Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says


Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See http://www.compassdirect.com, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.

 

Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Indonesian Church Reports Defiant Mayor to National Police


Bogor official defies Supreme Court, revokes building permit; Christians kept from worship site.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, April 1 (CDN) — A month that saw the Bogor city mayor defying a Supreme Court decision granting a building permit for a church in Bogor, West Java culminated in police turning away those seeking to worship – and church leaders today filing a police complaint on the mayor with National Police.

Bogor Mayor Diani Budiarto issued a decree revoking the building permit for the Christian Church of Indonesia (GKI) in Yasmin Park on March 11, citing unrest among local Muslims and charging the church with having lied about obtaining area residents’ approval when the permit was originally processed. Bogor city officials have also decided to try purchasing the land where the church meets.

Church leaders and rights groups scoffed at the city’s claims and its attempt to remove the church from the area after years of protests from Islamic groups. At a press conference last month, Bona Sigalingging, spokesperson for the GKI Yasmin church, read a statement in which the church and 12 interfaith and rights organizations rejected the mayor’s decree.

“The mayor of Bogor has publically lied and twisted the facts, which are both crimes and public moral failures,” Sigalingging said.

When GKI Yasmin representatives checked the city’s claims of a document with false signatures of area residents approving the church, they found such a document had never been submitted; it did not appear in the application file.

“The entire building permit file had been submitted in 2005, and there have never been any additions,” Sigalingging said, adding that the mayor was rash in issuing the baseless decree. “The reasons [for revoking the church permit] are clearly contrived and unfactual.”

He said the decree not only contravened the 1945 Constitution but was also a violation of law.

“The mayoral decree was [directly] opposed to the court decision that the building permit was legal and binding,” he said. “We also request that the mayor rescind Mayoral Decree No. 645.45-137/2011 regarding the revocation of the GKI Yasmin building permit and recognize the court decision that the building permit is legal and binding.”

Supporting the GKI Yasmin church were 12 interfaith organizations: The Wahid Institute, the Human Right Working Group (HRWG), the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, the Legal Aid Institute (LBH) Jakarta, the Commission on the Lost and Victims of Oppression, the Fellowship of Indonesian Churches, Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace, the Sinode of the Christian Church of West Java, the Indonesia Legal Research Center, the National Diversity Alliance, the Legal Aid Foundation of Indonesia and the Gusdurian Forum.

Church lawyers today filed a complaint on the Bogor mayor with the National Police detective unit in response to a statement Budiarto made yesterday (March 31) to newspaper Radar Bogor that attorney Jayadi Damanik described as a threat, The Jakarta Post reported.

Citing a report from kompas.com, the Post quoted Damanik as saying, “We believe Diani Budiarto has committed unpleasant conduct, issuing threats of violence. We think the police need to deal with this.”

The mayor had called for action against the church if it insisted on standing by the Supreme Court ruling granting its building permit, according to the Post. It also reported that Damanik said the church had sent a legal representative to the Home Ministry to report the Bogor mayor for overstepping his duties.

Budiarto was not immediately available for comment.

 

Blockaded Church

On March 13, some 200 police officers blockaded the church, lining each side of KH Abdullah Bin Nuh Street in Bogor under the pretext that they were preventing clashes with about 20 Muslim protestors, church leaders said.

Authorities set up barricades and questioned every person who wished to go to the church location. Compass observed them turning away several GKI members carrying Bibles and heading toward the worship venue. Police parked nine cars and trucks along the fence in front of worship site – the congregation has been worshipping on a strip of land between the road and a fence – in order to keep the congregation out. A vehicle with a water cannon was parked about 500 meters from the site.

Eventually the congregation realized that they could not worship there and left.

The previous Sunday, March 6, the congregation had been able to open the lock that the city had placed on its church building on April 10, 2010. After pushing and shoving between police and church members, the congregation was able to enter and hold a one-hour service led by GKI Yasmin Pastor Ujang Tanusuputra.

As the service was taking place, Bogor Police Chief Nugroho Slamet Wibowo ordered GKI Yasmin church lawyer Damanik and the congregation to stop the service. Wibowo suggested they shift to the Harmony Building, some 500 meters away, in order to avoid clashes with 2,000 Muslim demonstrators outside the mayor’s office whom Wibowo said would be arriving.

Citing the court ruling that declared the congregation could worship at the church site, Damanik declined.

The worship service finished peacefully, and the congregation happily departed. The predicted 2,000 Muslim protestors failed to materialize.

The next day, Bogor city officials invited GKI leaders to discuss the conflict, and the church representatives were accompanied by the LBH Jakarta, the HRWG, a representative of the Wahid Institute, the Interfaith Society and others. In the meeting, Bogor officials announced that the city was revoking the building permit and buying the disputed land.

“Upon hearing this, the GKI rejected the sale and reminded the Bogor government to obey the Supreme Court’s decision,” said Fatmawati Hugo, a member of the GKI legal team.

On March 12, GKI representatives met with police at the Giant Shopping Mall in Yasmin Park, where authorities ordered the church not to take unilateral action.

The police also guaranteed that firm action would be taken against anyone who tried to lock the GKI Yasmin site, but, ironically, that night at 11:30, policemen accompanied members of the Public Order Agency as they padlocked the gate to the GKI Yasmin church, Hugo said.

About 20 church members, mostly women, could only look on with sadness, he said.

“It’s odd that the police accompanied those who locked [the gate] rather than obeying the law and stopping the sealing,” Hugo said.

A few minutes later, at 12:05 a.m., police issued an ultimatum: All persons and vehicles were to clear the area in front of the church. A tow truck arrived and approached a member’s car parked in front of the gate.

“The church members chose to stay and sang several Christian songs,” said Hugo.

Police officers advanced and tried to take congregation members by force. The women were prepared to be arrested, but efforts to detain them ended when a GKI lawyer asked for reasons for the arrests and for arrest warrants. Church members stayed and unrolled mats so that they could hold a part of the roadside strip for the 8 a.m. worship service. About 15 prayed and sang songs through the night.

Around 4:30 a.m., more police arrived. A mobile brigade commanded by West Bogor Police Chief Hida mobilized to force out those on the side of the road; the crowd dispersed in the face of fully armed police.

“Because they were terrorized, they abandoned the roadside strip,” Hugo said.

After clearing the area, police blockaded 500 meters of KH Abdullah Bin Nuh Street at about 7 a.m., using six truckloads of mobile police and an armored car. They had used the same tactic on Dec. 26, 2010, to prevent the congregation from a Christmas service.

At 7:30 a.m., about 20 Muslims unrolled banners at a corner near the Giant Shopping Mall charging the GKI Yasmin church with deception. “Hard-heads, want to build an illegal church here? Step over our dead bodies first,” read one banner.

The congregation held a short worship service at 8:30 a.m. in the home of a nearby member.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Church in Indonesia Forced to Accept Worship Terms of Islamists


Muslim groups, city officials dictate where church can hold services.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 15 (CDN) — A church in Banten Province that has been in conflict with Muslim groups for more than two years was compelled to cease meeting in the pastor’s home last week in a bid to put an end to harassment and threats.

The Sepatan Baptist Christian Church (GKB Sepatan) in Pisangan Jaya village, Sepatan, in Tangerang district, conceded that it would no longer worship in the home of the Rev. Bedali Hulu but rather in the facilities of two other churches.

In exchange, officials agreed to process a temporary worship permit that would presumably remove the pretext for Islamic protests against the church, but they refused to accept a deadline for doing so. Pastor Hulu argued at the Oct. 7 meeting with officials and Islamic groups that local government officials be given a three-month deadline for granting the temporary worship permit, but the officials insisted on a “flexible” time for issuing it.

Tangerang district authorities had issued a decree on Jan. 21 ordering all worship activities to cease at the church. Officials had pressured church leaders to sign a statement that they would stop all worship activities, but they refused.

Pastor Hulu said that he had received the government order on Jan. 26. The church had permission to worship from both local citizens and Christians in accordance with a Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006, he said, but pressure from Islamic groups forced local officials to try to close the church.

Representing Islamic interests in the five-hour long deliberations of Oct. 7 was the Communication Forum for Religious Harmony (FKUB) of Tangerang City. Local officials included the Sepatan district chief, Sepatan sector police chief, the sub-district military commander of Sepatan, Civil police, and an official from the Ministry of Religious Affairs of Tangerang.

Pastor Hulu said he felt forced to accept the terms of the Islamic group and officials.

“Actually, we want the district to facilitate our worship by letting us use the function room of their office,” he said. “Also, we hope for the government to grant permission for our worship in accordance with the Joint Decree.”

A member of the Tangerang FKUB, Abdul Razak, said the talks resulted in the city and the Tangerang FKUB committing to help the congregation to worship temporarily in the nearest church buildings, which are seven kilometers (more than four miles) away in Kedaung, East Sepatan and belong to the Assemblies of God and the Pentecostal Church in Indonesia.

But those two churches use their buildings from 6 a.m. until noon on Sundays, Pastor Hulu said.

“Our congregation wants to worship between 10 am to 12 noon, because after 12 worship would conflict with family customs that are usually done at that hour,” he said.

Because of the incompatibility in worship times, the pastor said, GKB Sepatan appealed to a member of the FKUB Tangerang identified only as Zabir, who only suggested Pastor Hulu adhere to the FKUB consensus.

Although the Muslim groups and city officials were able to dictate where the church should worship in the coming months, they allowed the congregation to worship in one of the church members’ homes on Sunday (Oct. 10), as long as it wasn’t Pastor Hulu’s house, he said.

“Next week, if the local government has not been able to facilitate a place of worship to us, then we will worship from house to house,” the pastor said.

The church had worshipped in Pastor Hulu’s house since November 2008. Previously worship rotated among various members’ homes, reducing the congregation from 90 people to 30, he said, but now the congregation numbers 150.

The church has established good relationships with communities, religious leaders and local government, he said.

“First, we helped victims of the tsunami in Aceh in 2007,” Pastor Hulu said. “Second, we provided basic food, rice, blankets to flood victims in the village of Pisangan Jaya. Third, we have helped provide free medical treatment for residents affected by flooding in the village of Pisangan Jaya.”

The Oct. 7 agreement is yet to be signed. Razak said that the FKUB would draft an agreement for all parties to sign.

“If these problems can be resolved properly, then this will be a moment in history that the district of Tangerang was able to resolve religious issues, particularly related to the establishment of houses of worship,” he said.

The chairman of the Tangerang City FKUB, M. Syuro, said the meetings were necessary to forestall tensions as Tangerang is so close to Jakarta, 20 kilometers (12 miles) east.

Report from Compass Direct News

Moroccan Convert Serving 15 Years for His Faith


Christian’s sentence for ‘proselytism,’ burning poles called excessive.

ISTANBUL, September 17 (CDN) — Nearly five years into the prison sentence of the only Christian in Morocco serving time for his faith, Moroccan Christians and advocates question the harsh measures of the Muslim state toward a man who dared speak openly about Jesus.

By the end of December Jamaa Ait Bakrim, 46, will have been in prison for five years at Morocco’s largest prison, Prison Centrale, in Kenitra. An outspoken Christian convert, Bakrim was sentenced to 15 years prison for “proselytizing” and destroying “the goods of others” in 2005 after burning two defunct utility poles located in front of his private business in a small town in south Morocco.

Advocates and Moroccan Christians said, however, that the severity of his sentence in relation to his misdemeanor shows that authorities were determined to put him behind bars because he persistently spoke about his faith.

“He became a Christian and didn’t keep it to himself,” said a Moroccan Christian and host for Al Hayat Television who goes only by his first name, Rachid, for security reasons. “He shared it with people around him. In Morocco, and this happened to me personally, if you become a Christian you may be persecuted by your family. If you keep it to yourself, no one will bother you. If you share it with anyone else and start speaking about it, that’s another story.”

Rachid fled Morocco in 2005 due to mounting pressure on him and his family. He is a wanted man in his country, but he said it is time for people to start speaking up on behalf of Bakrim, whom he said has “zeal” for his faith and speaks openly about it even in prison.

“Our Moroccan brothers and sisters suffer, and we just assume things will be OK and will somehow change later by themselves,” said Rachid. “They will never change if we don’t bring it to international attention.”

Authorities in Agadir tried Bakrim for “destruction of the goods of others,” which is punishable with up to 20 years in prison, and for proselytism under Article 220, which is punishable with six months to three years in prison.

“Jamaa is a manifestation of a very inconvenient truth for Moroccan authorities: there are Moroccan converts to Christianity,” said Logan Maurer, a regional director at U.S.-based advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC). “The government wants to ignore this, suppress it, and when – as in Jamaa’s case – the problem won’t go away, they do whatever they can to silence it.”

Proselytism in Morocco is generally defined as using means of seduction or exploiting weakness to undermine the faith of Muslims or to convert them to another religion.

Recently Morocco has used the law to punish any proclamation of non-Muslim faith, contradicting its pledge to allow freedom to manifest one’s faith under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a signatory. Article 18 of the covenant affirms the right to manifest one’s faith in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

The covenant also states, however, that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

There are an estimated 1,000 Moroccan Christian converts in the country. They are not recognized by the government. About 99 percent of Morocco’s population of more than 33 million is Muslim.

Between March and June authorities expelled 128 foreign Christians in an effort to purge the country of any foreign Christian influences. In April nearly 7,000 Muslim religious leaders backed the deportations by signing a document describing the work of Christians within Morocco as “moral rape” and “religious terrorism.” The statement from the religious leaders came amid a nationwide mudslinging campaign geared to vilify Christians in Morocco for “proselytism” – widely perceived as bribing people to change their faith.

In the same time period, Moroccan authorities applied pressure on Moroccan converts to Christianity through interrogations, searches and arrests. Christians on the ground said that, although these have not continued, there is still a general sense that the government is increasingly intolerant of Christian activities.  

“They are feeling very bad,” said Rachid. “I spoke to several of them, and they say things are getting worse…They don’t feel safe. They are under a lot of disappointment, and [they are] depressed because the government is putting all kinds of pressure on them.”

 

From Europe to Prison

Bakrim, a Berber from southern Morocco, studied political science and law in Rabat. After completing his studies he traveled to Europe, where he became a Christian. Realizing that it would be difficult to live out his new-found faith in Morocco, in 1993 he applied for political asylum in the Netherlands, but immigration authorities refused him and expelled him when his visa expired.

In 1995 Bakrim was prosecuted for “proselytizing,” and spent seven months in jail in the city of Goulemine. In April 1996 he was transferred to a mental hospital in Inezgane, where authorities ordered he undergo medical treatments. He was released in June. The psychiatric treatment caused side-effects in his behavior and made it difficult for him to control his hands and legs for a period of time, sources told Compass.

Two years later authorities put him in jail again for a year because he publicly displayed a cross, according to an article by Moroccan weekly Le Journal Hebdo published in January 2005.

“He has a zeal about his religion,” said Rachid. “He never denied his faith through all these things, and he even preached the gospel in prison and the psychiatric place where they held him … They tried to shut him [up], and they couldn’t.”

In 2001 Bakrim again attracted attention by painting crosses and writing Bible verses in public view at his place of business, which also served as his home, according to the French-language weekly. Between 2001 and 2005 he reportedly wrote to the municipality of Massa, asking officials to remove two wooden utility posts that were no longer in use, as they were blocking his business. When authorities didn’t respond, Bakrim burned them.

During his defense at the Agadir court in southern Morocco, Bakrim did not deny his Christian faith and refuted accusations that he had approached his neighbors in an attempt to “undermine their Muslim faith.”

The judge ruled that “the fact that Jamaa denies accusations of proselytism is inconsistent with his previous confession in his opening statement when he proclaimed he was the son of Christ, and that he wished that Moroccans would become Christians,” according to Le Journal Hebdo.

Bakrim did not appeal the court sentence. Though there have been other cases of Christians imprisoned for their faith, none of their sentences has been as long as Bakrim’s.

“They will just leave him in the prison so he dies spiritually and psychologically,” said Rachid. “Fifteen years is too much for anything they say he did, and Jamaa knows that. The authorities know he’s innocent. So probably they gave him this sentence so they can shut him [up] forever.”

Rachid asked that Christians around the world continue to lobby and pray that their Moroccan brothers and sisters stand firm and gain their freedoms.

“The biggest need is to stand with the Moroccan church and do whatever it takes to ask for their freedom of religion,” said Rachid.

Report from Compass Direct News

Convicted Hindu Nationalist Legislator in India Released on Bail


Stunned Christians suspect bias in case of politician’s role in Orissa violence.

NEW DELHI, July 30 (CDN) — Less than a month after Orissa state legislator Manoj Pradhan was sentenced to seven years of prison for his part in anti-Christian mob violence in 2008, he was released on bail pending his appeal.

Along with fellow Hindu nationalist Prafulla Mallick, Pradhan on June 29 was convicted of causing grievous hurt and rioting in connection with the murder of a Christian, Parikhita Nayak. Justice B.P. Ray heard the petition on July 7, and the same day he granted Pradhan and Mallick bail conditional on posting bail bond of 20,000 rupees (US$430) each.

Pradhan and Mallick were released from jail on July 12 and await the outcome of an appeal to the Orissa High Court.  

Attorney Bibhu Dutta Das said that ordinary people don’t get bail so easily when convicted of such crimes, and he questioned how Pradhan could be granted release just for being a legislator.

“It takes years for convictions in High Court,” Das told Compass. “We will not sit silent. We will challenge this bail order in the [New Delhi] Supreme Court very soon.”

The Christian community expressed shock that someone sentenced to seven years in prison would get bail within seven days of applying for it.

“I am very disappointed with the judiciary system,” said Nayak’s widow, Kanaka Rekha Nayak, who along with her two daughters has been forced into hiding because of threats against her. “I went through several life threats, but still I took my daughters for hearings whenever I was called by the court, risking my daughters’ lives – certainly not for this day.”

In addition to the bail, the court has issued a stay order on the 5,000 rupee (US$107) fine imposed on Pradhan and Mallick. Attorney Das told Compass the decision was biased, as the Lower Court Record was not even consulted beforehand.

“This is the normal court procedure, and it was bypassed for Pradhan,” he said. “The judgment was pre-determined.”

Dibakar Parichha of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese told Compass, “Sometimes the judicial system seems mockery to me. One court convicts him, and another one grants him bail.”

The rulings are demoralizing to those who look toward the courts for justice, he said.

“There is a very powerful force behind this. It is not as simple as it looks,” Parichha said.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, said he was surprised by the orders.

“While it is a legal right for anybody to get bail, it is surprising that Pradhan was wanted in so many cases, and he can coerce and influence witnesses,” Dayal said. “His petition should not have been granted.”

The two Hindu nationalists were convicted by the Phulbani Fast Track Sessions Court I Judge Sobhan Kumar Das. Pradhan, member of the state Legislative Assembly (MLA) from G. Udayagiri, Kandhamal for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), filed a petition stating that his name was not mentioned in the original First Information Report filed by Kanaka Rekha Nayak, but that he was dragged into the case later.

The bail order includes a warning to Pradhan to refrain from intimidating witnesses, stating, “The petitioner shall not threaten the witnesses examined.”

Rekha Nayak, along with her daughters Lipsa Nayak (4 years old when her father was killed) and Amisha Nayak (then 2 years old) were eyewitnesses to the murder of her 31-year-old husband, a Dalit Christian from Tiangia, Budedipada, in Kandhamal district. He was murdered on Aug. 27, 2008.

Rev. Dr. Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, urged the Christian community to keep hope.

“The case is still on, not that it has come to an end,” he said. “There is a move that is being made to take the case further.”

Attorney Das has said he plans to appeal Pradhan’s sentence of seven years, in hopes of increasing it to life imprisonment.

 

Cases

Pradhan, who denies any wrongdoing, has been charged in 14 cases related to the August-September 2008 anti-Christian attacks. In seven of the cases he has been acquitted, he was convicted of “grievous hurt” in the Nayak case, and six more are pending against him.

Of the 14 cases in which he faces charges, seven involve murder; of those murder cases, he has been acquitted in three.

Cases have been filed against Pradhan for rioting, rioting with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly, causing disappearance of evidence of offense, murder, wrongfully restraining someone, wrongful confinement, mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy houses, voluntarily causing grievous hurt and voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means.

Pradhan was also accused of setting fire to houses of people belonging to the minority Christian community.

The Times of India reported Pradhan as “one of the close disciples” of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) leader Swami Laxamananda Saraswati, whose assassination on Aug. 23, 2008, touched off the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal and other parts of Orissa.

Rekha Nayak filed a complaint and a case was registered against Mallick and others for murder, destroying evidence, rioting and unlawful assembly. Pradhan was arrested on Oct. 16, 2008, from Berhampur, and in December 2009 he obtained bail from the Orissa High Court.

Despite his role in the attacks, Pradhan – campaigning from jail – was the only BJP candidate elected from the G. Udayagiri constituency in the 2009 Assembly elections from Kandhamal district.

In recent court actions, Fast Track Court-II Additional Sessions Judge Chittaranjan Das on July 21 acquitted nine persons who had been arrested in the Tikabali area for various offenses, including arson, due to “lack of evidence.” The main charge against them was torching of a church on Aug. 28, 2008 at Beladevi village.

At least 132 persons have been convicted in different cases related to the 2008 violence in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, state Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said on July 19. Patnaik said that 24 members of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal (Youth Wing of World Hindu Council) and VHP have been arrested and jailed.

Revenue and Disaster Management minister S.N. Patro said on July 21 that the 55 Christian places of worship were damaged in Tikabali block; 44 in G. Udaygiri; 39 in Raikia; 34 in K. Nuagaon; 19 in Baliguda; 16 in Daringbadi; nine in Phulbani; six in Kotgarh; five in Tumudibandha; and one each in Phiringia and Chakapada blocks.

 

SIDEBAR

India Briefs: Recent Incidents of Persecution

Karnataka - Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh accused a pastor in Aldur of forceful conversion on July 24 and threatened him, telling him not to preach about Jesus. The All India Christian Council reported that the extremists filed a police complaint against Pastor Anand Kumar of forceful conversion. Both police and extremists ordered Pastor Kumar to remove the cross and name plate of the church. At press time area Christians were taking steps to resolve the issue.

Jammu and Kashmir – The state’s Foreigners Registration Officer reportedly issued a notice to a senior Christian worker to leave India by July 20 after a false complaint of forceful conversion was filed against him. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the state succumbed to pressure by Muslim extremists to deport Father Jim Borst, who has run Good Shepherd School in the Kashmir Valley since 1963. The school has been attacked on two occasions by members of other schools who felt they were unable to compete with it. For eight years these groups have led a campaign against Borst, claiming he was forcibly converting people under the guise of providing education. Borst, who denies the charge, has a valid visa till 2014. The interior minister reportedly said he had no knowledge of the deportation order, and Borst’s superiors indicated he would not leave.

Madhya Pradesh – Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists on July 18 disrupted Christian worship in Barwaha, near Indore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Pastor Subash Chouhan of the Indian Evangelical Team was leading Sunday worship when the extremists stormed in on the terrified Christians. They accused Pastor Chouhan of forceful conversion, photographed the congregation and told the pastor to close his tailoring school, which includes non-Christian students. This is the second time Pastor Chouhan has been arrested on false charges of forceful conversion; previously he was jailed for three days. The case was pending at press time.

Punjab – Police arrested Christians on July 10 after Hindu nationalists beat them, falsely accusing them of forcible conversion in Gurdaspur. Members of the Indian Pentecostal Church of God (IPCG) Western Region were visiting houses in the area on a social outreach mission when a group of extremists began to argue with them and then started beating four of them with their fists and shoes. Later they handed the Christians over to police, along with three more Christian men and five Christian women, complaining that they were converting people from the Hindu religion. Pastor Promod Samuel, along with the IPCG head A.M. Samuel, rushed to the Gurdaspur City police station to help the Christians, but officers detained them as well. Samuel told Compass that the president of the Hindu extremist groups Shiva Sena and Bajrang Dal, as well as many other Hindu nationalist leaders, gathered at the police station clamoring for officers to file charges against the 14 Christians. Hearing of the arrests, Christian leaders of Gurdaspur requested their release. The Christians were not released until Samuel signed an agreement assuring that Christians would not enter any non-Christian home. “The extremists are continuously following us around, to keep a check on us.” Samuel said.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists toppled a church building and attacked Christians on July 6 in Parawada, Visakhapatnam. The All India Christian Council (AICC) reported that local Hindu extremists were jealous and angry that a church stood at the entrance of the village and urged the Christians to move. The extremists threatened to attack the Christian community, claiming that they would allow no church in the area. When the church pastor refused to give in to their demand, they began damaging his household goods and pulled down the church building. The extremists also stopped the Christians from drawing water from a well. AICC was taking steps to resolve the matter at press time.

Madhya Pradesh – Police on July 4 arrested and charged two Christians under the state’s controversial “anti-conversion” law at Jawahar Nadar, Adharthal. According to the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), a member of the Apostolic Christian Assembly, Shravan Kuman Dubey, invited Vishal Lal to lead a prayer service for his 6-year-old son Ravi’s birthday. Around 7:30 p.m., during prayer, a mob of nearly 75 Hindu nationalist extremists accompanied by police entered the house and falsely accused those present of forced conversion, taking 14 Christians to the Adhartal police station. After nearly four hours, police charged Shravan Kumar and Vishal Lal with forcible conversion and sent the others home. With GCIC intervention, both were released on bail the next day.

Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists belonging to the Dharma Raksha Samithi (Religion Protection Council) on June 28 stopped a Christian school bus and questioned young elementary students in Indore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the bus was carrying Christian students from Orissa to their school in Indore. The extremists ordered the young students to get out of the bus and asked them whether forceful conversion was taking place, frightening the schoolchildren as police remained mere spectators. After threatening to harm the Christians if they carried out any Christian activities, they let them go. Area Christian leaders condemned the incident as a sign of Hindu extremists’ “reign of terror” in the state and demanded an investigation.

Karnataka – On June 13 in Anekal, Bangalore, Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh beat a pastor whom they accused of forceful conversion. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that, in an apparently premeditated attack, an unidentified extremist telephoned Pastor Sam Joseph to come and pray for a sick person. The pastor agreed, only to be taken to a gathering of Hindu extremists with media people. The extremists accused the pastor of forceful conversion, beat him up and dragged him to Hebbagudi police station. Police released the pastor without charges after forcing him to agree that he would no longer lead Christian meetings.

Himachal Pradesh – State officials on June 5 sealed a Mission India building, claiming that it belongs to “outsiders,” in Bari, Mandi district. The Evangelical Fellowship of India’s (EFI) advocacy desk reported that the government closed the building, which functioned as a Bible study center and orphanage, claiming that no land in the area could be owned by non-native people. Pastor Sam Abraham told Compass that Mission India purchased the plot in 2005, constructed a building in 2007 and began using it as a Bible study center and orphanage in 2008. In July 2008, Hindu extremists filed a complaint against Mission India of forceful conversion and demanded the building be shut down. The extremists have since accused the Christians of forceful conversion, verbally abused them for their faith and threatened to kill them if they did not leave. Mission India officials asserted that the land legally belongs to them and that they have all necessary documents. At press time the Christians were looking for a place to rent that would accommodate at least 10 orphans.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian Professor in Pakistan Beaten for Refusing to Convert


In another province, three eighth-grade students expelled for declining Islam.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, June 25 (CDN) — Muslim students attacked a Christian professor at the University of Peshawar this month after he refused their demand to convert to Islam, the instructor told Compass.

Psychology professor Samuel John, a father of four who has been teaching at the university in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province for 12 years, said that as he came out of his house on the university campus at 8:30 a.m. on June 14, about 20 to 25 students rushed and assaulted him.

“I shouted for help, but no one came to help,” he said.

When his wife learned what was happening, she ran to help him, but the students beat her as well. Both John and his wife were rushed to Lady Reading hospital, where they were treated for their injuries, with John listed in critical condition.

“I am still getting threats,” the professor told Compass. “They say, ‘Leave the university or accept Islam – if you don’t convert, we will kill your family.”

Police have refused to register a First Information Report on the incident, he said.

A group of five students had visited John on May 15, he said.

“They said, ‘Professor, you are a good teacher and a good human being, please convert to Islam and we will provide you with everything you need,’” John said. “I was surprised and said, ‘Why do you want me to convert? I am a Christian, and Jesus Christ is my Savior – He provides me with everything.”

One of the students became angry, saying, “Don’t forget that you are a family man,” John said. “I said, ‘I am not scared of anyone, God will protect me and my family.’”

He reported the matter to the dean of the University of Peshawar, but the official was unable to take any action because the Islamic students councils are supported by political parties and powerful Islamic groups, the professor said.

His family became worried, and other professors spoke of going on strike on John’s behalf, demanding an apology from the students who threatened him.

“They said, ‘This is a university, no one will be allowed to take the law in their hands – we are professors and teach everyone and do not discriminate by religion, caste, creed or color,’” John said.  

But no action was taken against anyone. John subsequently faced various forms of harassment from different Islamic student groups who threw stones at his home, sent threatening letters and threatened his family over the phone, he said.

John had recently been honored with an award for best results in psychology at colleges throughout Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Muslim professors and Muslim student councils were upset that a Christian professor was getting so much attention, Christian sources said.

 

Students Pressured

Separately, in Danna village in southern Punjab Province, Muslim administrators told three Christian students in the eighth grade to leave the school because they refused to convert to Islam.

A new teacher of Islamic Studies who came from another village to Government High School Danna urged students in his class, Sunil Masih, Shazia Masih and Nasir Naeem, to convert to Islam, according to the father of Sunil, Ejaz Masih.

The teacher, whom the parents declined to name, is also a Muslim leader.

“The teacher began by saying, ‘Sunil, Shazia and Nasir, convert to Islam – it is the true religion, and you will go straight to heaven,” Ejaz Masih said.

The students reported the pressure to their parents, who came to the school and complained to the principal.

The principal asked the teacher to explain the details of what happened, but other staff members at the school supported the new teacher, Masih said. On June 16, under pressure from other teachers, the principal told the parents to remove their children from the school unless they were willing to convert to Islam.

“We have been forced to leave the village,” Masih said. “The police have refused to help us. We are helpless here.”

Masih, along with Sohail Masih and Naeem Boota, parents of the other children, have fled the village with their families. Their children were the only Christian students at the school.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian Child Abducted, Forced into Bonded Labor in Pakistan


Muslim landowner offers to remove chains from 11-year-old boy if he converts to Islam.

WAZIRABAD, Pakistan, June 21 (CDN) — An 11-year-old Christian boy here is growing weak and ill from malnutrition from working in slave-like conditions for a Muslim landowner who kidnapped him and is forcing him to work off his family’s debts, his mother told Compass.

Katherine Bibi said landowner Ashraf Cheema of Dhonikay village, Wazirabad, has offered her son better conditions and possibly cancellation of the debt if he will convert to Islam.

“He is frequently invited to convert to Islam by Ashraf Cheema, and in return he is promised that he will be freed from the iron chains and his work will be eased and he will be served better meals,” she said. “Cheema has said, ‘The debt of your father and brother might also be forgiven if you convert.’”

Young Danish Masih works without break from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m., often in iron chains, on half a loaf of bread per day, according to Dawood Masih of the National Commission of Justice and Peace (NCJP).

“Due to the lack of sleep and immense physical and mental pressure, he is becoming weaker and ill,” Dawood Masih said. “And he is doing this bonded labor without any kind of leave, including sick leave, for the last one-and-a-half years, in place of his father Riaz Masih and elder brother Adnan Kashif.”

The boy’s father and older brother had been working for Cheema to pay off a debt of 142,000 rupees (US$1,640), but their employer was neither paying their monthly wages nor deducting the amounts from their debt, said Emmanuel Berkat Gill of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA). Riaz Masih’s monthly wage was 3,000 rupees (US$35), and Adnan Kashif earned 2,500 rupees (US$29) per month.

Cheema also extorted land worth 35,000 rupees (US$404) from the boy’s older brother, again without deducting the amount from their debt, and ransacked the family’s house in Ali Naggar village, stealing Katherine Bibi’s dowry worth 200,000 rupees (US$2,308), she and Gill said.  

“Being a rich, powerful and influential Muslim landowner, Cheema did all of this and also had the cruelty to not deduct the amount from the debt,” Gill said.

Suffering under Cheema in this way, the family decided to flee to Islamabad, 165 miles (102 miles) away, Katherine Bibi said. About 18 months ago, however, the peaceful life they had begun anew was shattered when Cheema abducted their youngest son, also known as Mithu, and took him to his farmhouse at Dhonikay village near Ali Naggar in Wazirabad.

“After all these cruelties, Ashraf Cheema owes us some amount, rather than us owing him,” an inconsolable Katherine Bibi told Compass by telephone.   

She has gone to court to recover her son – both her husband and older son do not risk provoking Cheema by attaching their names to the case – and on June 10 District and Sessions Judge Chaudhary Muhammad Ilyas sent a bailiff to Cheema’s farm to secure the return of the 11-year-old.

“But the bailiff returned unsuccessfully without Mithu, as Ashraf Cheema, being an influential and rich landowner, was told beforehand about the raid by an anonymous insider, and he hid the child,” Katherine Bibi said.

She said that since the bailiff failed to recover her son, Cheema has hurled threats at her and her husband, saying, “After this raid by the bailiff, you will neither be able to get back your son, nor will you be granted a cancellation for your debt.”

After joint efforts by Gill of APMA and Dawood Masih of the NCJP, however, Cheema agreed that if Riaz Masih would work in place of his son, he would release the child, Gill said. When Gill, Dawood Masih and Riaz Masih went to Cheema’s farmhouse, however, the landowner went back on his word and refused to hand over the boy.

Contacted by Compass, Cheema said that no such boy works at his farm or fields, and that “someone must have misled you.”

Besides the court recognition of the abduction, however, Gill and other credible sources assert that Danish Masih works from dawn to dusk under a sizzling summer sun without any break or meal.

At press time local Christian leaders had petitioned the deputy superintendent police of Wazirabad to recover Danish Masih.

Report from Compass Direct News

Two Iranian Christian Women Acquitted of all Charges


Young converts previously held in prison for Christian activities have fled country.

ISTANBUL, May 27 (CDN) — Nearly five months after releasing them from prison, an Iranian court has acquitted two women of all charges related to being Christians and engaging in Christian activities.

Iranians Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad were arrested on March 5, 2009 and detained on charges of “acting against state security,” “taking part in illegal gatherings” and “apostasy” (leaving Islam) under Iran’s Revolutionary Court system.

After nearly eight months, on Nov. 18, 2009 authorities released them conditionally.

Although the court hearing their case originally set April 13 as their trial date, Compass was unable to confirm on what date the two women were acquitted, nor the conditions of their acquittal.

Senior Iranian judges and officials repeatedly intimidated the two women and pressured them to recant their faith, according to a press statement by Elam Ministries last week.

“They were warned that any future Christian activity in Iran will be seriously dealt with,” according to the statement.

Elam Ministries said the two women had fled Iran on Saturday (May 22) to an undisclosed location and were recovering.

Another Iranian convert who was forced to flee his country under similar circumstances years ago told Compass that he believed the intense lobbying efforts to release and acquit the women brought the government to an unspoken “standoff” with Christian rights groups outside the country.

“I think the court just made a political decision, ‘We will let you go, but we will not allow you to stay in the country,’” said the Iranian Christian, who requested anonymity. “That’s a pretty old-fashioned procedure they have – ‘We will let you go if you leave the country. You can have your faith, but not here.’”

In general, when Iranian authorities arrest Christians, they release them on bail within a few weeks and keep their case files open, thus applying soft pressure while allowing them to continue living in Iran. In cases where the government wants to remove Christians from the country because of their Christian activities, authorities have handed the Christians their passports and documents and told them to leave.

Iran’s government views all Christian activities as foreign intervention and thus a threat to national security. The two women’s families had hired a private lawyer.

Since their release, the young converts to Christianity had been waiting for a trial date and decision from an Iranian court to decide their fate as Christians living their faith. During this time, sources said that authorities watched them closely and that the two women were under “pressure” and received threatening phone calls.

“The government would not want them to stay in the country as heroes,” said the Iranian Christian. “It would be better for the government if they left Iran and didn’t become a positive example for the rest of the Christian community in Iran. Otherwise they would create a precedent of [Christians] who have not denied their faith, who have been acquitted and still live as Christians inside the country.”

The two women thanked Christians who have been praying for them, according to Elam.

“We hope to eventually share some of what the Lord allowed us to go through to highlight the need and the opportunity for the church in Iran, but right now we will take time to pray and seek the Lord for His will,” said Rostampour, according to Elam’s press statement.

Iran’s Constitution gives Christians “protected” religious minority status, but in practice they face substantial societal discrimination, according to the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report 2009.

An article mandating death for apostates in accordance with sharia (Islamic law) reportedly has been stricken from a draft penal code, but experts on Iran say The Council of Guardians and Iran’s Supreme Leader still have the final say on who receives capital punishment for leaving Islam.

Report from Compass Direct News