This has implications for Australia.
District judge bows to pressure of local Muslims, handing down stunning sentence to Christian.
LAHORE, Pakistan, November 13 (CDN) — Attorneys for a Christian mother of five sentenced to death by hanging for allegedly speaking ill of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, have filed an appeal of the verdict, they said.
Bowing to pressure from Muslim extremists in Pakistan, according to the Christian woman’s husband and rights groups, a district court judge handed down the stunning sentence to Asia Noreen on Monday (Nov. 8). Additional District and Sessions Judge Naveed Ahmed Chaudhary of Nankana Sahib district delivered the verdict under Pakistan’s controversial “blasphemy” statute, the kind of law that a resolution before the United Nations condemning “defamation of religions” would make legitimate internationally.
Noreen is the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s widely condemned law against defaming Islam.
Noreen’s lawyer, Chaudhry Tahir Shahzad, said that among other allegations, she was accused of denying that Muhammad was a prophet.
“How can we expect a Christian to affirm a Muslim belief?” Shahzad said. He added that he and lawyer Manzoor Qadir had filed an appeal against the district sessions court’s verdict in the Lahore High Court.
Asia (alternately spelled Aasya) Noreen has been languishing in isolation in jail since June of last year after she argued with fellow field workers in Ittanwali village who were trying to pressure her into renouncing Christianity. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, told Compass that the argument began after the wife of an Ittanwali elder sent her to fetch water in Nankana Sahib district, about 75 kilometers (47 miles) from Lahore in Punjab Province.
The Muslim women told Noreen that it was sacrilegious to drink water collected by a non-Muslim, he said.
“My wife only said, ‘Are we not all humans?’ when the Muslim women rebuked her for her faith,” Masih, a field laborer, told Compass by telephone. “This led to an altercation.”
Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) General Secretary Katherine Sapna told Compass that the women told Muslim cleric Muhammad Salim about the incident, and he filed a case with police on the same day, June 14, 2009.
On June 19, 2009, Masih said, the Muslim women suddenly raised a commotion, accusing Noreen of defaming Muhammad.
“Several Muslim men working in the nearby fields reached the spot and forced their way into our house, where they tortured Asia and the children,” said Masih, who confirmed that his wife is 45 years old and that they have five children – four girls and a boy, the oldest daughter 20.
Police arrived and took his wife into custody, presumably for her own protection, he said.
“They saved Asia’s life, but then later a case was registered against her under Sections 295-B and C [blaspheming the Quran and Muhammad, respectively] at the Nankana police station on the complaint of Muhammad Salim, the local imam [prayer leader] of the village,” he said. “Asia has been convicted on false charges. We have never, ever insulted the prophet Muhammad or the Quran.”
Salim reportedly claimed that Noreen confessed to speaking derogatorily of Islam’s prophet and apologized. Under immense pressure from local Muslims, according to Masih, CLAAS and Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, local judge Chaudhary ruled out the possibility that Noreen was falsely accused. In spite of repeated efforts by the Muslim women to pressure her into renouncing her faith, the judge also reportedly ruled “there were no mitigating circumstances.”
Chaudhary also fined her 100,000 rupees (US$1,150), according to CLAAS.
Ataul Saman of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) said that lower court verdicts in blasphemy cases are usually overturned by higher courts. He said lower court proceedings take place under intense pressure, with local Muslims gathering outside and chanting slogans to pressure judges. Saman added that NCJP research showed that up to 80 percent of blasphemy charges are filed against people to settle personal scores.
Rights groups have long criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as too easily used to settle grudges or oppress religious minorities, such as the more than 4 million Christians that Operation World estimates out of Pakistan’s total population of 184.7 million. To date no one has been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, as most are freed on appeal after suffering for years under appalling prison conditions. Vigilantes have killed at least 10 people accused of blasphemy, rights groups estimate.
Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.
Between 1986 and August 2009, at least 974 people have been charged with defiling the Quran or insulting Muhammad, according to the NCJP. Those charged included 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 from other religions.
Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, which is active in prisons and has been following Noreen’s case from the onset, said he was impressed by her continued faith.
“A week before the verdict, I went to visit Asia in jail,” he said. “I asked her what she was expecting. She told me that Jesus would rescue her from this fake case.”
The verdict was shocking in that no one was expecting a death sentence for a woman, he said. Masih agreed.
“Asia was hoping that the judge would free her and she would come home to be with us, but this conviction has dashed our hopes for now,” Masih said.
He said that since the sentencing, authorities have not allowed him or other members of their family to visit his wife.
“We don’t know yet how she is, but we trust the Lord,” he said. “Asia is suffering for Jesus, and He will not forsake her.”
Report from Compass Direct News
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
New wave of deportations raises concerns for foreigners married to Moroccans.
ISTANBUL, July 1 (CDN) — Moroccan authorities expelled eight more foreign Christians from the country last weekend, bringing the total of deported Christians since March to 128.
Two foreign women married to Moroccan Christians were included in this third wave of deportations since March, raising concerns that local authorities intend to harass the country’s small but growing Protestant community.
“They are all in fear,” a source told Compass, “because this happened to people who are married.”
One of the women, a Lebanese national married to a Moroccan, was diagnosed with cancer last month and is the mother of a 6-year old girl whom she was forced to leave behind.
A Spanish national, Sara Domene, 31, was also deported on Monday (June 28), according to news sources. Domene was working as a language teacher in the Western Sahara, a territory under Moroccan sovereignty.
Authorities called the foreigners to police stations across Morocco on Friday (June 25) and told them they had 48 hours to leave the country on grounds of “threatening public order.”
Other nationals who were forced to leave the country over the weekend came from France, Egypt, Lebanon, Switzerland, Nigeria and Spain.
A source explained that Moroccan authorities are essentially deporting Christians for “proselytism,” which is illegal in Morocco, but in order to justify the deportations they have claimed that the foreigners pose a threat to the state.
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.
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.
On June 17, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a U.S. congressional hearing on the ongoing deportations of U.S. citizens and other foreigners from Morocco.
Morocco has expelled about 58 U.S. citizens in the last four months. On Thursday (June 24) authorities informed about 10 U.S. citizens that they had 48 hours to leave the country, but within 24 hours the deportation orders were rescinded.
In a statement after the June 17 hearing, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who co-chairs the Lantos commission, said he would lobby for the U.S. government to withhold funds it has pledged to Morocco if he did not see improvements in the treatment of Christians there.
“I will continue to stay with this issue until a resolution has been reached,” he said. “Should this matter remain unresolved, it is possible that I may offer amendments in the Appropriations committee and on the House floor to restrict U.S. foreign aid from going to Morocco.”
In a letter addressed to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on June 17, Ambassador of Morocco to the United States Aziz Mekouar claimed that the deportations “solely and exclusively targeted proselytism activities, which are clearly and categorically forbidden by the laws of Morocco and the precepts of Islam.”
The ambassador said the Moroccan Penal Code imposes fines and prison sentences for those who “use means of seduction in the aim of undermining a Muslim’s faith or of converting him/her to another religion, either by exploiting his weaknesses or needs, or through the use, to this end, of health or educational establishments, as well as shelters or orphanages.”
Moroccan authorities have failed to provide foreign Christians whom they expelled with documented proof or official charges of their alleged proselytism activities. In his letter, the ambassador said the deportations were preferable to the “difficult ordeal” of incarceration and a trial as part of a criminal procedure against the Christians.
Wolf noted that that among those who were deported or denied reentry were businessmen, educators and humanitarian and social workers, “many of whom had resided in Morocco for over a decade in full compliance with the law. Additionally, those deported were forced to leave the country within two hours of being questioned by authorities, leaving everything behind.”
Christian foreigners who were able to obtain official deportation documents have appealed their cases in the Moroccan courts. The hearings for those cases started in May and are continuing.
Report from Compass Direct News
Mother beaten on two occasions for trying to recover her; police refuse to prosecute.
LAHORE, Pakistan, May 6 (CDN) — Muslims who kidnapped and forcibly converted an 18-year-old Christian woman to Islam severely beat her mother on two occasions to discourage her from trying to recover her daughter, lawyers said.
Muhammad Akhter and Muhammad Munir on April 25 broke into the home of 50-year-old widow Fazeelat Bibi while her sons were at work and beat her because they were upset at her continuous demands that they return her daughter Saira, Christian Lawyers Foundation (CLF) leaders told Compass.
CLF President Khalid Gill said that neighbors’ calls to the police emergency number went unheeded as the men beat her in Lahore’s predominantly Muslim Bostaan Colony.
On April 18 Muhammad Akhter and members of his family had beaten her with clubs and ripped her clothes when the widow, having received a tearful phone call from her kidnapped daughter that day, went to their house to argue for her release.
In Saira’s telephone call to her mother, received at the house of Muslim neighbor Musarat Bibi, who is a constable, the young woman was crying as she said that Munir and Akhter were spreading false rumors that she had eloped with Munir, Fazeelat said. She said her daughter told her how Munir, Akhter and Munir’s sister Billo Bibi had kidnapped her, stolen the jewelry of her dowry, forced her to convert to Islam and were pressuring her to marry Munir.
At the time she was kidnapped on March 10, Saira was engaged to a young Christian man of Youhanabad, a large Christian slum on the outskirts of Lahore, Fazeelat Bibi said.
“Saira’s brothers and I were very joyful because we were about to fix her wedding date,” she said.
Previously the radical Muslim family lived next door to the Christian family. On March 10 Munir, who is Akhter’s uncle, came to the Christian family’s home and told Saira that her mother was ill at her hospital workplace and wanted to see her immediately, Fazeelat Bibi said.
“Then Muhammad Munir deceitfully abducted Saira,” she said. “It seemed as if Saira had vanished into thin air. At first my three sons and I sons searched for Saira, but our efforts were futile.”
She accused Munir, Akhter and Munir’s sister Billo Bibi of kidnapping her daughter. They have continued to threaten to kill her if she persists in trying to recover her daughter, she said. Her daughter, she added, has called her “persistently” from Charrar village saying that she has been kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam and is being pressured to marry Munir against her will.
“This also reveals that Saira has not tied the knot with Munir yet,” Gill told Compass.
The distraught mother said she approached Kotlakhpat Police Station Inspector Rana Shafiq seeking help to recover her daughter, but that he flatly refused. The inspector told her the issue could be resolved at the local Bostaan Colony meeting, she said; the rulings of such a meeting of local elders, known as a Punchayat, have the equivalent of court authority in Pakistan.
Fazeelat Bibi said that several such meetings produced no resolution to her daughter’s kidnapping, but that while present she heard the false rumor that her daughter had wed Munir. At the meetings she also learned that the Muslim men were keeping Saira at Charrar village outside Lahore.
Fazeelat Bibi told Gill and CLF Secretary Azhar Kaleem said that she was somewhat satisfied to learn at the meetings that her daughter was at least safe, but her relief vanished after the April 18 call from Saira. Her daughter told her that she had tried to escape three times, she said.
Once again the frail, 50-year-old woman sought the help of Inspector Shafiq, and again he refused to help, the CLF leaders said. Gill and Kaleem said that Shafiq was explicitly inclined to favor his fellow Muslims in the case, and that he told her to move to a Christian slum as no one would help her in Bostaan Colony.
Gill, who is also head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance in Punjab Province, and CLF Secretary Kaleem said they believe that Akhter, Munir and Billo Bibi had heavily bribed the inspector to keep him from prosecuting the Muslims.
Shafiq declined to respond to Compass calls, and the registrar of the Kotlakhpat police station, Abdul Qayyum, said Shafiq was not available for comment.
Saira was just 2 months old when her father, Pervaiz Masih, died and her mother and three brothers moved from their native Yansonabad village to Lahore in search of a better life, Fazeelat Bibi said. She said that she began working as a sanitary worker at a hospital in order to support them, while her sons began working as day-laborers when they reached their teenage years.
Saira is her only daughter, Fazeelat Bibi said.
Report from Compass Direct News
Authorities in Bekasi, West Java run into determined lawyer, congregation.
BEKASI, Indonesia, March 11 (CDN) — Efforts by local officials in this city in West Java to close a church met with stiff resistance this month, as a defiant lawyer and weeping women refused to allow it.
Women of the Huria Christian Protestant Batak Church (HKBP) cried in protest as officials from the Bekasi Building Department on March 1 placed a brown signboard of closure on the church building in Pondok Timur, Bekasi, 12 miles (19 kilometers) from Jakarta.
The seal stayed in place for about two minutes before some of the shrieking women tore it down. The sign was trampled as furious church members stampeded over it, shouting and screaming. Bekasi city officials turned and ran as the congregation fanned out.
The defiance followed a heated debate within the same church building minutes before, as the Christians had invited the Bekasi officials inside to discuss the matter when they arrived to seal the building. The discussion soon became heated as a city official asserted that the church did not have a building permit.
The church had applied for a worship building permit in 2006, but local officials had yet to act on it, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak.
At the meeting inside the church building, attorney Refer Harianya said that the sealing process was illegal, as it requires that public notice be given.
“HKBP has never seen nor received the formal order and has not acknowledged such an order by signing a receipt,” Harianya said. “In addition, public notice must be given in the form of formal reading of the order.”
Harianya added that the legal basis for sealing the church was weak. The Joint Ministerial Decree revised in 2006 clearly states in Paragraph 21 that when there is a problem with the building of a house of worship, it must be solved through formal consultation with local residents, he said.
“At this stage, resolution has not taken place,” he said.
Harianya said that in case such a consultation failed to resolve conflicts, then the mayor may consult with the Department of Religion – “in a just and non-prejudicial manner” – taking into account suggestions from the Interfaith Harmony Forum.
“On this point, up to March 1, the church has never been invited to talk with the mayor,” he said.
The Joint Ministerial Decree had not been correctly applied in the sealing of the church, Harianya concluded, adding that contested cases could always be taken to court.
“We still have some legal avenues open,” he said. “This is not the time for a surprise sealing.”
Harianya also cited Mayor Decree No. 16 (2006) regarding the construction of a house of worship in Bekasi City, where Article 11 states that before a building is sealed there must be three written notices given. This process also had not been carried out, he said.
“Because you have not followed the procedures which I have outlined, we will act as if the sealing never took place,” Harianya told city officials as members of the congregation cheered.
The sealing of the church would thus be illegal, so the government had broken the law, he said. Harianya said that HKBP members would not hinder officials from carrying out their duties, but that they would be named in a lawsuit.
One of the officials, identified only as Pemana, responded, “Go ahead and sue.”
“If the seal is in place,” Harianya said, “We can break it because the act of sealing is illegal. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” answered the 75 parishioners present.
With the meeting ending in a deadlock, city officials prepared to place the signboard to seal the church, with the ensuing tumult.
Mayor Fails to Show
Prior to the showdown, at 10 a.m. Pastor Simanjuntak, the Rev. Pieterson Purba and Harianya had a scheduled a meeting with Bekasi Mayor Mochtar Mohamad – promised by an official named H. Junaedi during a demonstration on Feb. 28 – only to discover that the visit had not been placed on the mayor’s schedule.
As they waited, Pastor Simanjuntak received a mobile phone call saying that city building officials were at the church site and had been there since 9 a.m.
The following day, March 2, the HKBP leaders and leaders from three other churches were able to meet the mayor, who promised to help them find new places of worship. While they waited for the new sites, the mayor suggested, the HKBP church could use a multipurpose room belonging to the Social Department starting March 7.
Subsequently, Pastor Simanjuntak and members of the congregation rejected the proposal, reasoning that moving somewhere else was equivalent to being ejected from their building.
Worship resumed as usual at 7 a.m. on Sunday, March 7, under the strict watch of police and soldiers who had stood guard all night. The service finished two hours later without incident.
“Because this was a congregational decision, from next Sunday onwards we will be holding services in the house of worship here at No. 14 Puyuh Raya Street,” said Pastor Simanjuntak.
Report from Compass Direct News
The U.N. General Assembly has passed the non-binding Defamation of Religion Resolution for the fifth year in a row, reports MNN.
However, support is eroding, says Open Doors Advocacy Director Lindsay Vessey. The Islamic-sponsored non-binding resolution passed with 80 votes in favor, 61 against and 42 abstentions. That compared with 86 votes to 53, with 42 abstentions for a similar text last year, and figures of 108-51-25 in 2007, the last time the measure commanded an absolute majority of U.N. members.
Open Doors USA helped to lead the advocacy effort at the United Nations to prevent this resolution from passing. Open Doors lobbied key voting countries, organized a petition drive for Open Doors USA supporters to campaign against the resolution and spoke on this issue to the media. The Open Doors advocacy campaign is called "Free to Believe."
Oppenents say it threatens freedom of speech, especially for minority Christians in Muslim-dominated nations. "Essentially the resolution tried to criminalize words or actions that are deemed to be against a particular religion, namely, Islam."
Vessey warns that the Organization of Islamic Conference is organizing a sneak attack in March. "Instead of being a non-binding resolution, they’re actually trying to pass it through a separate committee that would make it more of a binding resolution–it would make it an optional protocol."
The UN Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards is expected to meet again in the spring to discuss adding the resolution to the International Covenant on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination.
Open Doors is readying an advocacy response to the threat. It’s one short step, but Vessey says under it, "People aren‘t free to preach the Gospel–people aren’t free to say what they believe even if they’re not trying to evangelize. But it’s also going to impact missionaries and foreign workers who go into these countries to evangelize."
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Christians in Iran are facing even more persecution. International Christian Concern has learned that the Iranian government forced the Central Assemblies of God Church in Tehran to shut down its Friday worship services. The incident took place October 30. Some fear this episode is the beginning of a new campaign of government suppression of public Christian worship gatherings, reports MNN.
According to reports by Farsi Christian News Network, Rev. Sourik, the bishop of the Assemblies of God churches in Iran, resolved to close the church on Fridays, the weekly Islamic day of prayer, after encountering acute pressure from the security network within the Ministry of Information.
Initially, Sourik resisted the government sanction. However, the Revolutionary Guard demanded that the church close Friday public services by October 31, and threatened to shut down all services and close the church permanently. Sourik ultimately submitted to the government’s ruling out of concern for the congregation. “The announcement of the termination of the Friday services was received with shock and utter surprise, and resulted in many openly weeping in the church service,” reported FCNN. The church leadership affirmed that its Sunday services will remain open.
The Assembly of God Church in Tehran is among the largest church buildings designated for public worship in Iran, a country where the majority of Christians observe their faith in underground house churches. Registered “above ground” churches in Iran have been allowed relative independence to worship freely while being closely monitored by the government. However, ICC sources fear that the closure of Friday services–a heightened trend of government coercion upon “above ground” churches–may commence.
The targeting of registered churches discloses a regression in Iran’s policy of toleration toward Christians who choose to worship publicly. “I believe the main reason they closed those service is to send a strong signal to all Christians inside and outside Iran that they will not tolerate Christianity in Iran. Its purpose is mostly to intimidate,” said one ICC source.
Historically, it has been the underground church, not the open public churches, that have faced the brunt of government-imposed oppression.
Iran issued no official statement explaining the reasons for its recent crackdown.
Aiden Clay, ICC Regional Manager for the Middle East, says, “We oppose Iran’s resolution to prevent the Christians of the Assembly of God Church in Tehran from fellowshiping freely on Fridays, or any other day of the week. We urge Iran to respect the rights of Christians to practice their faith freely without government interference, or authoritarian rule.”
Clay adds, “History has shown us that external persecution actually causes the church to grow.”
Clay says that the services have had “great success in bringing in new believers, converting Muslims to Christ, and I think Iran views that as a threat.”
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Head of intelligence allegedly hid evidence, failed to prevent slaying of Christians.
MALATYA, Turkey, October 22 (CDN) — The head of Turkey’s police intelligence department was removed on Friday (Oct. 16) amid allegations that he failed to prevent the murder of the Christian editor of an Armenian weekly and the slayings of three Christians in this city in southeastern Turkey.
Ramazan Akyurek is also accused of withholding evidence in those cases and improperly investigating the murder of a Catholic priest in 2006.
After a Malatya trial hearing on Friday, prosecution lawyers in the case commended the removal of Akyurek for negligence but said it came too late. Akyurek has been placed in a different position within police headquarters in Ankara.
Prior to the January 2007 murder of Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian weekly Agos, Akyurek allegedly received a report about the orchestrated plan to kill him. That clearly implied that Akyurek was one of the masterminds behind the murder, according to Erdal Dogan, one of the prosecuting attorneys in the Malatya case.
While heading the investigation of the Dink murder, Aykurek reportedly not only witheld intelligence but also tried to affect the outcome of the trial, claiming in his investigation report that a group of “friends” planned to kill Dink because he offended Turkey.
“This is a disaster,” Dogan said. “The same happened with the Malatya massacre. “We know he had information on all the developments of the massacre, but he didn’t act on it. He tried to cover it up. We know that they were following the movements of the killers.”
Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske were bound hand and foot, tortured and then slain with knives at the Zirve Publishing Co. in April 2007. Dogan said that had Zirve staff members not suspected that something was wrong and called police, the five young men who were caught at the scene of the crime most likely would not have been apprehended.
“It’s difficult to know to what extent this character affected the investigations during that time,” Dogan said. “This is why the fact that they took him from his position was important, but they removed him late; they removed him very late.”
Akyurek was head of police in the city of Trabzon in 2006 when Catholic priest Andrea Santoro was killed. It was under his auspices that a young man was arrested and imprisoned for the murders without investigation into who was behind the murder, according to Dogan.
In the same year, Akyurek was promoted to head Turkey’s police intelligence unit.
“Even though Aykurek was incompetent as a police head and covered up crimes, he became the head of intelligence with access to all of Turkey’s intelligence,” Dogan said.
More Evidence Sees Light
Akyurek was fired about a week after Turkish press received leaked documents showing payments the Malatya gendarmerie made in exchange for intelligence on missionary activities between March 2007 and November 2008. The amounts totaled nearly 10,000 Turkish lira (US$6,840).
At Friday’s hearing the Malatya court heard the testimony of Murat Gokturk, a former petty officer in the Malatya intelligence department at the time of the murders. Gokturk had made contact with Huseyin Yelki, a Christian volunteer at Zirve who is one of the suspects in the murders because of his heavy involvement with gendarmerie in the months leading up to and directly after the slayings.
Gokturk testified that he contacted Yelki and requested a New Testament in Arabic so he could learn the language better, as he has an Arabic heritage. He claimed that when he contacted Yelki from his gendarmerie office, he and the intelligence department were not following missionary activities.
“Missionary activities are legal,” said Gokturk. “This is a religious and conscience right. It’s not a crime.”
Prosecuting lawyers asked that the judges record Gokturk’s statement that missionary activities are legal. They later explained that since all other evidence shows that officials did spy on missionaries in Malatya, such a statement showed they were aware that they were doing so in violation of their legal jurisdiction.
“We questioned the witness [Gokturk], but he tried to hide the truth either by saying, ‘I don’t remember,’ or by lying,” said Dogan. “But evidence shows that he and Huseyin Yelki had a very close relationship and information exchange, and it’s obvious that this was not a simple information exchange. They met many, many times.”
The European Union Commission report on Turkey’s progress in 2009 was also published last week. Under the section on democracy and the rule of law, the report noted that high-profile cases such as the Malatya and Dink trials, which are connected to the alleged criminal network Ergenekon, raised concerns about the quality of investigations. The report noted a need “to improve the working relationship between the police and the gendarmerie on the one hand and the judiciary on the other.”
Concerning freedom of religion, the report noted that missionaries are widely perceived as a threat to the integrity of Turkey and Islam. It also pointed out that the Ministry of Justice allowed judicial proceedings under Article 301 of the Criminal Code – which criminalizes “insulting Turkishness” – in the case of Turkish Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal for sharing their faith with others.
This last case has also been linked to the Ergenekon cabal believed to have masterminded the Santoro, Dink and Malatya murders. It has continued for three years with no resolution.
“It’s finally clear that there is a connection between Santoro, Dink and Malatya and everyone is talking that way,” said Dogan, noting how the prosecuting lawyers in the cases as well as the media perceive the link. “It is now obvious that these three crimes came from the same center.”
The Malatya court is still waiting for an answer from the Ergenekon judges about whether the murder of the three Christians will be joined into the the latter case, under which more than 100 former military, political figures, journalists and others have been arrested.
Dogan, however, said that whether the Malatya case is connected with the Ergenekon case is now secondary, and that it is probably better for the Malatya trial to stay separate to determine what really happened.
“It’s enough for me that this picture is clear,” said Dogan of the link between the cases and Ergenekon. “There is no doubt for me. If they connect them or not it doesn’t matter. Because when the court case goes there, Ergenekon is so complicated that the Malatya case could get lost in it.”
The next hearing of the Malatya trial is set for Nov. 13.
Report from Compass Direct News