the killing of the three humanitarian workers,” Paul said. “These aid workers came to support us, and we are thankful to the humanitarian organizations that came to help us in a time of need.”

Pointing to alleged discrimination against minorities in distribution of humanitarian aid, Paul added that Christians in severely flood-damaged areas in Punjab Province have been neglected. The majority of the effected Christians in Punjab are in Narowal, Shakargarh, Muzzafargarh, Rahim Yar Khan and Layyah, he said.

“The Christians living around Maralla, Narowal, and Shakargarh were shifted to the U.N.- administered camps, but they are facing problems in the camps,” he said. “There are reports that the Christians are not given tents, clean water and food. In most of the camps the Christians have totally been ignored.”

Life for All complained to U.N. agencies and the government of Pakistan regarding the discrimination, but no one has responded yet, he said.

“There have been reports from Muzzaffargarh and Layyah that the Christians are living on the damaged roads in temporary tents, as they were not allowed in the government camps,” he said.

In Sindh Province Thatta has been flooded, and around 300 Christian families who tried to move from there to Punjab were forbidden from doing so, a source said. Meteorologists are predicting more rains in coming days, with the already catastrophic flooding expected to get worse.

Kashif Mazhar, vice president of Life for All, said that in the northern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa conditions for Christians are better as there are Christian camps established, and Garrison Church in Risalpur is also providing aid to victims.

“It is discouraging to see that the Christian organizations are wholeheartedly supporting the victims regardless of the religion or race, but in most of the areas the Christians are totally ignored and not even allowed to stay,” Mazhar said.

Foreign targets are rarely attacked directly in Pakistan, despite chronic insecurity in the nuclear-armed state, which is a key ally in the U.S.-led war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. On March 10, however, suspected Islamic militants armed with guns and grenades stormed the offices of a Christian relief and development organization in northwest Pakistan, killing six aid workers and wounding seven others.

The gunmen besieged the offices of international humanitarian organization World Vision near Oghi, in Mansehra district, of the North West Frontier Province. Suicide and bomb attacks across Pakistan have killed more than 3,000 people since 2007. Blame has fallen on Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked militants bitterly opposed to the alliance with the United States.

The U.N. decided last year to relocate a limited number of its international staff from Pakistan because of security concerns. Its World Food Program office in Islamabad was attacked in October last year, with five aid workers killed in a suicide bombing.

Then on Feb. 3, a bomb attack in the NWFP district of Lower Dir killed three U.S. soldiers and five other people at the opening of a school just rebuilt with Western funding after an Islamist attack.

Report from Compass Direct News

Violence Escalates in Mosul, Iraq ahead of Elections

Christians targeted as political tension builds in weeks leading to parliamentary polls.

ISTANBUL, March 5 (CDN) — Political tensions ahead of parliamentary elections in Iraq on Sunday (March 7) have left at least eight Chaldean Christians dead in the last three weeks and hundreds of families fleeing Mosul.

“The concern of Christians in Mosul is growing in the face of what is happening in the city,” said Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk Louis Sako. “The tension and struggle between political forces is creating an atmosphere of chaos and congestion. Christians are victims of political tension between political groups, but maybe also by fundamentalist sectarian cleansing.”

On Feb. 23 the killing of Eshoee Marokee, a Christian, and his two sons in their home in front of other family members sent shock waves across the Christian community. The murder took place amid a string of murders that triggered the mass exodus of families to the surrounding towns and provinces.

“It is not the first time Christians are attacked or killed,” said the archbishop of the Syrian Catholic Church in Mosul, Georges Casmoussa. “The new [element] in this question is to be killed in their own homes.”

The capital of Nineveh Province some 400 kilometers (250 miles) northwest of Baghdad, Mosul has been known as the most dangerous city for Christians. At least 275 Assyrian Christians have been murdered by Islamic insurgents since 2003, according to a report prepared by the International Committee for The Rights of Indigenous Mesopotamians.

While in 2009 the organization listed 16 deaths, since January there have been at least 13 murders, eight of which took place the second half of February.

The movement of internally displaced persons to surrounding areas started in mid-February and tripled between Feb. 24 and Feb. 27 to about 683 families, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Although the rate of displacement into areas around Mosul has slowed, the report estimates that 720 families had fled the city as of March 1. This represents about 4,320 people.

Christian Students Affected

The murders have not only driven families away from the cities but have also kept students away from university. Three of the Christians killed in February were university students. As a result, around 2,000 Christian students are staying away from their classes until the tension in Mosul eases.

“We believe that the attack against these students was somehow related to the political situation in Mosul,” said General Secretary of the Chaldo-Assyrian Student and Youth Union Kaldo Oghanna. “This has affected our people in Mosul badly, and they have left the university.”

Oghanna said that the union has proposed that the Ministry of Education open a new university in a safer area of the Nineveh plains for the nearly 3,000 Christian undergraduate students and 250 graduate students studying in Mosul. He also said that they have appealed to the university’s administration to make necessary exceptions for the Christian students who have not attended classes in the last few weeks.

Although some local Christian leaders say they expect the tension to ease after Sunday, security may not improve as the Christian community is caught in political tensions between Arabs and Kurds vying for control of the province. Archbishop Casmoussa said regardless of who is behind the murders, the Christian community demands justice.

“We urge the Central and Regional Government to pursue the murders and their masters and judge them according to Iraqi laws, even if they are supported by religious or political parties,” Casmoussa said. “Enough is enough. Are we to pay the price of political struggles or ambitions?”

Sako said that in other cities security has improved, and that Christians are eager to cast their votes.

The election on March 7 will decide the 325 members of the Council of Representatives of Iraq, who will then elect the prime minister and president of Iraq. Of these seats, five are reserved for the nation’s Christian minority, estimated at around 600,000. Most of them live in the Nineveh plain.

At the beginning of the Iraq war, there were about 1.2 million Christians living in Iraq. Iraq’s population is roughly 30 million.

Report from Compass Direct News 

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 

Decline of traditional media

Should the threat to traditional media from the internet really be a cause for concern?

The new social media — blogging, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube are current faves — revolutionising the publishing world, for better and worse. Let’s look at both the better and the worse in perspective.

The current tsunami of personal choices in communication is slowly draining the profit from mainstream media. These media traditionally depend on huge audiences who all live in one region and mostly want the same things (the football scores, the crossword, the TV Guide, etc.). But that is all available now on the Internet, all around the world, all the time.

One outcome is a death watch on many newspapers, including famous ones like the Boston Globe. As journalist Paul Gillin noted recently: “The newspaper model scales up very well, but it scales down very badly. It costs a newspaper nearly as much to deliver 25,000 copies as it does to deliver 50,000 copies. Readership has been in decline for 30 years and the decline shows no signs of abating. Meanwhile, new competition has sprung up online with a vastly superior cost structure and an interactive format that appeals to the new generation of readers.”

Traditional electronic media are not doing any better. As James Lewin observes in “Television audience plummeting as viewers move online” (May 19, 2008), mainstream broadcasters “will have to come to terms with YouTube, video podcasts and other Internet media or they’ll face the same fate as newspapers.”

Radio audiences have likewise tanked. Overall, the recent decline of traditional media is remarkable.

Some conservative writers insist that mainstream media’s failure is due to its liberal bias. But conservatives have charged that for decades — to no effect. Another charge is that TV is declining because it is increasingly gross or trivial. True enough, but TV’s popularity was unaffected for decades by its experiments with edgy taste.

Let’s look more closely at the structure of the system to better understand current steep declines. Due to the low cost of modern media technology, no clear distinction now exists between a mainstream medium and a non-mainstream one, based on either number of viewers or production cost. Today, anyone can put up a video at YouTube at virtually no cost. Popular videos get hundreds of thousands of views. Podcasting and videocasting are also cheap. A blog can be started for free, within minutes, at Blogger. It may get 10 viewers or 10,000, depending on the level of popular interest. But the viewers control that, not the providers.

The key change is that the traditional media professional is no longer a gatekeeper who can systematically admit or deny information. Consumers program their own print, TV, or radio, and download what they want to their personal devices. They are their own editors, their own filmmakers, their own disc jockeys.

Does that mean more bias or less? It’s hard to say, given that consumers now manage their own level of bias. So they can hear much more biased news — or much less. And, as Podcasting News observes, “Social media is a global phenomenon happening in all markets regardless of wider economic, social and cultural development.”

Understandably, traditional media professionals, alarmed by these developments, have constructed a doctrine of “localism” and, in some cases, called for government to bail them out. That probably won’t help, just as it wouldn’t have helped if the media professionals had called for a government “bailed out” of newspapers when they were threatened by radio, or of radio when it was threatened by TV. Video really did (sort of) kill the radio star, but the radio star certainly won’t be revived by government grants.

Still, the news is not all bad. Yes, new media do sometimes kill old media. For example, no one seriously uses pigeon post to send messages today. But few ever thought birdmail was a great system, just the only one available at the time. However, radio did not kill print, and TV did not kill radio. Nor will the Internet kill older media; it will simply change news delivery. Sometimes in a minor way, but sometimes radically.

Media that work, whether radio, TV, newspapers, books, blogs, or any other, thrive when there is a true need. Today’s challenge is to persuade the consumer to look at alternatives to their own programming decisions.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

The original news article can be viewed at:

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Destruction carried out while Christians attend compulsory village meeting.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand, March 30 (Compass Direct News) – Police in Borikhamxay province, Laos, on March 19 destroyed a church building in Nonsomboon village while Christian residents attended a meeting called by district officials.

A member of the provincial religious affairs department, identified only as Bounlerm, has since claimed that police destroyed the worship facility because it was built without official approval.

Tension between the Christians and local authorities escalated last year when officials ordered at least 40 Christian families living in Ban Mai village to relocate some 20 kilometers (12 miles) to Nonsomboon for “administrative reasons,” according to advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF). Local sources said the forced relocation to Nonsomboon village was an effort to control the activities of Christians in Ban Mai who were sharing their faith with other people in the district.

Previously authorities had evicted Christians from several other villages in the district and relocated them to Ban Mai village, HRWLRF reported. Families were expected to cover their own relocation expenses, including the cost of rebuilding their homes and re-establishing their livelihoods.

Initially residents refused to relocate a second time, largely because officials would not grant permission to move their existing church building or to erect a new structure in Nonsomboon. Eventually they were forced to move to Nonsomboon under duress.

Lacking worship facilities, the villagers on Dec. 10, 2008 erected a simple church building. On Dec. 26, village police removed the cross from the building, summoned four key church leaders to a meeting at the Burikan district office and subsequently detained them for building a church without government approval.

HRWLRF identified the four only as pastor Bounlard, assistant pastor Khampeuy, church elder Khampon and men’s ministry leader Jer. When the wives of the four men brought food to them during their detention, officials refused to allow them to see their husbands.

In a meeting on Dec. 27 between provincial religious affairs officials and church leaders, officials said police had arrested the Christians because they refused to tear down the church building. A senior religious affairs official identified only as Booppa, however, agreed to release the Christians on Dec. 29.

The Christians of Nonsomboon then applied for permission to hold a Christmas service in their church facility on Jan. 7 and invited religious affairs official Bounlerm to attend. When permission failed to arrive in time, they conducted the service regardless, with Bounlerm and other district officials attending as honorary guests.

During the service, district and village level police officers charged into the building and ordered church members to cease worshiping. Bounlerm encouraged the congregation to follow orders from the local officials.

Police officers then drafted a document ordering church members to abandon the Christmas celebration and demanded that the congregation sign it. When they refused, the police insisted that they disband the meeting immediately. After leaving the building, the congregation traveled to nearby Burikan town and set up a tent in an open field next to a government office in order to complete the Christmas service, as there were no church facilities in Burikan.

A campaign of intimidation followed, according to HRWLRF, culminating in the destruction of the church building by village police on March 19. At press time, no information was available on the content of the meeting called by district officials on that day.

Report from Compass Direct News


Islamic-based legislation may be a key issue in this year’s elections.

DUBLIN, February 2 (Compass Direct News) – As candidates hit the campaign trail in preparation for Indonesia’s presidential election in July, rights groups have voiced strong opposition to an increasing number of sharia-inspired laws introduced by local governments. They say the laws discriminate against religious minorities and violate Indonesia’s policy of Pancasila, or “unity in diversity.”

With legislative elections coming in April and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono likely to form a coalition with several Islamic parties for the July presidential election, such laws could become a key campaign issue.

Although Aceh is the only province completely governed by sharia (Islamic law), more than 50 regencies in 16 of 32 provinces throughout Indonesia have passed laws influenced by sharia. These laws became possible following the enactment of the Regional Autonomy Law in 2000.

The form of these laws varies widely. Legislation in Padang, West Sumatra, requires both Muslim and non-Muslim women to wear headscarves, while a law in Tangerang allows women found “loitering” alone on the street after 10 p.m. to be arrested and charged with prostitution. Other laws include stipulations for Quran literacy among schoolchildren and severe punishment for adultery, alcoholism and gambling.

“Generally the legal system regulates and guarantees religious freedom of Indonesian citizens … but in reality, discrimination prevails,” a lawyer from the legal firm Eleonora and Partners told Compass.

Some regencies have adopted sharia in a way that further marginalizes minority groups, according to Syafi’I Anwar, executive director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism.

“For instance, the Padang administration issued a law requiring all schoolgirls, regardless of their religion, to wear the headscarf,” he told the International Herald Tribune. This is unacceptable because it is not in line with the pluralism that the constitution recognizes.”

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 29 of the country’s constitution, he added. “Therefore the government must assist all religious communities to practice their beliefs as freely as possible and take actions against those who violate that right.”

While Indonesia’s largest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has publicly denounced the implementation of such laws, other groups actively support them. The Committee for the Implementation and Maintenance of Islamic Law (KPPSI) has held several congresses in Makassar, South Sulawesi with the goal of passing sharia-inspired legislation and obtaining special autonomy for the province, similar to that in Aceh.

KPPSI has also encouraged members to vote for politicians who share their goals, according to local news agency Komintra.


‘Threatening’ Decision

In February of last year, Home Affairs Minister Mardiyanto declared that the government saw no need to nullify some 600 sharia-inspired laws passed by local governments. His announcement came after a group of lawyers in June 2007 urged the government to address laws that discriminated against non-Muslims.

Moderates were alarmed at Mardiyanto’s decision, fearing it would encourage other jurisdictions to pass similar laws. Last August, Dr. Mohammad Mahfud, newly re-elected as head of the Constitutional Court, slammed regional administrations for enacting sharia-inspired laws.

“[These] laws are not constitutionally or legally correct because, territorially and ideologically, they threaten our national integrity,” he told top military officers attending a training program on human rights, according to The Jakarta Post.

Mahfud contended that if Indonesia allowed sharia-based laws, “then Bali can pass a Hindu bylaw, or North Sulawesi can have a Christian ordinance. If each area fights for a religious-based ordinance, then we face a national integration problem.” According to Mahfud, sharia-based laws would promote religious intolerance and leave minority religious groups without adequate legal protection.

Under the 2000 Regional Autonomy Law, the central government has the power to block provincial laws but showed little willingness to do so until recently when, bowing to pressure from advocacy groups, it pledged to review 37 sharia-based ordinances deemed discriminatory and at odds with the constitution.

Such reviews are politically sensitive and must be done on sound legal grounds, according to Ridarson Galingging, a law lecturer in Jakarta.

“Advocates of sharia-based laws will stress the divine origin of sharia and resist challenges [that are] based on constitutional or human rights limits,” he told The Jakarta Post. “They maintain that sharia is authorized directly by God, and political opposition is viewed as apostasy or blasphemy.”


Empowering Vigilantes

A national, sharia-inspired bill regulating images or actions deemed pornographic sparked outrage when presented for a final vote in October last year. One fifth of the parliamentarians present walked out in protest, leaving the remainder to vote in favor of the legislation.

The bill provided for up to 15 years of prison and a maximum fine of US$1.5 million for offenders.

“This law will only empower vigilante groups like the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI),” Eva Sundari, a member of the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) told reporters. FPI is widely-regarded as a self-appointed moral vigilante group, often raiding bars and nightclubs, but also responsible for multiple attacks on churches.

“Many of the members are preparing for elections and looking for support among the Islamic community,” she added. “Now they can point to this law as evidence that they support Islamic values.”

Although several Golkar Party politicians support sharia-based laws, senior Golkar Party member Theo Sambuaga has criticized politicians for endorsing such legislation to win support from Muslim voters. Several major parties openly back sharia laws, including the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the United Development Party, and the Crescent Star party.


Key Election Issue

Sharia-based laws may become an even hotter election issue this year as a change to the voting system means more weight will be given to provincial candidates.

Political analysts believe Yudhoyono must form a coalition with most if not all of the country’s Islamic parties in order to win a majority vote against the Golkar party, allied for this election with former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDIP.

The coalition Yudhoyono could form, however, likely would come with strings attached. As Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance wrote in September 2008, “The more the president needs the Islamists, the more they can demand of him.”

In 2004, Yudhoyono partnered with the NU-sponsored National Awakening Party, the National Mandate Party (founded by the Islamic purist organization Muhammadiyah) and the PKS to achieve his majority vote. Analysts predict PKS will again be a key player in this election.

Few realize, however, that PKS draws its ideology from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group formed in Egypt in 1928 with a firm belief in Islamic world dominance. Crushed by the Egyptian government in the 1960s, members of the Brotherhood fled to Saudi Arabia, where they taught in the nation’s universities – influencing the future founders of Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Sudan’s National Islamic Front.

The Brotherhood took root at a university in Bandung, West Java in the 1970s in the form of Tarbiyah, a secretive student movement that eventually morphed into the Justice Party (JP) in 1998. Winning few votes, JP allied itself with a second party to form the PKS prior to the 2004 elections.

Since then, PKS has gained widespread support and a solid reputation for integrity and commitment to Islamic values. Simultaneously, however, PKS leaders are vocal supporters of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, leader of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Sadanand Dhume, writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review, says the two organizations have much in common. In its founding manifesto, PKS calls for the creation of an Islamic caliphate. Unlike JI, however, “the party can use its position in Parliament and its … network of cadres to advance the same goals incrementally, one victory at a time.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Draft ‘Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions’ enters final phase.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, January 26 (Compass Direct News) – The Sri Lankan Parliament may soon enact laws designed to restrict religious conversions.

A standing committee assigned to consider a draft “Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions” presented its report to Parliament on Jan. 6, suggesting minor amendments that clear the way for a final vote in February. The provisions of the bill criminalize any act to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another religion by the use of force, fraud or allurement. Those found guilty of breaking the law could be imprisoned for up to seven years and/or fined up to 500,000 rupees (US$4,425).

The Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thero, a member of the Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya party (JHU or National Heritage Party), first proposed the draft in 2004. While the JHU claims the bill is designed to stop unethical conversions, civil rights groups and Christian churches say it will infringe on the constitutional rights of freedom of religion and legitimize harassment of religious minorities.

Buddhists form a 70 percent majority in Sri Lanka, with Roman Catholics constituting 7 percent and Protestant Christians only 1 percent of the population.

After the first reading of the bill in Parliament in August 2004, 22 petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the draft legislation.

The Supreme Court determined the draft bill to be valid except for clauses 3 and 4(b), which it deemed unconstitutional. These clauses required any person who converted or participated in a religious conversion ceremony to report to a government official and prescribed punishment for failure to report such conversions.

The draft was then referred to a parliamentary standing committee for further review. In its report, presented to the House on Jan. 6, the committee made a few amendments to the original draft in keeping with Supreme Court recommendations. The most notable amendment was the deletion of the need to report conversions and the punishment prescribed for not reporting them.

These amendments paved the way for the draft bill to be passed by a simple majority vote when it is presented for a final reading in Parliament this February.

Chief Opposition Whip Joseph Michael Perera, however, has requested a two-day debate on the draft bill on grounds that it would affect all religions.


Fulfilling Campaign Promises

The JHU, founded and led by Buddhist clergymen, made anti-conversion legislation a cornerstone of its debut election campaign in 2004, when it won nine seats in Parliament. With the possibility of an early general election this year, the bill has become a matter of political survival for the JHU.

At a press briefing on Jan. 7, Ven. Ellawela Medhananda Thero, a Buddhist monk and Member of Parliament representing the JHU, called on all political parties to vote in favor of the bill.

“People expected us to fulfill two goals,” he said. “One was to end unethical conversions and the other was to liberate the country from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. That is why we entered politics.”

Ven. Medhananda Thero added that the purpose of the bill was to protect all major religions in the country from fundamentalists and unethical conversions.

Sri Lanka’s Christian community and civil rights groups have strongly objected to the draft legislation. Far from stemming alleged forced conversions, they claim the bill will become a weapon of harassment through misapplication, limiting the fundamental rights of thought, conscience and religion. These rights include the right to adopt a religion and the right to practice, observe and teach religion.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) said in a recent press statement that, “It is our gravest concern that this bill will grant legal sanction for the harassment of religious communities or individuals, and offer convenient tools of harassment for settling personal disputes and grudges, totally unrelated to acts of alleged ‘forced’ conversion.”


Banning Compassion

According to Section 2 of the draft bill, the offer of any temptation such as a gift, cash or any other gratification to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another is punishable with up to seven years of prison and a maximum fine of 500,000 rupees (US$4,425) – equal to approximately three years’ wages for the average Sri Lankan citizen.

Sri Lankan Christians have repeatedly expressed concern that key sections of the draft bill are open to wide and subjective interpretation that could criminalize not only legitimate religious activity but also legitimate social action by faith-based organizations or individuals.

“A lady who heads a charitable trust caring for orphans asked if she could be charged under this law, since she is a Christian and some of the children she cares for are not,” a lawyer told Compass. “Many people will now think twice before helping the poor or needy, for fear of being accused of committing a criminal act.”

Ironically, on June 4, 2008, in his address to the new Sri Lankan ambassador to the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI had acknowledged the Sri Lankan government’s appreciation of the Catholic Church’s charity work in the country.

“Such action is a concrete example of the Church’s willing and prompt response to the mission she has received to serve those most in need,” he said. “I commend any future measures which will help guarantee that Catholic hospitals, schools and charitable agencies can continue to care for the sick, the young and the vulnerable regardless of ethnic or religious background.”

He went on to assure the government that “the Church will continue in her efforts to reach out with compassion to all.”

On Jan. 8, at his traditional New Year meeting with all ambassadors to the Holy See, the pope appeared to be addressing concerns over anti-conversion legislation.

“The Church does not demand privileges, but the full application of the principle of religious freedom,” he said. He also called on Asian governments to ensure that “legislation concerning religious communities guarantees the full exercise of this fundamental right, with respect for international norms.”

Since the first draft anti-conversion bill was presented to Parliament in 2004, the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, NCEASL and Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka have repeatedly called for an alternative solution based on inter-faith dialogue with fair representation of all religious communities.

“Enactment of laws to regulate something as intrinsically personal as spiritual beliefs will not contribute towards resolving disagreements and promoting religious harmony,” said Godfrey Yogarajah, executive director of the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission. “On the contrary, it will create mistrust and animosity.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


As renewed violence in Mosul halts return, refugees wait in Turkish legal limbo.

ISTANBUL, November 14 (Compass Direct News) – In this Turkish city’s working-class neighborhood of Kurtulus, Arabic can be heard on the streets, signs are printed in the Arabic alphabet and Iraqis congregate in tea shops.

In 99-percent Muslim Turkey, most of these Iraqis are not Muslims. And they are not in Turkey by choice. They are Christian refugees who fled their homeland to escape the murderous violence that increasingly has been directed at them.

It is hard to tell how many of Mosul’s refugees from the recent wave of attacks have made their way to Istanbul, but finding these residents here is not hard. A middle-aged Iraqi refugee who fled Mosul five months ago now attends a Syrian Orthodox Church in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Tarlabasi, where gypsies, transvestites, and immigrants from Turkey’s east live in hopes of a better life in Istanbul.

Declining to give his name, the refugee said there is no future for Christians in Iraq and that nearly everyone he knew there wanted to leave the country. He said the only hope for Iraqi Christians is for Western countries to open their doors to Christian Iraqi refugees.

“We don’t have hope,” he said. “If these doors aren’t opened, we will be killed.”

Since October, violence in Mosul has pushed more than 12,000 Christians from their homes and left more than two dozen dead, according to U.N. and Christian organizations. In the face of Mosul violence, Iraqi Christians flee to Turkey before settling permanently in another country, usually in a place where their family has gone out before them.


Christian Sisters Killed

Weeks after the mass exodus of Mosul Christians to surrounding villages, Turkey and other nations, around one-third of families reportedly have returned due to the presence of 35,000 army and police and the Iraqi government offering cash grants of up to $800.

But those returning Christians were shaken again on Wednesday (Nov. 12), when Islamic militants stormed into the house of two Syrian Catholic sisters, Lamia’a Sabih and Wala’a Saloha, killing them and severely injuring their mother. They then bombed their house and detonated a second explosive when the police arrived, which killed three more.

The Christian family had recently returned after having fled Mosul. Many believe this attack will deter other Christians from returning to Mosul, and there are reports of Christians again leaving the area.

There has been a steady exodus of Christians from Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1991. The church in Iraq dates from the beginning of Christianity, but the population has plummeted by 50 percent in the last 20 years. The outflow of Iraqi Christians spiked in 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion.

Although Iraq as a whole has seen a dramatic decrease in violence due to last year’s surge in U.S. troops, the flight of Christians to Turkey has grown. One-third of the 18,000 refugees who registered in Turkey last year are from Iraq. In Syria, an estimated 40 percent of the 1.2 million Iraqis who have fled Iraq are Christians, though they make up only about 3 percent of Iraq’s population.

Monsignor Francois Yakan, the 50-year-old leader of the Chaldean Church in Turkey, said all Iraqi refugees are undergoing hardships regardless of religion, but that the situation is especially difficult for Christians since there is less support for them in Turkey.

“Muslims have the same difficulty as Christians, but there are more foundations to assist them,” he said. “The government notices Muslim immigrants, but nobody pays attention to us.”

Yakan travels to other countries to raise awareness of the plight of Iraqi Christians, trying to marshal the support of government and church leaders – last week he traveled to France, Romania and Germany. If Western governments don’t wake up to this crisis, he said, the results could be catastrophic.

“People don’t know the plight of Iraqi Christians. They have no government, no soldiers, and no power,” he said. “Christianity in Iraq is ending. Why aren’t they noticing this?”


Strangers in Strange Land

The unnamed Iraqi refugee in Tarlabasi said not even pleas from Iraqi priests can make them stay.

“The church in Iraq can’t stop the people from leaving because they can’t guarantee their security,” he said.

He came to Istanbul with his family but still has an adult son and daughter in the city. He hopes to join his brother in the United States soon.

A group of Iraqi refugees at a tea shop in the Kurtulus area of Istanbul interrupted their card game to talk to Compass of their troubled lives.

“We can’t find any work,” said Baghdad-born Iraqi Jalal Toma, who acted as the translator for the group. He pointed to a young man at the table and said, “He works moving boxes and carrying things, and they pay him half as much as a Turk for a day’s work.”

All of the men are Chaldean Christians, a Catholic Eastern-rite church whose historical homeland is in northern Iraq, and came from Mosul in recent months. They are chronically under-employed and rely on financial help from family members abroad to make ends meet.

They had to flee their homes at a moment’s notice, taking along their families but leaving behind their cars, houses and most of their possessions. The men hope to join family members who live in foreign countries, but they harbor few hopes that they can ever return to Iraq again.


Offering Relief

Work is scarce for refugees and hard to come by legally in Turkey. To survive, most Iraqi Christians rely on money from families abroad or the handful of local church charities that struggle to keep up with the overwhelming volume of refugees, such as the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program, an ecumenical umbrella group that unites the city’s parishes to assist migrants and asylum seekers.

Another such charity is Kasdar, the Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriac Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Organization, run by Yakan, the Chaldean Church leader in Turkey.

He launched Kasdar two years ago to provide a safety net for Christian refugees who live in Turkey’s legal limbo. Kasdar assists all Christians regardless of denomination or faith tradition and has 16 volunteers from an equally diverse background.

Yakan sees thousands of refugees pass through Istanbul each year. Most of them are Chaldean, and he knows of 60-70 people who fled due to the recent October violence in Mosul. He travels constantly to visit Chaldean refugees scattered throughout the country.

When refugees first arrive in Turkey, they must register with the United Nations as asylum seekers. The Turkish police then assign them to one of 35 cities to live in as they wait to receive official refugee status. These Christians face the biggest hardships since they don’t have access to the same social resources as refugees in Istanbul, said Metin Corabatir, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman in Turkey.

“The Chaldean population faces problems in Turkey, especially due to the policy of resettling them to satellite cities,” said Corabatir. “The Chaldeans in Istanbul have NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] and churches to help them, but in satellite cities there is no church or community to help them.”

Most refugees send their children to school at a local center run by Caritas, a Catholic confederation of relief, development and social service organizations. Here, Iraq children receive education and lessons in basic vocational skills.

The wait for legal status can be as short as a few months or a couple of years. But complicated circumstances can push back the wait to five years, 10 years, or even 17 years – as it is now for a man who fled during the first Gulf War, Yakan of the Chaldean Church said.

Another church leader who has helped Christian refugees is 70-year-old Monsignor Yusuf Sag, vicar general of the Syrian Catholic Church in Turkey. His 350-person congregation assembles packets of clothes and food for the refugees.

Many who come to Sag also seek medical help. He has connections with doctors throughout the city, both Muslim and Christian, who offer basic treatment to refugees free of charge. Sag said he tries to help all who come to him, without asking them of their denomination or even their religion.

“Their situation is not a Christian problem, but a human problem,” he said.

Often Iraqi Christians work illegally, where they are vulnerable to extortion. Refugee workers in Istanbul said registered asylum seekers can work legally, but it is not uncommon for employers to garnish their wages or withhold them completely, with the foreigners getting little protection from police.

The Turkish government charges a refugee a residence tax of US$460 a year and will not allow them to leave the country until it is paid, making them remain in the country even longer. With all these hurdles to finding stable employment, many Iraqi refugees are never too far from homelessness.

“There was a family we found living on the streets – a husband, wife and two children,” Yakan said. “They have lived in Istanbul for six months and couldn’t even afford to pay rent.”

His foundation found the family an apartment and assisted them with rent, but they only have enough resources to help for two months.

Kasdar gave similar assistance to 54 families in October. But the organization can only help for a few months at a time and assist the most vulnerable refugees.

Report from Compass Direct News


Despite a fatwa from the Grand Mufti, Alexandria judge denies custody for mother.

ISTANBUL, October 2 (Compass Direct News) – Following the Appeal Court of Alexandria on Sept. 24 granting custody of 13-year-old Christian twins to their Muslim father, their mother lives with the fear that police will take away her children at any moment.

Kamilia Gaballah has fought with her ex-husband Medhat Ramses Labib over alimony support and custody of sons Andrew and Mario in 40 different cases since he left her and converted to Islam so that he could remarry in 1999.

The court ruled in favor of Labib in spite of Egyptian law’s Article 20, which grants custody of children to their mothers until the age of 15, and a fatwa (religious ruling) from Egypt’s most respected Islamic scholar, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, giving her custody.

“This decision was dangerous because it was not taken in accordance with Egyptian law but according to sharia [Islamic] law,” said Naguib Gobraiel, Gaballah’s lawyer and president of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations.

He explained that Egypt’s civic code calls for children under the age of 15 to stay with their mother regardless of their religion. Gobraiel said that sharia tends to favor the Muslim parent in such cases.

“They want to stay with their mother,” said Gobraiel. “They don’t know anything about Islam and sharia. They are Christians and go to church on Sundays.”

The twins have publicly stated their faith, and during a test in a mandatory religious class two years ago they scribbled only, “I am a Christian” on their answer sheets and otherwise turned them in blank. The twins intend to go on a hunger strike if they are forced to live with their Muslim father, whom they hardly know, sources said.

“We only want one thing,” said Gobraiel. “We want the law to be applied in our cases like this one, not the sharia, because the government owes us citizenship. This is a civilized, secular country, not a religious country.”

The decision of the presiding judge, El Sayed El Sherbini, to give the father full custody is not even based on sharia but is purely arbitrary, Gaballah and her eldest son George Medhat Ramses claimed, since the country’s State Mufti had granted custody to the mother in April 2006.

“We don’t want to give them to anyone or comply with the sentence,” Ramses told Compass. “All the legal ways have been wrong to us. We’ve been trying to make it as legal as we can, but the court has not been fair.”

Ramses, 21, who is also a Christian and lives with his mother and two little brothers, said the judged showed bias in favor of his father because he converted to Islam shortly after he left Gaballah.

“The decision was unfair and oppressive,” Gaballah told Compass. “I am treated differently than other Egyptians, as if this is not my own country.”

Gaballah, who has been fighting to keep her sons since the court decided in 2006 that custody of her sons should be given to her ex-husband, fears that her children will grow up without hope and a sense of justice.

“I am so sad and afraid about their psychology,” she said, “because they are facing something that is fundamentally against all the principles I have taught them.”

Gaballah said she is ready to keep fighting with the few means left in her power to keep her sons, even if it means tarnishing her with a criminal record by not handing them over to their father.

“And I’m determined to get justice in my own country, because it is my natural right and my sons’ right,” she said. “I cannot see how I can comply with the people who are taking my rights away from me and taking my children from me to give them to an unworthy father and another woman.”

Labib is now married to his third wife, with whom he has a 4-year-old son. He is a businessman working in exports and travels between Alexandria and Cairo.

Gobraiel said that he intends to send a clear message to Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and the international human rights community that judgments like this one are hypocritical on the part of a government that claims to be “civilized.”

“How can they think we live in a civilized and secular country when they are applying sharia law on us?” he asked. “We will send a message to human rights organizations in Egypt and around the world to help us. We are angry and we want to declare it!”


Problematic Birth Certificates

Even under their father’s custody, the twins have the legal right to live with whomever they choose in two years, when they turn 15. But Ramses said he doubts the court would let them return to their mother.

“The same law that states that they should stay with mother until the age of 15 is the one that says they can decide where to live after the age of 15,” he explained. “If the court didn’t apply the first part of the law, they won’t apply the second.”

At the age of 16, when Mario and Andrew apply for their identification cards, they will face yet another hurdle, said Ramses. In 2005, Labib went to the population register and changed the twins’ birth certificates from Christian to Muslim, to reflect his own religion.

Now Ramses fears that a Sept. 23 court ruling in the case of Bahia Nagy El-Sisi, sentencing her to prison for three years for “forgery of an official document,” could be what awaits him and his little brothers. Nagy El-Sisi’s father had converted to Islam briefly in 1962, when she was 3 years old, and her documents were never altered to reflect the change as she remained a Christian. She and her sister discovered that their father had temporarily converted to Islam when the sister, Shadia Nagy, tried to issue marriage papers for her son.

Shadia Nagy was sentenced to three years in prison in 2007, also for “forgery.”

“These women are us in the future,” said Ramses.

Over the past few years, as Christians have found out about the twin boys’ case, Ramses said many have called them to give support. Many also have pledged to go on a hunger strike with the boys if they are handed over to their father.

“Christians see them as Coptic heroes and martyrs who stood up in front of all and said they were Christians and held on to it,” said Ramses. “All of them say they see the greatness of their ancestors and Christian heroes of long ago in them … and they carry a lot of respect and love for what they have done.”

Report from Compass Direct News