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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

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

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


Religious ‘Competition’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News

Prospects Dim for Religious Freedom in Nepal

Right to share faith could harm Nepal’s Hindu identity, lawmakers believe.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, March 29 (CDN) — A new constitution that Nepal’s parliament is scheduled to put into effect before May 28 may not include the right to propagate one’s faith.

The draft constitution, aimed at completing the country’s transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular democracy, contains provisions in its “religious freedom” section that prohibit anyone from converting others from one religion to another.

Most political leaders in the Himalayan country seemed unaware of how this prohibition would curb religious freedom.

“Nepal will be a secular state – there is no other way,” said Sushil Koirala, president of the Nepali Congress, Nepal’s “Grand Old Party,” but he added that he was not aware of the proposal to restrict the right to evangelism.

“Forcible conversions cannot be allowed, but the members of the Constituent Assembly [acting parliament] should be made aware of [the evangelism ban’s] implications,” Koirala, a veteran and one of the most influential politicians of the country, told Compass.

Gagan Thapa, another leader of the Nepali Congress, admitted that banning all evangelistic activities could lead to undue restrictions.

“Perhaps, the words, ‘force, inducement and coercion’ should be inserted to prevent only unlawful conversions,” he told Compass.

Man Bahadur Bishwakarma, also from the Nepali Congress, said that of all the faith communities in Nepal, Christians were most active in converting others, sometimes unethically.

“There are problems in Hinduism, such as the caste hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean you should convert out of it,” he said. “I believe in reforming one’s religion.”

Asked if the restriction on converting others violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Akal Bahadur of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) said, “It may, but there was a general consensus on it [the prohibition]. Besides, it is still a draft, not the final constitution.”

Nepal signed the ICCPR on May 14, 1991. Article 18 of the ICCPR includes the right to manifest one’s religion, which U.N. officials have interpreted as the right to evangelistic and missionary activities.

Akal Bahadur and Thapa are members of the Committee on Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles, which was tasked to propose the scope of religious freedom and other rights in the draft constitution. This committee, one of 11 thematic panels, last year submitted a preliminary draft to the Assembly suggesting that a person should be allowed to decide whether to convert from one religion to another, but that no one should convert anyone else.

Binda Pandey, chairperson of the fundamental rights committee and member of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), told Compass that it was now up to the Assembly to decide whether this provision violates religious freedom.

The Constitution Committee is condensing the preliminary drafts by all the committees as one draft constitution. At least 288 contentious issues arose out of the 11 committees, and the Constitution Committee has resolved 175 of them, Raju Shakya of the Kathmandu-based Centre for Constitutional Dialogue (CCD) told Compass.

The “religious freedom” provision with its ban on evangelism did not raise an eyebrow, however, as it is among the issues listed under the “Area of Agreement” on the CCD Web site.

Once compiled, the draft constitution will be subject to a public consultation, after which another draft will be prepared for discussion of clauses in the Constitutional Assembly; provisions will be implemented on a two-thirds majority, Shakya said.


Hindu Identity

Thapa of the fundamental rights committee indicated that religious conversion could become a contentious issue if the proposed restriction is removed. Even the notion of a secular state is not wholly accepted in the country.

“If you hold a referendum on whether Nepal should become a secular state, the majority will vote against it,” Thapa said.

Most Hindus see their religion as an essential part of the country’s identity that they want to preserve, he added.

Dr. K.B. Rokaya, the only Christian member of Nepal’s National Commission for Human Rights, said Nepal’s former kings created and imposed a Hindu identity for around 240 years because it suited them; under the Hindu ethos, a king should be revered as a god. Most of the numerous Hindu temples of Nepal were built under the patronage of the kings.

Rokaya added that Christians needed to be more politically active. The Assembly does not have even one Christian member.

According to the 2001 census, over 80 percent of Nepal’s 30 million people are Hindu. Christians are officially .5 percent, but their actual number is believed to be much higher.

Nepal was the world’s only Hindu kingdom until 2006, when a people’s movement led by former Maoist guerrillas and supported by political parties, including the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninist, ousted King Gyanendra.

An interim constitution was enacted in 2007, and the Constituent Assembly was elected through Nepal’s first fully democratic election a year later. The Assembly was supposed to promulgate a new constitution by May 28, 2010, but its term was extended by one year.

It is still uncertain, however, whether the approaching deadline will be met due to persistent disagreements among parties. The Maoist party has 220 members, the Nepali Congress 110, and the Unified Marxist Leninist 103 in the 575-member Assembly.

Rokaya, a member of the newly formed United Christians Alliance of Nepal, comprising a majority of Christian denominations, said Christians would continue to ask for full religious freedom. The use of inducement or force for conversions is deplorable, but the right to preach the tenets of one’s religion is a fundamental freedom, he added.

Report from Compass Direct News

Push for Islamic Courts in Kenya Alarms Christians

Emergence of Somali-related Islamic extremists puts authorities on high alert.

NAIROBI, Kenya, February 11 (CDN) — A constitutional battle to expand the scope of Islamic courts in Kenya threatens to ignite religious tensions at a time when authorities are on high alert against Muslim extremists with ties to Somalia.

Constitutional provisions for Islamic or Kadhis’ courts have existed in Kenya since 1963, with the courts serving the country’s coastal Muslim population in matters of personal status, marriage, divorce, or inheritance. Kenya’s secular High Court has jurisdiction over civil and criminal matters, and even a decision in the Islamic courts can be appealed at the High Court.

The Islamic courts have functioned only in Kenya’s Coast Province, but in a hotly debated draft constitution, their jurisdiction would expand across the nation and their scope would increase. The proposed constitution has gathered enough momentum that 23 leaders of churches and Christian organizations released a statement on Feb. 1 asserting their opposition to any inclusion of such religious courts.

“It is clear that the Muslim community is basically carving for itself an Islamic state within a state,” the Kenyan church leaders stated. “This is a state with its own sharia [Islamic law]- compliant banking system; its own sharia-compliant insurance; its own Halaal [lawful in Islam] bureau of standards; and it is now pressing for its own judicial system.”

Muslim leaders are striving to expand the scope of Islamic courts to include civil and small claims cases. They also want to upgrade the Muslim tribunals to High Court status. These demands have alarmed Christians, who make up 80 percent of the population and defeated a similar proposal in a 2005 referendum. Muslims make up 10 percent of Kenya’s 39 million people, 9 percent of the population follows indigenous religions and less than 1 percent are Hindu, Sikh and Baha’i.

The National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) said the Committee of Experts (CoE) responsible for “harmonizing” drafts from various stakeholders ignored their concerns. The committee was responsible for determining what matters would be unduly “contentious” and was charged with keeping them out of the draft.

“We wrote to them, but we have been ignored,” said the Rev. Canon Peter Karanja, NCCK general secretary. “Who told the CoE that Kadhis’ courts were not contentious?”

Saying the committee ignored the crucial requirement of omitting what is “contentious,” Karanja said it did little to build consensus. He said that unless the Islamic courts are stricken from the constitution, Christians might be forced to reject the document in a national referendum later this year.

Muslim leaders, just as stridently, insist that recognition of the Islamic courts does not elevate Islam over other religions, and that if the courts are removed they will shoot down the draft in the referendum.

The 2005 referendum split the country and was followed by a bitterly disputed presidential election in 2007 that sparked rioting, reportedly leaving 1,300 people dead. The election dispute was resolved with one candidate becoming president and the other prime minister, and at the heart of the proposed constitution is an attempt to transfer presidential powers to the prime minister.

Christian leaders point out that the “Harmonized Draft” of the constitution discriminates against non-Muslims and contradicts its own Article 10 (1-3), which states that there shall be no state religion, that the state shall treat all religions equally and that state and religion shall be separate. They see the attempt to expand the scope of the Islamic courts as part of a long-term effort by Muslims to gain political, economic and judicial power.

Muslim leaders claim that inclusion of the Islamic courts in the new constitution would recognize “a basic religious right” for a minority group. Some Muslim extremists have said that if Islamic courts are removed from the draft constitution, they will demand their own state and introduce sharia.

Extremists Emerge

The constitutional issue erupted as security officials went on high alert when sympathizers of the Islamic terrorist al Shabaab militia appeared in a protest in mid-January to demand the release of radical Muslim cleric Abdullah Al-Faisal, who had entered the country on Dec. 31.

Al-Faisal, imprisoned from 2004 to 2008 after a British court convicted him of soliciting murder and inciting hatred, is on a global terrorism list. Government spokesman Alfred Mutua said Al-Faisal has been known to recruit suicide bombers and was arrested for violating terms of his tourist visa by preaching. He was reportedly deported to his native Jamaica on Jan. 21.

Eyewitnesses to the protests in Nairobi told Compass one demonstrator clad in fatigues, with his face masked by a balaclava, waved the black flag of the al-Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militia and passed his finger across his throat in a slitting gesture, taunting passersby.

Officials from the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya and from Muslims for Human Rights defended the demonstrations as legitimate to condemn violation of Al-Faisal’s rights. At least one person died as the protests turned violent, and Internal Security Minister George Saitoti said five civilians and six police officers were injured, with one security officer wounded from a bullet said to be shot by a demonstrator.

Al Shabaab-affiliated operatives appear to have targeted Christians in Kenya, according to an Internet threat in December by a group claiming to align itself with the Islamic extremist militia seeking to topple Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. In an e-mail message with “Fatwa for you Infidels” in the subject line to Christian and governmental leaders in Kenya, a group calling itself the Harakatul-Al-Shabaab-al Mujahidin threatened to kill Muslim converts to Christianity and those who help them.

“We are proud to be an Islamic revolutionary group, and we are honored to be affiliated with Al Qaeda, a group of honest Muslims in which we share long-term goals and the broad outlines of our ideologies, while focusing on our efforts on attacking secular and moderate governments in the Muslim world, America and Western targets of opportunity and of course Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi and Kenya if they do not stop their assistance to the Somali fragile and apostate government,” the group wrote in the e-mail. “Although we receive support for some of our operations, we function independently and generally depend on ourselves…”

The group threatened to shake the Kenyan government “in minutes,” calling it the “the most fragile target in the world.”

The emergence of al Shabaab and its sympathizers in Kenya coincides with the swelling of the Somali population in the country to 2.4 million, according to the August 2009 census.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Converts accused of ‘insulting Turkishness’ fear ruling sets dangerous precedent.

ISTANBUL, March 27 (Compass Direct News) – Fearing that a court-ordered fine of two Turkish Christians here for “illegal collection of funds” would set a precedent crippling to churches, their lawyer plans to take the case to a European court.

Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal each paid the fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul yesterday. The verdict cannot be appealed within the Turkish legal system, but their lawyer said he is considering taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

The ruling refers to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local civil authorities. Nearly all Protestant fellowships in Turkey are registered as associations, with very few having status as a recognized religious body, and a strict application of the law would limit the scope of churches collecting funds.

Although the punishment is a relatively small fine, their lawyer told Compass there is now a precedent that authorities could use to harass any church for collecting tithes and offerings.

“For now, this court decision is an individual decision, but we fear in the future this could be carried out against all churches,” said defense attorney Haydar Polat.

Umut Sahin, spokesman for the Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey, concurred that the case was worrisome for the country’s small Protestant community and could set a disturbing precedent to be against other congregations.

When originally charged, the two men were summoned to police headquarters just before church services by three plainclothes policemen waiting for Tastan at his church. Tastan and Topal were given a “penalty” sheet from security police that ordered each to pay the fine for breaking a civil law.

The court decision to fine them, enacted on Nov. 11, 2008 but not delivered until March 13, denied their request to drop the penalty. The two men claimed they were only collecting money from their co-religionists.

Judge Hakim Tastan ruled at the First Magistrate Court that the two men were guilty of violating section 29 of Civil Administrative Code 2860, which forbids the collection of money without official permission from local district authorities.

In light of the charge of “insulting Turkishness,” the two men believe the smaller accusation of collecting money illegally is merely part of a wider effort by the state to harass and discredit Turkish Christians.

“They are doing this to bother and intimidate us, possibly to pressure us to leave the country,” Tastan told Compass. “They have the intention to hinder church establishment and the spread of the gospel.”

Tastan has spoken publicly over his strong sense of pride in his Turkish identity and frustration with state institutions biased against religious minorities.

“This case is proof that Turkey’s legal system regarding human rights isn’t acting in a just and suitable way,” he said.


Difficult Circumstances

The civil court case was the second set of longstanding charges against the two men. The first involves Turkey’s notorious Article 301, a loosely-defined law that criminalizes insulting “the Turkish nation.”

On Feb. 24 a Silivri court received the go-ahead from the Ministry of Justice to try the men under Article 301. The crux of the first case – originally leveled against them in 2007 by ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, now indicted in a national conspiracy to overthrow the government – focused on the two men’s missionary efforts as defaming Islam.

Due to lack of proof and no-shows by the prosecution team’s witnesses, the converts from Islam believe they will be acquitted in their next hearing on May 28.

Turkey has come under recent criticism over its handling of religious minority rights by a Council of Europe report, accusing the country of “wrong interpretation” of the Lausanne Treaty as a pretext for refusing to implement minority rights, according to the Hurriyet Daily News.

The 1923 treaty, penned between Turkey and European powers following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, only recognizes Greeks, Jews and Armenians as minority populations in Turkey.

More troublesome, Turkey’s basis of rights for its non-Muslim minorities is built upon reciprocity with Greece’s treatment of its Muslim minorities. This basis pushes both nations to a “lowest-common denominator” understanding of minority rights, rather than a concept of universal freedoms, the report said.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Lawyers aim to uncover size, structure of ‘deep-state’ conspiracy.

ISTANBUL, February 24 (Compass Direct News) – The identities of the middlemen linking the attackers and the alleged masterminds in the murder of three Christians in Malatya, Turkey are expected to take clearer focus following the latest hearing.

“These five troubled youths didn’t wake up one morning and decide to commit a murder – there were others directing them,” Ozkan Yucel, plaintiff attorney representing the families of the victims, told the Turkish press last week, before Friday’s (Feb. 20) hearing at the Malatya Third Criminal Court in southeastern Turkey.

Two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske, were tied up and stabbed to death at Zirve Publishing Co. offices on April 18, 2007. The last several hearings of the trial have supported suspicions that others were involved in the murder besides the five youths suspected of carrying out the attack. More difficult, however, is determining the scope of the murders and the organization of its conspirators.

Plaintiff attorneys have called in a heavy slate of witnesses for the next hearing, ranging from a gendarmerie commander to an Islamic theology instructor at a nearby university. Mehmet Ulger, the former gendarmerie commander of the province, and Ruhi Abat, a theology instructor at the local Inonu University, are among the 10 people expected to testify at the April 13 hearing.

According to the Radikal daily newspaper, an anonymous letter sent to Turkish churches and obtained by the media claimed Ulger acted as an instigator to the murders and directed Abat to prepare arguments against missionary activity. The letter also implicates local politician Ruhi Polat, a member of the ultra-nationalist National People’s Party and a friend of the father of alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin.

Plaintiff attorney Hafize Cobanoglu told Compass the anonymous letter played a part in the selection of Abat and Polat as witnesses.

“In this sense, paying heed to all these people is important,” she said. “However, I don’t believe they will say much when they testify.”

The call for new witnesses came two weeks after the arrest of two men suspected of acting as liaisons between the five suspects and the alleged “deep-state” masterminds of the attack.

Varol Bulent Aral, a journalist attached to a far-reaching political conspiracy known as Ergenekon, and Huseyin Yelki, a church-going, former volunteer at Zirve, were taken into custody earlier this month.

Aral, 32, has attempted to deflect blame for instigating the youths to commit the murders. He recently told a public prosecutor that the true force behind the killings was a gendarmerie intelligence unit established in the ’80s to counter Kurdish sectarian violence in the country’s southeast.

He claimed to have been approached by a member of the intelligence unit who sought his assistance. Aral said the member told him the unit would focus on three issues: missionary activity, Alevi-Sunni relations, and the Turkish-Kurd issue.

Aral claimed to have seen Gunaydin become involved with this unit, according to the daily Milliyet.

Recent court hearings, however, have produced substantial evidence that the true masterminds of the murder were members of Ergenekon, a clandestine nationalist group that sought to overthrow the current government by engineering domestic chaos.

Yelki, 34, has lived in the southern city of Adana for the nearly two years since the murder. He has had a rocky history with the leadership of Turkey’s small Protestant church, which he accused of abandoning him during difficult financial times in a series of defamatory e-mails.

He volunteered for six months at Zirve, site of the brutal torture and murder of the three Christians.

Gunaydin, the suspected ringleader of the youths accused of murder – including Salih Gurler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim – has claimed in previous hearings that he was offered promises of state support for killing the Christians.

In the course of Friday’s brief hearing, Ugur Yuksel’s mother, Hatice Yuksel, stood up and loudly asserted that Gunaydin had threatened her. She did not specify the nature of these threats, and court officials told her to be silent.

The next hearing for the trial is scheduled for April 13, four days before the second anniversary of the murders. Many attorneys believe the case will be fully integrated with the Ergenekon case in the upcoming months.

Report from Compass Direct News


Mohamed Nasheed’s election as President of the Maldives was hailed as the dawn of a new era of democracy and freedom in the Indian Ocean country. Under former President Gayoom, the once religiously tolerant Maldives – which tended towards folk Islam – was changed into a society intolerant of all beliefs except state-approved Sunni Islam, reports Forum 18 News Service.

President Nasheed has, Forum 18 News Service notes, taken no steps to dismantle the Gayoom legacy of continuing religious freedom violations. Indeed, the scope for violations has been increased by the creation of a new and powerful Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

The 2008 Maldivian Constitution, inherited from the Gayoom era, also places many obstacles in the way of establishing human rights. Many Maldivians – especially secular and non-Muslim Maldivians forced to conceal their beliefs – have begun using anonymous weblogs to voice their concern over the situation.

Fear of social ostracism and government punishment prevents this concern from being openly expressed. If President Nasheed does not respect all Maldivian’s right to freedom of religion or belief, he will not be able to fulfil his promises to respect their human rights.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Witnesses expected to connect murder of three Christians with political conspiracy.

MALATYA, Turkey, January 20 (Compass Direct News) – Lawyers in the case of three Christians who were murdered for their faith here are lining up witnesses in an effort to expand the accused from five young suspects to subversive forces at the top of state power.

Evidence in recent hearings suggests the April 2007 murders in southeast Turkey were instigated by Ergenekon, a loose collection of ultra-nationalist generals, businessmen, mafia and journalists who planned to engineer a coup d’état in Turkey.

At a hearing at Malatya’s Third Criminal Court on Friday (Jan. 16), plaintiff attorneys said they would like to call as a witness Ergun Poyraz, a journalist arrested in 2007 who has been linked to Ergenekon. Prosecuting attorneys said they believe that Poyraz, who has written inflammatory rhetoric against missionaries and accused Turkey’s prime minister of being part of a Zionist conspiracy, was not directly involved in planning the murders but has important knowledge of the players within Ergenekon.

The lawyers said they hope his testimony will help sort out the tangled web of connections and determine the role of Malatya security forces in the attack, particularly that of the chief of police in the district, Ali Osman Kahya.

“In the course of the publishing house murders, Ali Osman Kahya was the head of Malatya security forces, which is no coincidence,” said plaintiff attorney Murat Dincer. He said Kahya had been in similar positions of authority during other political murders.

Other lawyers involved in the case said they are less hopeful, believing Poyraz will only use his testimony as a platform for political grandstanding and propaganda for the political conspiracy.

“I don’t believe he will be helpful,” one legal worker told Compass. “I think he will only put on a show and manipulate the subject.”

Poyraz was arrested in 2007 for having connections to the Association for the Union of Patriotic Forces, a group whose members include military men also indicted in Ergenekon. Turkish media recently revealed that Poyraz had been keeping detailed records on high-level military officials prior to his arrest, according to Today’s Zaman national daily.

The team of plaintiff lawyers has requested Poyraz’s written statements from the Istanbul 13th Criminal Court.

The court in Malatya has sent an informal inquiry to the prosecutor of the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul asking if there is a concrete connection between the Ergenekon case and the Malatya murders. If the prosecutor replies positively, the Malatya court will decide whether to integrate the murder trial with the Ergenekon case.

If the cases are not integrated, then the five young suspects will likely be tried for murder in a matter of months, and all will receive life sentences, said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, who leads the team of plaintiff lawyers who represent the interests of the victims’ families.

Lawyers said they believe establishing the guilt of the suspects should be a straightforward process, but Cengiz said that if the case is integrated into Ergenekon, “then it will continue forever.”

No witnesses testified at the Friday hearing. The plaintiff team eventually hopes to bring 21 witnesses to the stand in subsequent hearings.


Impact on Defense

Two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske, were brutally tortured and killed at a publishing house in Malatya on April 18, 2007.

Emre Gunaydin – the suspected ringleader – along with Salih Gürler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim, who have been in jail for the past 18 months, are accused of the murder. They were all between 19 and 21 years old at the time of the crime.

The Malatya trial judges and defense attorneys are also adjusting their legal proceedings in light of the case’s incipient expansion from a murder case to an investigation into the political conspiracy. Noting that there could have been others involved in the murder, Presiding Judge Eray Gurktekin quoted an article from the Turkish Penal Code that states a punishment can be reduced if the guilty party is found to be solicited for the crime.

“You should think about considering this,” he said to defense lawyers.

The lawyer for Gunaydin said he had reminded his client of this article, and that they wanted to pursue this legal line in the next hearing.

Plaintiff attorneys won a minor legal victory that had eluded them in earlier hearings: The hearings will now be recorded. In previous months Malatya judges refused three plaintiff requests to record the trial hearings.

In February 2008 an Istanbul court allowed the first courtroom taping of a trial hearing at the trial of Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist assassinated in 2007.


Unearthing Plot

Earlier this month, Turkish police uncovered major arms caches by excavating sites connected to Ergenekon members. Security forces believe the weapons indicated the future plans of the group and their violent activates in the past.

Two weeks ago a new wave of detentions revealed evidence that the group was planning to assassinate the prime minister, members of the Supreme Court of Appeals, and Armenian community leaders.

Older Ergenekon documents make mention of church members in Turkey in Izmir, Mersin and Trabzon. Members of those churches were attacked or killed in following years. This month a 19-year-old Muslim in Izmir was sentenced to prison for stabbing a Catholic priest in 2007.

The Ergenekon organization has been blamed for the murder of other high-profile Christians. Ergin Cinmen, the lawyer for the family of Dink, has called for an investigation into the links between Ergenekon, the Malatya massacre and the murders of Dink and Father Andrea Santoro, an Italian priest killed in Trabzon in 2006.

He made these comments in the context of recently discovered plans to attack the Armenian community of Sivas in central Turkey, according to Bianet, an online Turkish news service.

In the last year, police have arrested more than 100 people in the ongoing Ergenekon case, which has been the dominant event in Turkish media for several months.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Death of Christian worker leads at least one other group to consider postponing relief work.

ISTANBUL, October 29 (Compass Direct News) – Aid agencies are reviewing the viability of their presence in Afghanistan following the murder of Christian aid worker Gayle Williams, who was killed in Kabul last week in a drive-by shooting.

This latest attack in the heart of Kabul has added to the sense of insecurity already felt by in-country foreign aid workers due to the recent escalation in violence by insurgent groups.

“[There is] gradually encroaching control by the Taliban of the regions outside of the cities and the roads in between, and now it looks like the ability to operate even inside the cities as well,” said Mike Lyth, chairman of Serve Afghanistan, a humanitarian organization that has worked with Afghans since the 1970s. “It’s very difficult – I mean, how do you stop somebody riding in on a motorcycle?”

Dan McNorton, public information officer for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told Compass that despite the worsening situation, the United Nations had a 50-year history with Afghanistan and its commitment to the country and its people remained “absolutely solid.”

“There is no indication from the NGOs or humanitarian and other aid organizations that are here that there is any desire or decision for them not to be here, not to carry out the good work that they are here to do,” he said.

In light of recent events, however, Serve Afghanistan’s Lyth believes that aid agencies will have to reconsider their presence in the country.

“Each time something like this happens they have a review,” he said. “We’re certainly going to be reviewing [our position] this next week.”

A recently issued U.N. report stated that there were more than 120 attacks targeting aid workers in the first seven months of this year alone. These attacks saw 92 abducted and 30 killed.

“Yesterday I was talking to one agency that has decided to postpone their work in the country in response to the attacks,” said Karl Torring of the European Network of NGOs in Afghanistan. Other agencies he represents, however, are not so quick to make a decision.

“So people say, ‘Well, we are committed to the Afghans but how many lives is it worth in terms of foreigners and Afghani staff as well’” said Lyth.

Speaking at a news conference following the death of Williams, Humayun Hamidzada, spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, issued a warning to international aid workers in Kabul.

“The international workers based in Kabul, be it with the aid agencies or in the private sector, should get in touch with the relevant police departments, review their security measures and make sure they take necessary precautions while they commute,” he said according to Voice of America.

Taliban insurgents have claimed responsibility for Williams’ death, and in a telephone interview with Reuters they cited the spreading of Christian “propaganda” as the reason for the attack.

Williams, 34, a dual citizen of Britain and South Africa, had recently been relocated to Kabul from Kandahar due to fears over safety after recent attacks against civilians.

A volunteer with Serve Afghanistan for two years, she was walking to her office when she was shot dead by two men riding a motorcycle.

Serve Afghanistan provides education and support for the poor and disabled and, according to Lyth, has a strict policy against proselytizing.

Doubting a purely religious motive, some have questioned the Taliban’s charge against Williams of proselytizing. Sources have suggested that Williams was targeted more as a Western woman than as a Christian, considering the presence of easily identifiable religious groups in the country, such as various Catholic orders, and in light of the scope of previous attacks.

“A month before, they had killed three women from a secular agency and said they were spies,” said Lyth. “They pick whatever reason, to get them off the hook and give them some valid reason for attacking women. There’s been a major spate of attacks on women rather than anybody else.”

In a meeting of the U.N. Security Council earlier this month, UNAMA head and U.N. Special Representative in Afghanistan Kai Eide suggested that the Taliban attacks were designed to attract media attention as they sought to demoralize and hinder reconstruction efforts.

“I think everyone agrees the Taliban are winning the public relations war in Afghanistan,” said Torring.

A recent report by Voice of America pointed out that many of Afghanistan’s reconstruction projects rely heavily on foreign management and training efforts. The attempts of the Taliban to destabilize foreign presence could greatly undermine these projects and have severely detrimental effects on the nation.

U.N. figures state that violent attacks in the country are up from the 2003 monthly average of 44 to a monthly average of 573.

Report from Compass Direct News


Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England, said he was shocked at the furor that arose after he told an audience earlier this year that he thought it “seems unavoidable” that some accommodation for Islamic sharia law would be implemented in Britain. However, Williams’ statements evidently were prophetic, as a report in the Sunday Times has revealed that the Islamic law is already operating in Britain, not only in domestic disputes, but also in criminal cases, reports Hilary White,

The Times said this weekend that the government had officially accepted the existence of sharia law courts to officiate in Muslim civil cases. The rulings of a network of five sharia courts, in London, Birmingham, Bradford and Manchester with the network’s headquarters in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, are now enforceable “with the full power of the judicial system, through the county courts or High Court.”

Sheikh Faiz-ul-Aqtab Siddiqi, a barrister and head of the Muslim Action Committee, told the Times that the Arbitration Act 1996 allows rulings by his Muslim Arbitration Tribunal to be enforced by county and high courts.

“The act allows disputes to be resolved using alternatives like tribunals. This method is called alternative dispute resolution, which for Muslims is what the sharia courts are,” he said.

Siddiqi said he expected the courts to handle a greater number of “smaller” criminal cases in coming years as more Muslim clients approach them. “All we are doing is regulating community affairs in these cases,” said Siddiqi.

The Times said that these Muslim courts started operating in August 2007 and have dealt with more than 100 cases, ranging from Muslim divorce and inheritance cases as well as six cases of domestic violence, normally a criminal procedure under British law. The Times quoted Inayat Bunglawala, assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, who said that since Jewish tribunals operate in Britain, parity should be given to Islamic courts.

Dominic Grieve, the opposition’s shadow home secretary, told the Times that courts operating in criminal and family law cases outside the regular system would be “unlawful.” “British law is absolute and must remain so,” he said.

Melanie Philips, writing on her blog at the Spectator, wrote that “confusion abounds” over the report, because there is “nothing new here at all” and said that the story is “overheated and misleading.” Decisions of sharia courts, she said, have always been enforceable under the Arbitration Act.

But, she said, this does not “dispel the serious concern about the spread of sharia law and the scope of these courts.” Philips is the author of “Londonistan”, a book that examines the incursions of violent Islamic extremists into British society with the assistance of British government and courts.

She said the comparison between Islamic courts and Jewish tribunals were misleading, since the latter operate completely within the framework of British law and do not seek to set up an alternate judicial system.

Moreover, she said, “given the inferior status of Muslim women under sharia, any sharia arbitration in respect of domestic violence can hardly be viewed with equanimity.”

“The key point,” she said, “is that sharia law is not compatible with English law or the principles of equality and human rights that it embodies. The result … is that Britain is allowing the development of a de facto parallel legal system in Britain, thus destroying our society’s cardinal principle of one law for all.”

She added, “Indeed, if this continues Britain will break up as a unitary state governed by one law for all … This is the way a society fractures – and then goes under.”

Damian Thompson, the editor of the Catholic Herald, wrote on his blog at the Daily Telegraph website that he not only agreed with Dominic Grieve that the idea of a parallel Muslim system of law was “unlawful”, but that it is an “outrage.”

“There’s something creepy about the way the police allow sharia ‘courts’ to persuade women to withdraw allegations against their husbands.”

A BBC Radio 4 report found that the cases covered by these tribunals are not restricted to domestic disputes. Radio 4 quoted a Somalian youth worker who lives in London who said that in one case a group of Somali youths were arrested on suspicion of stabbing another Somali teenager. The victim’s family told the police it would be settled out of court and the suspects were released on bail. The matter was considered settled when an unofficial “court” ordered the assailants to compensate the victim’s family. Scotland Yard said they had no record of the incident.

In his book Islam in Britain, Patrick Sookhdeo, director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity, wrote, “Sharia courts now operate in most larger cities, with different sectarian and ethnic groups operating their own courts that cater to their specific needs according to their traditions.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph