Vietnam stepping up religious rights abuses, experts say

Government-perpetrated violence against a Catholic village in Vietnam has highlighted a series of human rights abuses in the communist nation, and three U.S. congressmen are calling on the United Nations to intervene, reports Baptist Press.

"A few months ago during a religious funeral procession, Vietnamese authorities and riot police disrupted that sad and solemn occasion, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, beating mourners with batons and electric rods," Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., said at a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in August.

"More than 100 were injured, dozens were arrested and several remain in custody and have reportedly been severely beaten and tortured. At least two innocent people have been murdered by the Vietnamese police," Smith said.

The Con Dau tragedy, Smith said, "is unfortunately not an isolated incident." Property disputes between the government and the Catholic church continue to lead to harassment, property destruction and violence, Smith said, referring to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"In recent years, the Vietnamese government has stepped up its persecution of Catholic believers, bulldozing churches, dismantling crucifixes and wreaking havoc on peaceful prayer vigils," Smith said.

Persecution is not limited to Catholics, though, as Smith had a list of nearly 300 Montagnard political and religious prisoners. In January, the Vietnamese government sentenced two Montagnard Christians to 9 and 12 years imprisonment for organizing a house church, and others have been arrested in connection with house churches, Smith said.

"The arrests were accompanied by beatings and torture by electroshock devices," the congressman said. "We must not forget the sufferings of Khmer Krom Buddhists, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and others. The said reality is that the Vietnamese government persecutes any religious group that does not submit to government control."

The violence in the 80-year-old Catholic village of Con Dau in central Vietnam reportedly stemmed from a government directive for residents to abandon the village to make way for the construction of a resort.

International Christian Concern, a Washington-based watchdog group, reported that when Con Dau residents refused to leave, water irrigation was shut off to their rice fields, stopping the main source of income and food.

In May, police attacked the funeral procession, beating more than 60 people, including a pregnant woman who was struck in the stomach until she had a miscarriage, ICC said.

One of the funeral procession leaders later was confronted by police in his home, where they beat him for about four hours and then released him. He died the next day, ICC said. Eight people remain in police custody and are awaiting trial.

"The people of Con Dau are living in desperate fear and confusion," Thang Nguyen, executive director of an organization representing Con Dau victims, told ICC. "Hundreds of residents have been fined, and many have escaped to Thailand."

Smith, along with Rep. Joseph Cao, R.-La., and Frank Wolf, R.-Va., introduced a House resolution in July calling for the United Nations to appoint a special investigator to probe "ongoing and serious human rights violations in Vietnam." In August, the Lantos Commission met in emergency session to address the "brutal murders and systematic treatment of Catholics in Con Dau."

"The Vietnamese government justifies this violence, torture and murder because the villagers of Con Dau had previously been ordered, some through coercion, to leave their village, property, church, century-old cemetery, their religious heritage, and to forgo equitable compensation in order to make way for a new ‘green’ resort," Smith said at the hearing. "Nothing, however, not even governmental orders, grant license for government-sanctioned murder and other human rights abuses."

The U.S. Department of State declined to testify before the Lantos Commission, and the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam characterized the Con Dau incident as a land dispute and refused to get involved.

Logan Maurer, a spokesman for International Christian Concern, told Baptist Press he has publicized about 10 different incidents of persecution in Vietnam during the past few months.

"In some cases, especially in Southeast Asia, religious persecution becomes a gray area. We also work extensively in Burma, where often there are mixed motives for why a particular village is attacked," Maurer said. "Is it because they’re Christian? Well, partially. Is it because they’re an ethnic minority? Partially.

"So I think the same thing happens in Vietnam where you have a whole village that’s Catholic. One hundred percent of it was Catholic," he said of Con Dau.

Maurer explained that local government officials in Vietnam generally align Christianity with the western world and democracy, which is still seen as an enemy in Vietnam on a local level.

"As far as the official government Vietnamese position, that’s different, but local government officials do not take kindly to Christians and never have. We have documented many cases of government officials saying Christianity is the enemy. So here it’s mixed motives as best we can figure out," Maurer said.

"They wanted to build a resort there, and they could have picked a different village but they chose the one on purpose that was Catholic because it represents multiple minorities — minority religion, minority also in terms of people that can’t fight back. If they go seek government help, the government is not going to help them."

A Christian volunteer who has visited Vietnam five times in the past decade told Baptist Press the Con Dau incident illustrates the way the Vietnamese government responds to any kind of dissent.

"In our country, and in modern democracies, there are methods for resolving disputes with the government, taking them to court, trying to work through the mediation process," the volunteer, who did not want to be identified, said. "In Vietnam there is no such thing. It is the government’s will or there will be violence."

Vietnam’s constitution includes a provision for religious liberty, but the volunteer said that only goes as far as the communal will of the people, which is monopolized by the Communist Party.

"So when the Communist Party says you can’t build a church there or you can’t worship this way, those who say, ‘Well, I have religious freedom,’ are essentially trumped by the constitution that says it’s the will of the people, not individual liberty that’s important," the volunteer said.

The government in Vietnam has made efforts during the past 15 years to open up the country to economic development, and with that has come an influx of some western values and a lot of Christians doing work there, the volunteer said.

"I would first caution Christians to still be careful when they’re there working," he said, adding that government officials closely watch Christians who visit from other countries, and books about Jesus cause trouble.

Secondly, the volunteer warned that all news emerging from Vietnam must be tested for accuracy on both sides because both those who are persecuting and those who are sounding the alarm on persecution have their own political goals.

"That being said, I don’t doubt that this happened," the volunteer said regarding Con Dau.

International Christian Concern urges Americans to contact the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington at 202-861-0737, and the Christian volunteer said people can contact the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to encourage changes in Vietnam.

"They can also directly e-mail the ambassador and the consular general in Ho Chi Minh City and encourage them to push for more reform," he said. "And they can contact companies that are having products made in Vietnam and encourage the business leaders to speak out for change in those countries. You go to JC Penney today in the men’s department and pick up almost anything, it’s made in Vietnam. That’s the kind of pressure they could put on them."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Attacks on Christians in Karnataka Frequent, Furious

Southern state has become epicenter of religious assaults, Christians say.

NEW DELHI, February 4 (CDN) — Karnataka state recorded the highest number of anti-Christian attacks in India last year, and it is keeping pace this year.

Christians in Karnataka are being attacked “at rapid regularity” and “with near impunity,” and it is “a serious matter of concern for the Christian community,” said Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI).

Much of the violence occurs under the vigilante pretext of rounding up Christians supposedly involved in “forcible” or “fraudulent” conversion efforts. On Monday (Feb. 1) in Thagadur village, Kodagu district, Hindu extremists dragged 11 Christians – including four women – from their homes and colluded with police to arrest them on such false charges.

The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that all of the Christians, members of the Beraka Gospel Church in Suntikupa village, were tortured at the Siddapur police station to pressure them to admit to the charges. Most of the jailed Christians are tribal, daily wage laborers who work on coffee plantations.

Police denied torturing the Christians, but like many people in India easily confused by Hindu extremist propaganda, Inspector Ratan Singh of the Siddapur police station seemed to erroneously believe that laws against fraudulent conversion apply to any kind of proclamation of faith.

“According to the complaint we received, the accused were inviting local Hindus for prayer meetings to convert them,” Singh told Compass, as if such activity were illegal in India. “We did not beat them. When they were produced before the judicial magistrate, they said they were not mistreated by the police.”

The GCIC recorded 72 attacks on Christians in Karnataka in 2009. That represents a decline from the 112 attacks the previous year, when three months of anti-Christian violence in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district in 2008 led Hindu extremists in Karnataka to lash out as well, according to Christian leaders.

Justice Michael F. Saldanha, a retired judge of the Karnataka High Court and president of the Catholic Association of South Kanara (a district in Karnataka also known as Dakshina Kannada), told Compass that attacks on Christians in the state increased after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began to rule.

In May 2008 the BJP came to power in Karnataka, thus making it the first southern state with a stand-alone BJP government in the history of India. The party’s rule was preceded by a 20-month rule in alliance with a local party, the Janata Dal (Secular).

Although Karnataka has had a dominant presence of the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar since 1950, its cadres obtained free rein only after the BJP’s electoral victory, Saldanha explained.

“The real headquarters of the Sangh Parivar is not in Maharashtra [official headquarters of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, in Nagpur), it’s in Karnataka,” said Saldanha, who conducted a private inquiry into a series of attacks that rocked Karnataka in September 2008 following the unprecedented anti-Christian bloodbath in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district.

Between Aug. 17 and Sept. 21, 2008, more than 28 attacks on churches, led mainly by the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal, a Sangh Parivar offshoot, were reported from various parts of Karnataka.

Saldanha pointed out that Brahmins, the highest or priestly class in the caste hierarchy in Hinduism, from Udupi district and Mangalore city in neighboring Dakshina Kannada district played a special role in leading the Hindu right-wing movement. The retired judge also accused the BJP government of supporting Sangh Parivar outfits with public money.

“The Karnataka government gives money to right-wing groups for festivals in the name of celebrations, and also through donations to certain temples,” he said.

Agreeing with Saldanha, the CBCI’s Joseph said the violence in Karnataka points to a “decline in civility and collapse of administration.”

“It is indeed sad that Karnataka, which enjoyed communal harmony and social amity for so long, has recently been pushed into the cycle of hate crimes perpetrated by the extreme elements in society that do not believe in mutual tolerance or acceptance,” Joseph said.

Karnataka Gov. H.R. Bhardwaj reportedly said earlier this week that protection of people’s lives and liberties, including the right to propagate their religion, was “the essence of Indian democracy.”

The governor said it was the responsibility of the state government “to see that nobody is allowed to flout the democratic norms and laws of the land,” acknowledging a rise in the incidence of attacks against churches, reported Daijiworld.

His comments came a day after an attack on a glass painting of the Virgin Mary at the entrance arch of the Canara Organisation for Development and Peace building in Nantoor area on Saturday (Jan. 30).

On that day Christians held a silent protest in Mysore, and on Monday (Feb. 1) Christians in Mangalore protested in like fashion against increasing attacks on them.

On Jan. 28, unidentified people burned down a church in Raipura area in Molakalmuru town in Chitradurga district. The Jesus Loves Holy Temple Church turned into ashes, reported GCIC.

Two Catholic churches were attacked in Mysore and Uttara Kannada districts on Jan. 25. Unidentified people reportedly broke a statue of Mary on the compound wall of the Holy Family Church in Hinkal village in the wee hours in Mysore district. In the other incident, glass panes covering the statue of Mary were broken at St. Anthony Church in the Pernamakki area in Uttara Kannada district.

At 2:30 a.m. this morning, unidentified people broke into a Catholic church and vandalized it in the Malavalli area of Mandya district, reported the Karnataka-based GCIC. The cross, statues and musical instruments in the St. Mathias Church were destroyed, it said, adding that the parish priest filed a complaint at the Malavalli police station.

‘Lip Service’

Echoing claims of the Hindu nationalist BJP, Karnataka State Minorities Commission member Anthony Fernandez said he does not believe there is any reason for concern.

“Some elements are simply trying to tarnish the image of the state government,” he said.

Fernandez acknowledged, however, that the Hindu nationalist Sri Ram Sene (Army of God Rama) was involved in some attacks. The Sri Ram Sene is believed to be a splinter group from the Sangh Parivar family of organizations under the RSS.

Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa on Jan. 28 warned those who vandalize religious places, saying he would have their hands “chopped off.”

“I, the chief minister of Karnataka, am saying I will chop off their hands,” Yeddyurappa was quoted as saying by Headlines Today news channel.

The CBCI’s Joseph said “lip service” by the government was “no longer enough.”

“It has to show results on the ground that it means business in tackling the menace of communal elements,” he said. “Unprovoked violence against fellow citizens in the name of religion is pernicious, and it must stop forthwith, or else the impression may gain ground that the administration of the day is colluding with criminal and extreme elements in vitiating the social harmony for short term political gains – something this country can ill afford in the long run.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Why Bhutan’s Royalists Fear Christianity

Social, political factors behind country’s reluctance to allow Christianity to grow

THIMPHU, Bhutan, February 1 (CDN) — Bars, pubs and discos have become legal in Bhutan – a cause of concern for the older generation – but construction of worship buildings other than Buddhist or Hindu temples is still prohibited.

The prohibition remains in force even though Christians abide by Bhutan’s codes of conduct, speaking the Dzongkha language as well as the Nepali language at church gatherings, and wearing the national dress.

The National Assembly of Bhutan banned the practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions through edicts in 1969 and in 1979. But Christians do meet for Sunday worship, with attendance of more than 100 Christians in an underground church not unusual.

Why are Christians seen as a greater threat to the culture of the nation than the “democracy disco culture,” as one government official described the emerging subculture among the Bhutanese youth? It is believed that Christianity will create religious tensions in the country.

“There are reasons why Christianity is not being tolerated in the country,” said a former high government official who requested anonymity. “Look at the communal tensions in India and Nepal. Christianity can divide the Bhutanese society as well.”

He mentioned two incidents that appeared in the Bhutanese press last year, one in which 13 Christians allegedly hanged a woman they had accused of being a witch, and a suicide by a Hindu man who reportedly left a note saying his Christian wife and children were pressuring him to convert.

Christians here said these were isolated incidents that they strongly condemned.

“A majority of believers in Bhutan are not educated and are from lower economic backgrounds,” said the pastor of an underground church. “When open preaching is not allowed, this is what happens.”

Sound Christian teaching remains lacking, he said. There is a tremendous need for good Christian teaching and general education among the Christians in Bhutan, said the pastor.

“But little can be done given the restrictions we face here.”

Christians are only allowed to pray if someone is sick among their acquaintances, he added.

The government also fears that Christianity could cause societal tensions because of the general misconception that Christians lure others to the faith with money; converts are viewed with suspicion, said a government official on condition of anonymity.

“There should be one religion in one nation,” said the official, adding that religious freedom should be allowed only after educating people.

Threat from Within

Bhutanese officials are no strangers to religious conflict.

“You must also understand that the kind of Buddhism practiced in Bhutan is a minority sect within the two Buddhist divisions,” said the former government official.

A majority of Buddhists in Bhutan practice Vajrayāna Buddhism, also known as Tantric Buddhism, and belong to the larger Mahayana sect, one of the two major divisions of the religion along with the Theravada sect.

Theravada Buddhism has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asian countries, including Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Mahayana is practiced in a few East Asian countries, including Japan.

Unlike Theravada, which is more individualistic in its motivation, Mahayana Buddhism involves an aspiration to achieve enlightenment not only for one’s own sake, but for the sake of all “sentient” beings.

“There is a perceived threat to the Buddhist sect in Bhutan from the more powerful Theravada division,” said the source, without divulging more about the clash within Buddhism. “In such a scenario, how can you expect the government to willingly open doors to Christianity, which too is a threat?”

Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, Christians are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. Around 75 percent of the people practice Buddhism, and roughly 22 percent are Hindus, mostly of Nepali origin.

Monarchy and Buddhism

Religion is so closely linked to the monarchy in Bhutan that one cannot exist without the other.

The national flag of Bhutan, which consists of a white dragon over a yellow and orange background, also has religion in it. While the yellow half represents civil and political powers of the King, the orange signifies monastic traditions of Buddha’s teachings.

The religious link is protected in the new constitution, which was adopted in March 2008. Article 2 notes that the dual powers of religion and politics shall be unified in the person of the king, “who, as a Buddhist, shall be the upholder of the Chhoe-sid,” the traditional dual system of governance characterized by the sharing of power between the religious and political heads of the country.

Given that the king embodies religious and political authority, the common people worship him.

Additionally, Buddhism is woven into the national fabric. Bhutan is the only country in the world that employs a “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) equation to measure its people’s level of happiness, and the GNH assumes that all citizens are Buddhist. Respondents to the GNH survey are asked questions concerning “spiritual activities like meditation and prayers, and consideration of karmic effects in daily life.”

The introduction of democracy in Bhutan did not involve disturbing the religious and cultural status quo. While former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006, brought democracy to Bhutan without any demand for it, people believe his intentions were far from transforming the country into a full democracy.

It is believed that the political turmoil in neighboring Nepal partly influenced King Singye Wangchuck’s decision to make the country, at least on paper, a constitutional monarchy after over 100 years of absolute monarchy. A decade-long civil war led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist – which took more than 12,000 lives – is believed to be behind the abolition of the royal parliamentary system and the adoption of a socialist republic in Nepal. In 2006 the then-king of Nepal, Gyanendra, agreed to relinquish sovereign power to the people.

All sources in Bhutan confirmed that the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008), was still the supreme ruler. Perhaps this is why both the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (Bhutan Peace and Prosperity) Party and the opposition People’s Democratic Party are royalists.

Pictures of kings of Bhutan are found everywhere in the country – in homes, shops, hotels, underground churches and on street walls. Many large posters with the kings’ pictures carrying the inscription “Kings of our Hearts” can be seen along the streets. Even public buses have “Our Kings Forever” painted on them.

“But you cannot expect things to change overnight,” said the former government official. “It’s not wise to allow development without any bridle. Things are improving slowly.

Added an optimistic source, “Freedom in the real sense of the word and in all spheres is bound to come to Bhutan. It’s just a matter of time.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christians Most Hit by Religious Freedom Violations

Mob succeeds in getting local official to shut down HKBP church in West Java.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, January 21 (CDN) — A moderate Muslim research institute focusing on interfaith issues in Indonesia reported 35 cases of government violations of religious freedom – including 28 against Christians – and 93 instances of community intolerance of churches in 2009.

The Wahid Institute issued a year-end report of violations that included the revocation of the building permit for the HKBP Cinere Church – later overturned in court – opposition to a Catholic Church in Purwakarta and an order forbidding worship by the Filadelfia Huria Kristen Batak Protestan Church (HKBP) in Bekasi, West Java.

The highest number of violations occurred in West Java, with 10 cases, including seven against Christians; next was East Java with eight, including four against Christians, followed by Jakarta Province with four (three against Christians). In Central Java, two of three religious violation cases were against Christians, and in West Nusa Tenggara, one of the three violations violated Christians’ rights.

Government infractions included closing churches and failing to intervene in mob actions. Police were cited in 18 cases, provincial governments in eight, village and sub-district governments in six cases each and courts in two incidents.

Just as government violations were highest in West Java, community intolerance there was also highest with 32 cases, of which 14 were against Christians. Next was Jakarta, where eight of 15 cases of community intolerance were against Christians, then East Java where six of 14 cases hurt Christians. In Central Java, Christians were the victims in five of the 13 cases of community intolerance.

In West Java, the root problem is the spread of hatred against religious groups, including Christians and Jews, according to the report.

While the reported violations of religious freedom were lower than in 2008, the issue of religious intolerance continued to grow during 2009, aided by legislative and presidential elections as religion is often used to gain votes in Indonesian elections, according to the study. The overall figure of 128 cases of violations of religious freedom by government or society in 2009 represents a drop from the 2008 figure of 234 cases, according to the Wahid Institute.

Yenny Zanuba Wahid, director of the institute, told Compass that the government has not considered freedom of religion an important issue that needed attention. As a result, the government has not addressed reports of intolerance even in the face of international pressure.

“The government has been timid to acknowledge violations of religious freedom, but these are real and are carried out directly by government bodies or indirectly as a result [of government] policies,” Wahid said.

Muslims make up 88.2 percent of Indonesia’s population of about 240 million people, with Protestant Christians making up 5.9 percent, Catholics 3.1 percent, Hindus 0.8 percent, Buddhists 0.2 percent, and other religions 0.2 percent.

Church Closure

In West Java, mob efforts to shut down the Filadelfia Huria Kristen Batak Protestan Church (HKBP) in Bekasi succeeded on Dec. 31 when the district officer issued a decree ordering a stop to all worship activities at the site of the church building under construction.

The decree ordered that the construction of the building stop, and that the structure not be used for worship until the building permit process was final. The district officer based his recommendation upon a 1990 rule regarding building permits in Bekasi.

Tigor Tambubolon, head of the church building committee, acknowledged that the building permit had not been formally granted even though the process had been under way since 2000.

“We already have the permission of the Jejalen citizens,” Tambubolon told Compass. “That’s why we were brave enough to hold Christmas Eve services.”

Last Christmas Eve hundreds of protestors demanding a halt to worship demonstrated against services at the site, where 279 Christians had gathered.

A New Year’s service scheduled to take place at the site moved to the office of the village head due to fears that protestors would become unruly. Police Chief Herry Wibowo said his officers guarded the church site at that time.

The Rev. Palti Panjaitan of Filadelfia HKBP told Compass that the church had been worshipping in the area since 2000 by meeting at various members’ homes. As the congregation grew, they rented a building combining a home and store in Vila Bekasi 2 Tambun.

“The local citizens demonstrated against our worship services,” said Panjaitan. “From there we moved to a member’s home in Jejalan village. We profited because the Jejalan citizens were very good.”

Eventually the church bought a piece of land there. A number of the community leaders and the village head gave their agreement to build the Filadelfia HKBP church there.

The Interfaith Harmony Forum of Bekasi district gave approval for the building with the stipulation that the church obey a joint ministerial decree revised in 2006 regarding construction of houses of worship. The building committee obtained signatures of 259 non-Christians endorsing the project, though the joint decree required only 60 signatures. Then the building committee wrote a formal request for a building permit.

Church elder Tambubolon, however, added that a sub-district officer collected signatures from citizens opposed to the construction of a house of worship in Jejalan. The total number of signatures is unknown, but the sub-district office sent a letter to the district officer rejecting the building permit.

Nevertheless, Tambubolon said, the church is not considering a lawsuit over the district officer’s decree.

“We are going to continue worshipping, because it is the right of every citizen,” he said. “If we are forbidden to worship even in the village office, we will continue to do so.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Spike in Anti-Christian Violence Feared before Burma Elections

Attacks on Christians seen as politically expedient in majority-Buddhist nation.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, January 21 (CDN) — As Burma’s military junta gears up for its first parliamentary election in two decades this year, observers fear attacks on the Christian minority could intensify.

Mungpi Suangtak, assistant editor of a New Delhi-based news agency run by exiled Burmese journalists, the Mizzima News, said the Burmese junta has “one of the world’s worst human rights records” and will “definitely” attack religious and ethnic minorities more forcefully in the run-up to the election.

The military regime, officially known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), pledged to hold the election this year, and analysts believe polls will be held after July in the country, also known as Myanmar.

Suangtak told Compass that the Buddhist nationalist junta would target Christians particularly in Karen state, bordering Thailand, and in Chin State, bordering India and Bangladesh.

Many Christians are part of the Karen National Union and the Chin National Front, armed resistance groups that have been demanding freedom or autonomy for their respective states for decades, and therefore the junta sees the Christian minority as a threat, said Suangtak.

There are over 100,000 Christian Chin refugees in India who have fled the junta’s attacks in the past two decades, according to Human Rights Watch.

Christians in Karen state are not safe. A Karen Christian worker living in the Mae La refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border told Compass that ethnic Christians were facing human rights abuses by the junta “on a daily basis.” Most recently, Burma army soldiers attacked a church, murdered a local farmer and injured others in Nawng Mi village on Dec. 19, 2009, reported Burma Campaign UK.

Parts of Karen state fall under the “Black Zone” – identified by the Burma army as an area under the control of armed resistance groups where its soldiers are free to open fire on anyone on sight – and the junta has been launching indiscriminate attacks to take control of village after village, said the Karen Christian.

“Those who are not able to flee across the border during such attacks are either killed or forcibly relocated in and confined to temporary camps set up by the junta,” the Christian said. “Since the army litters surrounding areas with landmines, many local people die or get injured while trying to run away from or coming to the camps to look for their relatives.”

Over 150,000 refugees from Karen and neighboring Karenni states of Burma are living along the Thai side of the border, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of them are Christian.

A representative of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), which trains and sends teams of local people to help victims of the junta’s attacks inside Burma, said youths have been forced to become Buddhists in Chin state, where over 80 percent of the people are Christian.

Printing of Bibles is restricted, and churches are destroyed on a regular basis in the state, the source told Compass on condition of anonymity.

Access for foreign visitors to Chin state is, with some exceptions, prohibited, and the state is widely acknowledged to be the poorest part of the country, said Rogers.

“According to one Chin, the reason Chin state is denied resources, and foreigners are denied access, is specifically because the overwhelming majority of Chins are Christian,” stated a 2009 report by London-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “The SPDC has, it is believed, taken a deliberate decision to discriminate against Chin Christians.”

The report cited a Chin Christian man who had served in the Burma army who faced discrimination.

“I had a colleague who was a Chin who became a Buddhist and he was promoted,” the Christian says in the report. “I was told to change my religion if I wanted to get promotion. I refused to convert.”

The report also quoted a Chin Christian as saying that students from a Christian youth fellowship at a university in Kalaymyo, in Chin state’s Sagaing Division, collected funds among their own community to construct a small church.

“However, in 2008 and again in 2009, ‘extremist Buddhists’ destroyed the church building, and when the students reported the incident to the local authorities, the youth fellowship leaders were arrested, detained and then released with a warning,” he said.

Religious Pretext

Suangtak said successive governments in Burma have promoted Buddhism since General Ne Win took power in 1962, leaving Christians insecure.

“There is a general feeling in Burma that the state represents Buddhism, and most Christians, particularly from conservative sections, cannot trust the regime,” said Suangtak.

Benedict Rogers of CSW said the junta doesn’t differentiate between individual Christians involved in armed struggle and ordinary Christians who have not taken up arms.

“And when it attacks villages in conflict zones, churches and pastors are often among the first to be attacked,” Rogers said.

A Christian worker from Burma’s Mandalay city, however, told Compass that thus far he has heard no reports of any major anti-Christian incidents there. He said he was hoping the junta would try to woo people with peace rather than violence.

“But nothing can be said about the unpredictable junta,” he said, adding that it was difficult to receive or send information in Burma. “Even in cities, the information infrastructure is limited and expensive, phones are tapped and e-mails are monitored. And the press is owned by the state.”

Rogers, deputy chairman of the human rights commission for the U.K.’s Conservative Party, said the Buddhist nationalist regime “distorts and perverts Buddhism for political purposes and is intolerant of non-Burman and non-Buddhist ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims.”

Of the 56 million people in Burma, around 89 percent are Buddhist, with only 4 percent Christian.

Given that the junta merely uses religion for political power, it doesn’t target Christians alone, Suangtak said.

“The junta has no respect for any religion, be it Christians or Buddhists, and anyone who opposes its rule is dealt with harshly.”

Burma was ruled by military regimes from 1962 to 1990; at that point the National League for Democracy party, led by Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won the parliamentary election. But the regime seized power again by imprisoning members of parliament after the election.

Rogers, who has co-authored a soon-to-be-published biography of SPDC chairman Senior General Than Shwe, said that while the armed groups are not perfect, they are essentially fighting to defend their people against a “brutal regime” and are “not in any way terrorists.”

“The armed groups have sometimes launched pre-emptive attacks on the military, but they have never attacked non-military targets and have never engaged in indiscriminate acts of violence,” he said. “Even the pre-emptive acts are conducted for defensive, rather than offensive, purposes.”

Rogers added that resistance groups were fighting to defend their people.

“Individual Christians who have joined the armed ethnic groups do so out of a perfectly biblical concept of just war, the right to defend your people from gross injustice.”

Added an FBR source, “In Burma, no one protects except the pro-democracy resistance groups, and all relief inside the country is only possible because of them.”

International Disrepute

The 2009 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states that Burma’s military junta had “one of the world’s worst human rights records.”

“Burma’s Christian populations face forced promotion of Buddhism and other hardships in ethnic minority areas where low-intensity conflict has been waged for decades,” the report states. “In addition, a new law passed in early 2009 essentially bans independent ‘house church’ religious venues, many of which operate because permission to build church buildings is regularly denied.”

The report also pointed out that in January 2009, authorities in Rangoon ordered at least 100 churches to stop holding services and forced them to sign pledges to that effect. Burma, which the ruling junta describes as “The Golden Land” on its official website, has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. Department of State since 1999.

Even after the 2010 election, little is expected to change.

The FBR source said the election was not likely to be free and fair, pointing out that the new constitution the junta adopted after an apparently rigged referendum in 2008 virtually enshrined military power.

“However, having an election is better than not having one at all,” the source said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

New Dimension in India’s Anti-Christian Violence Feared

Concern grows that Hindu terrorists could become more apt to target Christians.

PUNE, India, November 5 (CDN) — After the recent arrests of numerous Hindu terrorists for exploding bombs, authorities increasingly view Hindu rightwing extremists as a threat not only to Muslim and Christian minorities but also to national security.

Historically Hindu terrorist groups have traded blows with India’s Muslim extremists, but because of a perceived threat from Christianity – as one Hindu extremist leader expressed to Compass – many analysts believe Hindu terrorists increasingly pose dangers to Christians as well.

Police in Goa state arrested two members of Hindu terrorist group Sanatan Sanstha (Eternal Organization) on Saturday (Oct. 31) for their alleged role in an explosion that took place near a church in Margao on Oct 16. Christians, which make up more than 25 percent of the 1.3 million people in Goa, were apparently not the target of the explosion, which occurred accidently when two members of the Sanatan Sanstha were trying to transport explosives to a nearby location on the eve of the Diwali Hindu festival, according to DNA newspaper.

Nevertheless, the incident served as a wake-up call to Christian leaders and others who fear Hindu terrorists could take greater aim at the Christian community. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), said that while terrorism was not new for rightwing groups, some of the extremist groups had “metamorphosed into fully fledged terrorism squads on classical lines – cells with local leaders, supply lines, bomb-making experts, and clear linkage with the intellectuals and motivators in the RSS [Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] hierarchy.”

Suresh Khairnar, a civil rights activist who has conducted nearly 100 fact-finding trips on communal incidents, told Compass that Muslims may be the main target of Hindu terrorist outfits, but “there is no doubt that they pose a threat to the Christians also.” He added that these Hindu groups also launch attacks on Hindus from time to time – masquerading as Islamist groups to create communal unrest, as well as to confuse investigating agencies.

Asghar Ali Engineer, chairman of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, concurred that Christians have increasingly become a secondary target for rightwing Hindu terrorists behind Muslims, who form 13.4 percent of the population.

“Christians, on the other hand, are only 2.3 percent,” said Engineer. “And because of their engagement with education, medicine and social work, it is difficult to promote anti-Christian sentiments.”

A former inspector general of police of Maharashtra, S.M. Mushrif, also said that while Muslims are the prime target of Hindu terrorists, attacking Christians also helps the Hindu assailants to portray themselves as “working for a Hindu cause.”

Members of suspected terror groups are known to have attacked Christians. On June 27, Shailendra Chauhan, alias Uday Singh – suspected to be a close aide of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, the prime suspect in a September 2008 blast in Malegaon, Maharashtra – was arrested for allegedly killing a Christian priest in Noida, a satellite town of Delhi. The 25-year-old Chauhan was also accused of vandalizing a church building in Sangam Vihar in Delhi in October 2008, according to The Times of India.

The AICC’s Dayal added that Islamic groups are the immediate target of Hindu terrorist groups, “but once the terror gangs of Hindutva [Hindu nationalist ideology] taste blood, it is easy to predict that they will swing into action against any perceived enemy target.”

How Alleged Terrorist Group Views Christians

The Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) of Mumbai is investigating powerful bomb blasts in Malegaon town, Maharashtra, allegedly carried out by members of the Hindu nationalist Abhinav Bharat (Pride of India) in September 2008. Compass spoke with the president of Abhinav Bharat about the alleged terrorist group’s attitude toward Christians.

The Malegaon blasts near a mosque killed six people and injured more than 100. The ATS arrested 11 people, including a serving officer of the Indian Army, from the Abhinav Bharat and other rightwing outfits.

The president of the Abhinav Bharat, Himani Savarkar, told Compass that members of her organization had been falsely accused, saying “The government is lying about their involvement. There is collusion between Muslims and the government.”

Asked if only Muslims were a threat to Hindus, she said, “There is danger from both Muslims and Christians, because of conversions and terrorism.”

Conversion represents a threat in that people converting to Islam change their loyalties from India to Mecca, while the loyalties of converts to Christianity shift from India to the Pope, Savarkar said. She also spoke of a more direct threat in Christianity – “Muslims want to kill the kafirs [unbelievers], and even Jesus asks in the Bible to kill all those who do not believe in Him” – and it is not known how many other Hindu extremists share this fallacy.

The number of Hindus, she added, “is slowly reducing, and one day we will become a minority in our own nation. We do not have any other nation.”

Savarkar, niece of Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist who killed Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, said that in her view the main reasons people convert away from Hinduism are poverty and illiteracy.

“They do not know what they are doing,” she said. “We have to awaken Hindus. Hindus need to be made aware of the threats.”

Violent Despair

The use of bombs is a sign of frustration among extremists, said civil rights activist Khairnar, referring to the two successive defeats of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s chief Hindu nationalist conglomerate. The BJP, which ruled the federal government from 1998 to 2004, has lost both the 2004 and 2009 general elections.

“They are now exploding bombs because they know they cannot succeed democratically,” he said, though he added that bomb-making per se was not a new development. “Even Nathuram Godse, the killer of Mahatma Gandhi, launched several bomb attacks before finally succeeding in assassinating him.”

In the case of the Malegaon blasts, Dayal said that the involvement of Hindu religious leaders and former army personnel indicated that terror attacks by rightwing Hindu groups were well planned. Security analysts warn that the extremist groups must be prevented from graduating to bigger terror groups.

On Oct. 21, the Mumbai Mirror daily quoted an ATS officer as saying Hindu extremist groups “are putting up a mild face as an organization while their members are detonating bombs. It’s only a matter of time before they begin to acquire better technology and more lethal bombs. Their influence is growing; there are several politicians and even ex-policemen who owe allegiance to them. They can be dangerous if not stopped now.”

O.P. Bali, former director general of police of Maharashtra, told Compass that until 2003, the year he retired, extreme Hindu nationalist groups like the Bajrang Dal mainly used weapons like sticks, tridents and knives.

“Bomb-making is a newer development, and they are still learning,” Bali said. “Considering the way some local Islamist groups have graduated from making and detonating of small bombs to bigger ones, the efforts of rightwing groups must be nipped in the bud.”

Hindu/Muslim violence has a long history. In 1947, when India became politically independent, British colonial India was divided into “Hindu-majority” India and “Muslim-majority” Pakistan. The partition resulted in the killing of around 1 million people – Hindu, Sikh and Muslim – in violent clashes mainly during the mass migration of around 14.5 million people from India to Pakistan and vice versa.

Engineer said the common notion that increasing modernization in India would put a halt to the growth of extremist groups was mistaken.

“Extremism is a reaction to modernization, and therefore such groups will grow even bigger in the future.”

Dayal seconded Engineer, saying the rightwing extremist groups were trying to keep pace with Islamist groups.

“Fortunately, in most areas, government vigilance, civil society and good relations between communities have kept these terror groups at the margins,” Dayal said. “But with the growth of parties that use identity-based divisive issues such as the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena party, with the apathy of government in BJP-ruled states, and with the middle-class support base for them, I fear such Hindutva terror groups may grow. That has been the historical experience in Western Europe and elsewhere.”

When suspects in the Malegaon blast were formally charged in January 2009, ATS officials told the court that the alleged terrorists’ goal was formation of a Hindu nation – and that the suspects planned to approach Israeli intelligence for help in combating Muslim extremists if the need arose, according to a Jan. 21 article in The Hindu.

Following numerous arrests, The Times of India daily on Oct. 21 quoted senior police officials as saying that Maharashtra was fast becoming a “hub of rightwing organizations’ terror activities.”

“The youth are being indoctrinated by fundamentalist organizations,” an officer told the daily. “The state should act quickly to control rightwing terror.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Waves of arrests hit church networks; judge asks converts from Islam to recant.

LOS ANGELES, August 11 (Compass Direct News) – Amid a violent crackdown on protestors and a purge of opponents within the Iranian government, more than 30 Christians were arrested in the last two weeks near Tehran and in the northern city of Rasht.

Two waves of arrests near Tehran happened within days of each other, and while most of those detained – all converts from Islam – were held just a day for questioning, a total of eight Christians still remain in prison.

On July 31 police raided a special Christian meeting 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of Tehran in the village of Amameh in the area of Fashan. A Compass source said about 24 Christians, all converts from Islam, had gathered in a private home. In the afternoon police squads in both plain clothes and uniform raided and arrested everyone present.

“Many people stormed the villa, and in the same day they took everything,” said the source, a Christian Iranian who requested anonymity.

All present were taken by private car to their residences, where police took all their passports, documents, cash, CDs, computers and mobile phones, and from there to the police station.

“There were many cars so they could take each person with a car to their house from the meeting,” said the source. “Think of how many cars were there to arrest them. And they took all their books, PCs, CDs mobile phones, everything.”

While most of them were released the same evening, seven of them – Shahnam Behjatollah, and six others identified only as Shaheen, Maryam, Mobinaa, Mehdi, Ashraf and Nariman – all remain in detention in an unknown location. They have no contact with their family members.

Police have questioned each of their families and told them to prepare to pay bail. In the case of Behjatollah, for whom police had a warrant, authorities showed his family the official order for his arrest and told them they “knew all about him,” according to the source. Behjatollah is 34 years old, married and has a 6-year-old daughter.

The second wave of arrests of some of the same Christians near Tehran took place on Friday (Aug. 7).

“They brought the released members for interrogation to the secret police again, to get more information about their movements,” said the source.

In Rasht, a total of eight Christians belonging to the same network were arrested on July 29 and 30 in two separate rounds of arrest. Seven were released, while one, a male, remains in the city’s prison. Compass sources were unable to comment on the conditions of their arrest.

Two Women Asked to Recant

On Sunday (Aug. 9) two Christian women appeared before a judge who asked them if they would deny their newfound faith and return to Islam.

Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, have been held in the notorious Evin prison since March 5 accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings.” In a short court session, the judge asked them if they were going to deny their faith and return to Islam, reported the Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN).

As both women refused to recant their faith, the judge sent them back to their prison cells “to think about it,” according to a source who spoke with family members.

“When they said, ‘Think about it,’ it means you are going back to jail,” said the source. “This is something we say in Iran. It means: ‘Since you’re not sorry, you’ll stay in jail for a long time, and maybe you’ll change your mind.’”

The source said the first goal of judges in such cases is usually to make “apostates” deny their faith through threats or by sending them back to prison for a longer time.

“This is what they said to Mehdi Dibaj, who was in prison for 10 years and martyred in 1994,” said the source about one of Iran’s well-known Christian martyrs. “The charge against them is apostasy [leaving Islam].”

FCNN reported that in the last five months the women have been unwell and have lost much weight. Esmaeilabad suffers from spinal pain, an infected tooth and intense headaches and is in need of medical attention. None has been provided so far.

With a draft penal code that may include an article mandating death for apostates in accordance to sharia (Islamic law) expected to be reviewed once again this fall when the parliamentary session begins, experts on Iran fear things may get worse for the country’s converts from Islam.

Dr. Wahied Wahdat-Hagh, a senior fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy, wrote in last month that false hopes have arisen from a statement by the chairman of the Majlis Legal Affairs Committee, Hojatoleslam Ali Schahroki, that a provision for mandatory death penalty for apostates had been stricken from the bill. The Council of Guardians and Iran’s Supreme Leader, he wrote, have the final say on capital punishment for leaving Islam.

“Recent political events in Iran have ushered in a new phase in the emergence of a totalitarian dictatorship,” he wrote. “Pressure on Iranian Christians is growing just as foreign powers are being blamed for rioting that broke out due to the electoral fraud. The argument on the influence of foreign powers is well known to Iranian Christians.”


Public allegations that detainees have been tortured, abused, killed and most recently – according to a top opposition official – raped in custody have fueled fury in Iran and spurred powerful conservative Ali Larijani to comment that a parliament committee would investigate the reports, reported The Associated Press.

At least four senior Intelligence Ministry figures were fired in an effort to purge officials who are opposed to the crackdown on protestors and opposition following last month’s disputed presidential elections, the AP reported yesterday.

Iranian sources said that the long-standing rift in the government between liberal and conservative factions is widening and becoming more apparent, and the two sides are in a battle of words and ideas in mass media for the first time in Iran’s history.

“Everything is in the newspaper,” the Christian Iranian source told Compass. “We have never had such a thing … the point is that now all these old problems that were inside the government between liberals and fundamentalists are coming out, and we can see them on TV, radio, newspaper, the public media in the country. It isn’t something we’re guessing anymore. It’s something you can see and read.”

The source said the crackdown on protestors and recent mass arrests are the sign of a weak government trying to show it is in control of a country roiled by discontent.

“Everyone now is saying is that the government is having problems inside so they have lost the control,” the source said. “So what they did in the last couple of weeks is that they arrested people … minority religions, Baha’i and Christians.”

On July 31, a Christian man traveling overseas from the Tehran International airport was stopped for questioning because he was wearing a black shirt, a Compass source said. The colors black and green have become associated with opposition to the government, and those wearing them are suspected of ideologically agreeing with the protestors.

The authorities found his Bible after a questioning and searching. He was taken to a room where there were others waiting, all wearing green and black shirts. Authorities confiscated his passport and have opened a case against him for carrying the Bible, said the source.

Although there has been no mention of Christians being tortured in the most recent arrests, an increase in executions of persons under the commonly fabricated charges of drug abuse and trafficking bodes ill for the future of those in Iranian prisons. As detainees are allowed neither legal counsel nor communication with their families, their conditions are nearly unknown.

On Friday (Aug. 7) Amnesty International reported an average of two executions a day since the disputed presidential elections held on June 12.

“In just over 50 days, we recorded no less than 115 executions, that is an average of more than two each day,” said Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International. “This represents a significant increase, even compared to the appallingly high rate of executions that has been so long a feature of the human rights scene in Iran.”

The report described the government’s attempt to suppress the mass “and largely peaceful” protests as brutal and also expressed concerns that those who were executed were likely to have been denied fair trials. Most of those executed are said to have been convicted of drug-smuggling or related offences. Authorities have not released the names of 24 prisoners executed on Wednesday (Aug. 5) in the Rejai Shahr Prison in Karaj.

Report from Compass Direct News 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Churches Challenged

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s afraid for me,” he said.

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

Some Hope from Baha’is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hegazy’s Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News


Key move in former Muslim’s bid to legally convert comes as Islamist outcry peaks.

ISTANBUL, April 14 (Compass Direct News) – In a bold move, Egypt’s Coptic Church has issued its first-ever certificate of conversion to a former Muslim, supporting his petition to have his national identification card denote his Christian faith.

Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary’s request to legally convert is only the second case in Egypt of a Muslim-born citizen trying to change his religious affiliation to Christianity on identification documents. Lawyers presented the Coptic Church’s conversion certificate to a court clerk on Saturday (April 11).

“We know that the judge has seen the certificate, but we have no indication whether it is acceptable or not,” said Nabil Ghobreyal, one of three lawyers representing El-Gohary. “We will have to wait until May 2 to find out the final verdict.”

Reluctance to expose itself to possible retaliation from either the government or Islamic extremists has kept the Coptic Church from openly admitting to baptizing and welcoming converts until now.

There is indeed reason to fear reprisal.

“Intimidation from the Islamic lawyers is severe,” said El-Gohary in a recent interview. “They were chanting in the court, ‘No god but Allah,’ and they were threatening intensely.”

Despite efforts to maintain the secrecy of El-Gohary’s whereabouts, he has received written death threats on more than one occasion since appearing in court on April 4 to register an official statement.

Since the certificate was issued, some bloggers have used strong and abusive language to support Islamist lawyers Mustafa El-Alshak’a, Hamid Sadiq and Youssef El-Badri in their threats against El-Gohary’s lawyers and the priest that issued the certificate, Father Matthias Nasr Manqarious.

As the representative of a community already heavily persecuted, the Coptic Church is in a precarious position. Despite the risks, however, it endorsed the certificate issued by Fr. Manqarious. Bishop Marcos of Shubra El-Kheima declared that the church cannot turn down a fellow believer who is looking for acceptance into the Christian community.

Whether the conversion certificate will turn out to be the final piece of the puzzle that opens the door for El-Gohary to officially convert remains to be seen.

Gamal Eid of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, who represents Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, the first Muslim-born Egyptian to request a legal conversion, is no stranger to the pitfalls of such a case.

“We support freedom of thought, but we believe also that the government and the court will try to stop this, because if the door is open there will be huge numbers following,” Eid said.

El-Gohary characterized the judge’s request for the document as laying the onus for legal conversion on the church, describing it as “an excuse to wiggle out of making a decision.”

His lawyer, Ghobreyal, said he hopes that Judge Hamdy Yasin will allow El-Gohary to change his religious status now that the certificate has been issued.

For El-Gohary, threats from Islamic fundamentalist elements are now the foremost issue.

“I do not leave the house – my life is in real danger and my daughter is in real danger,” said El-Gohary. “The pressure is too much. I am thinking seriously that I should leave Egypt.”

El-Gohary and his lawyers are now calling for protection from both national security forces and the international community.

Report from Compass Direct News