Suspected Drug Traffickers Kidnap Pastor

Michoacan state church leader abducted during Sunday service.

MEXICO CITY, April 15 (CDN) — Some 500 worshippers were gathered for last Sunday’s (April 10) worship service at the Christian Center El Shaddai in the Mexican city of Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacan at about 8:15 a.m. when four masked men burst in firing machine guns into the air.

Before the frightened believers realized what was happening, their pastor, Josué Ramírez Santiago, had been whisked away. Divergent press reports indicated the kidnappers, suspected drug traffickers active in the state, were about 10 in number.

The following day, the pastor’s family received news that the criminals wanted a ransom of 20 million pesos (US$1.7 million). Even if the family could raise such an immense sum – considered doubtful – payment would not guarantee that the victim would be returned alive.

Arturo Farela, director of the National Fraternity of Evangelical Churches, has asserted that organized crime syndicates and drug cartels have targeted Christians because they view churches as revenue centers and because churches support programs for the rehabilitation of drug addicts and alcoholics.

“The majority of rehabilitation centers that have been attacked by organized crime in Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana, Tepic and other places belong to the evangelical community,” Farela said in a declaration regarding the kidnapping of Ramirez. “Furthermore, some 100 Mexican or foreign pastors who lived in Ciudad Juarez have had to abandon the city because of the threats and demands for money. And of course many pastors and their families have been victims of extortion, threats, kidnapping and homicide.”

Farela has stated that 100 Mexican clergymen have been kidnapped in recent years, with 15 of them losing their lives to organized crime. Asked if Compass could review his records of these crimes, Farela said he was not authorized to permit it.

In numerous other cases, children of pastors have been kidnapped, including one from Matehuala, San Luis Potosi, who has not been heard from for some six months. The college-age daughter of a prominent pastor in Mexico City was held by kidnappers for a week but was released when the criminals grew tired of the father’s prayers every time they telephoned him; the family has not revealed whether money was given for her return.

Michoacan, the state where the most recent abduction took place, has been a center of much criminal activity and also of severe reprisals by elements of the Mexican army. The state where President Felipe Calderon was born, Michoacan was the first to implement an anti-drug military operation that expanded to northern and eastern states.

In spite of the operation, more than 34,600 people nationwide have reportedly been assassinated since it was implemented in December 2006, with most of those crimes tied to drug traffickers “settling accounts.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslims Order Christians to Leave Village in Pakistan

Christians drew wrath by objecting to sexual assaults on girls and women.

KHANEWAL, Pakistan, June 7 (CDN) — The head of a Muslim village last week ordered 250 Christian families to leave their homes in Khanewal district, Punjab Province, local residents said.

Abdul Sattar Khan, head of village No. 123/10R, Katcha Khoh, and other area Muslim residents ordered the expulsions after Christian residents objected too strenuously to sexual assaults by Muslims on Christian girls and women, said a locally elected Christian official, Emmanuel Masih.

Most of the village’s Christian men work in the fields of Muslim land owners, while most of the Christian women and girls work as servants in the homes of Muslim families, said Rasheed Masih, a Christian in the village who added that the impoverished Christians were living in appalling conditions.

The Muslim employers have used their positions of power to routinely sexually assault the Christian women and girls, whose complaints grew so shrill that four Christian men – Emmanuel Masih, Rasheed Masih, his younger brother Shehzad Anjum and Yousaf Masih Khokhar – sternly confronted the Muslims, only to be told that all Christians were to leave the village at once.

“The Muslim villagers came to us with the expulsion order only after Christian women and girls raised a hue and cry when they became totally exasperated because they were sexually attacked or forced to commit adultery by Muslims on a daily basis,” said Khokhar, a Christian political leader.

Khokhar said the unanimous decision to compel the Christians to leave their homes and relocate them was possible because the Christians were completely subject to the Muslims’ power.

“The Muslims had been telling the Christian women and girls that if they denied them sex, they would kick them out of their native village,” Emmanuel Masih added.

Christians created the colony when they began settling in the area in about 1950, said Anjum. Since then the migration of Muslims to the area has left the Christians a minority among the 6,000 residents of the village, said Emmanuel Masih.

“There is no church building or any worship place for Christians, and neither is there any burial place for Christians,” Emmanuel Masih said.

He said that the Rev. Pervez Qaiser of village No. 231, the Rev. Frank Masih of village No. 133 and the Rev. Sharif Masih of village No. 36, Mian Channu, have been visiting the village on Sundays to lead services at the houses of the Christian villagers, who open their homes by turns.

Asked why they didn’t contact local Katcha Khoh police for help, Emmanuel Masih and Khokhar said that filing a complaint against Muslim village head Khan and other Muslims would only result in police registering false charges against them under Pakistan’s notorious “blasphemy” statutes.

“They might arrest us,” Khokhar said, “and the situation would be worse for the Christian villagers who are already living a deplorably pathetic life under the shadow of fear and death, as they [the Muslims] would not be in police lock-up or would be out on bail, due to their riches and influence, very soon.”


Couples Charged with ‘Blasphemy’

That very fate befell two Christian couples in Gulshan-e-Iqbal town, Karachi, who had approached police with complaints against Muslims for falsely accusing them of blasphemy.

On May 28, a judge directed Peer Ilahi Bakhsh (PIB) police to file charges of desecrating the Quran against Atiq Joseph and Qaiser William after a mob of armed Islamists went through their home’s garbage looking for pages of the Islamic scripture among clean-up debris (see “Pakistani Islamists Keep Two Newlywed Couples from Home,” May 27).

Additional District & Sessions Judge Karachi East (Sharqi) Judge Sadiq Hussein directed the PIB police station in Gulshan-e-Iqbal to file a case against Joseph and William, newlyweds who along with their wives had shared a rented home and are now in hiding. The judge acted on the application of Muslim Munir Ahmed.

Saleem Khurshid Khokhar, a Christian provincial legislator in Sindh, and Khalid Gill, head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance in Punjab, said that police were threatening and harassing relatives and close friends of Joseph and William to reveal their whereabouts.

Islamists armed with pistols and rifles had waited for the two Christian couples to return to their rented home on May 21, seeking to kill them after the couples complained to police that the radical Muslims had falsely accused them of desecrating the Quran.

The blasphemy laws include Section 295-A for injuring religious feelings, 295-B for defiling the Quran and 295-C for blaspheming Muhammad, the prophet of Islam – all of which have often been misused by fanatical Muslims to settle personal scores against Christians.

Maximum punishment for violation of Section 295-A, as well as for Section 295-B (defiling the Quran), is life imprisonment; for violating Section 295-C the maximum punishment is death, though life imprisonment is also possible.

In village 123/10R in Khanewal district, Anjum noted that it is only 22 kilometers (14 miles) from Shanti Nagar, where Muslims launched an attack on Christians in 1997 that burned hundreds of homes and 13 church buildings.

Yousaf Masih added, “Muslim villagers have made the life a hell for Christians at village 123/10R.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Al Shabaab Militants Execute Christian Leader in Somalia

Islamic extremists run into 57-year-old Yusuf Ali Nur after battle with rival group.

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 5 (CDN) — Islamic militants yesterday killed another leader of the underground church movement in Somalia, sources said.

Before he was fatally shot on Tuesday (May 4) in Xarardheere, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Jowhar, 57-year-old Yusuf Ali Nur had been on a list of people the Islamic extremist al Shabaab suspected of being Christian, sources who spoke on condition of anonymity told Compass. Al Shabaab, said to have links with al Qaeda, has vowed to rid Somalia of Christianity.

The militants fighting the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu had been engaged in a two-hour battle with a rival rebel group, the Ahlu Sunna Waljamer, which had taken control of the Xarardheere area, before they came across Nur. Nur had lived in Xarardheere since leaving Jowhar in July 2009.

Eyewitnesses said that after al Shabaab took control of the area, they went from house to house looking for enemy fighters when they arrived at Nur’s rented home at about 10:30 a.m. Sources said that upon finding Nur, one of the militants remarked, “Oh! This is Yusuf, whom we have been looking for,” before they sprayed him with bullets at close range.

Nur is survived by his wife, whose name was withheld for security reasons, and three children, ages 11, 9 and 7.

This latest death comes after several execution-style murders of Somalis suspected of being members of a suppressed yet resilient underground faith movement in Somalia. A number of Christians have been beheaded by the radical Islamists out to topple the fledgling TFG and introduce a strict version of sharia (Islamic law).

Al Shabaab, which controls large parts of central Somalia, recently banned radio stations from playing music and outlawed bell ringing that signals the end of school classes “because they sound like church bells.”

Nur, who had worked on a farm while in Jowhar, had long being monitored by al Shabaab, the sources said. After settling in Xarardheere, he became the head teacher of Ganane Primary School and also taught English. The al Shabaab militants object to the use of English, preferring Arabic, and even after relocating to Xarardheere Nur realized he was in danger of the militants finding him, sources said.

Ganane is a private school owned by wealthy Somali proprietors.

In 2009 Islamic militants in Somalia sought out and killed at least 15 Christians, including women and children. This year, on Jan. 1 al Shabaab members murdered 41-year-old Mohammed Ahmed Ali after the Christian had left his home in Hodan, on the outskirts of Mogadishu.

On March 15, al Shabaab rebels shot Madobe Abdi to death on March 15 at 9:30 a.m. in Mahaday village, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Jowhar. Abdi’s death was distinctive in that he was not a convert from Islam. An orphan, Abdi was raised as a Christian.

Advocacy group International Christian Concern has reported that three members of al Shabaab killed Somali Christian Mu’awiye Hilowle Ali in front of his home in Afgoye on March 23, executing him with close-range shots to his head and chest.

The transitional government in Mogadishu fighting to retain control of the country treats Christians little better than the al Shabaab extremists do. While proclaiming himself a moderate, President Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed has embraced a version of sharia that mandates the death penalty for those who leave Islam.

Report from Compass Direct News 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fulfilling Campaign Promises

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

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

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

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

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

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


Banning Compassion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Christian Sisters Killed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Strangers in Strange Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Offering Relief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News


Uncertainty remains about condition of Christian charged with ‘propaganda.’

LOS ANGELES, November 10 (Compass Direct News) – Concerns about the health and safety of the son of martyred Iranian pastor Hossein Soodmand are swirling around Ramtin Soodmand as he awaits trial for “promoting anti-government propaganda.”

Soodmand was released on bail Oct. 22 after more than two months in a Mashhad prison, having originally been charged with “proselytizing.”

Before turning himself in to police in Mashhad on Aug. 21, Soodmand received a call from Fershteh Dibaj, the daughter of another Christian martyr, Mehdi Dibaj, telling him that intelligence officers wanted to meet with him. Puzzled, Soodmand asked, “Why do they want me to come there? I am living in Tehran,” according to a family member. (Compass earlier reported incorrectly that Soodmand was ordered to go from Mashhad to Tehran.)

Expecting Soodmand to be in Mashhad for no more than two days, family members told Compass that they were shocked when he remained in prison.

A family member also expressed frustration that the court repeatedly changed the bail amount before finally settling on $22,000. Soodmand’s in-laws put the deed to their home up to ensure bail.

Soodmand has been officially charged with “promoting anti-government propaganda.” But with a new penal code under consideration in Iranian Parliament this month that would mandate capital punishment for “apostates,” or those who leave Islam, friends and family worry that he may face the death penalty. A family member told Compass that the court had originally accused Soodmand of religious activity and proselytizing.

His father, the last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government, was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then at least six Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.

Friends and relatives of Soodmand questioned his treatment while in prison. One source told Compass that he asked about Soodmand’s health on three separate phone conversations. “The government cut off the phone three times,” the source said.

A source closely following the case said that when he asked Soodmand about his treatment in prison, he responded, “No place on [my] body is hurting.” That source believed Soodmand was saying that he had recovered from being tortured.

Another source interested in the case told Compass, “It’s odd that Mitra [Soodmand’s wife] and Ramtin were only allowed to talk by phone. She never saw his face the whole time he was in prison.”

A family friend said he believes that no physical harm was done to Soodmand, telling Compass, “Ramtin was abused emotionally by being interrogated many times but was never beaten. He was taken to a room where he was told his father had spoken his last words before being executed.”

While there are many questions about Soodmand’s treatment, those close to the family agree that Soodmand has suffered during this ordeal.

“He [Soodmand] asks for prayer because he was badly shaken,” a source told Compass.

Soodmand’s father was executed by the state in 1990, and there is speculation that Ramtin Soodmand may have been singled out because of the relationship.

“I am not sure, but … once something like this happens for you in your family, you are ‘marked,’” said a source closely following the case.

Under the past three decades of Iran’s Islamist regime, hundreds of citizens who have left Islam and become Christians have been arrested for weeks or months, held in unknown locations and subjected to mental and physical torture.

The arrests of Iranian Christians in the last few months have deeply affected churches in Iran. “There is less trust among the believers,” a friend of Soodmand’s said to Compass. “They are suspicious of outsiders or newcomers because they could be ‘moles.’”

The friend also reported that the activities of house churches he works with have been sharply curtailed because many members believe they are under surveillance.

A family member is concerned for the Christians living in Mashhad.

“We got news from Iran that the intelligence service in Mashhad arrested 15 Christian people,” he told Compass last week.

Report from Compass Direct News


Promise of negotiated settlement fades; Catholic leaders threatened with legal action.

HANOI, September 26 (Compass Direct News) – Authorities in Hanoi have responded to months of Catholic prayer vigils and demonstrations over disputed land by destroying the one-time residence of the papal nuncio in central Hanoi.

In suddenly bulldozing the land that once served as the Vatican embassy and residence near St. Joseph’s Cathedral last Friday (Sept. 19), the government broke its promise to Catholic leaders in February to negotiate a settlement concerning the property.

The destruction of the building held sacred by Catholics is the latest blow to Christians’ long struggle to get the government to return confiscated church properties. Catholic, Protestant and other religious leaders deemed the government response to peaceful Catholic pressure a serious setback for religious freedom.

Authorities cite Vietnamese law stipulating that lands subject to “land management and socialist land reform policies in place before 1991” cannot be considered.

On Monday (Sept. 22) the Vietnam News Agency reported that the Catholic Church ceded the Nha Chung Vatican Embassy property to the state in 1961 and that it would be turned into a library and park.

“Bookworms will soon be able to enjoy the facilities offered by a brand-new library, located at 42 Nha Chung Street, in Hoan Kiem District,” the state reported. “In addition to all of the services usually offered by a library, situated on the premises of an existing three-story, French-designed building surrounded by greenery and including a childrens’ playground, the renovation, which began last Friday, aims to better meet Hanoians’ demands for relaxation.”

Sources said Vietnam’s frequent pronouncements of new openness to religion, and the formation of a joint Catholic/government working committee regarding relationships with the Vatican and other outstanding matters, may have led Catholics to test the waters. Late last year Catholics began to hold prayer vigils outside the fence of the long-vacant Vatican Embassy seized by the government in the mid-1950s.

The historic building property on Nha Chung Street is adjacent to the Hanoi archbishop and cardinal’s residence and only a half block away from St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

The daily morning and evening prayer vigils began to draw large crowds, especially on Saturdays and Sundays, when thousands came to Masses at the cathedral. Authorities in a country where demonstrations are not allowed became seriously worried when warnings to stop went unheeded.

In discussion with Catholic leaders in late February, the government agreed to negotiate a settlement in good faith on the condition that Catholic leaders would call a halt to the prayer vigils. Archbishop of Hanoi Ngo Quang Kiet told Compass in April that after agreeing to a joint working committee, the government showed no sincerity in building relationships or in settling grievances.

In late August an aide to the archbishop told Compass in Hanoi that the twice daily prayer vigils had resumed. At that time about 100 people participated each time, but the number and intensity was growing. Catholic leaders made no secret of their appeal to prayer and assembled people as their only tools in their struggle with the government for redress on confiscated properties.

In recent weeks the Redemptorists at Thai Ha, also in Hanoi, also began prayer vigils to recover some of their large property. Over the years their part of an original plot of 60,000 square meters had been reduced by government confiscation to less than 2,000 square meters.

According to observers, the Catholics conducted themselves during their vigils with decorum and order as they reverently marched, prayed and sang. The government’s response however, quickly escalated from accusing the Catholics of interfering with traffic to accusing them of all night public disturbances – and then accusing Catholic leaders of inciting riots and breaking religion laws.


Catholic Leaders Warned

Authorities this week delivered a written warning to Archbishop Kiet warning him of “extreme action” if he did not stop the daily prayer vigils. They also issued a warning to four priests at a Hanoi church locked in the land dispute. The archbishop and priests are accused of “stirring the population” and encouraging illegal religious activity.

State and Hanoi city media releases and radio and TV coverage during September painted the Catholics in the worst possible light; sources said the media fabricated stories and paid people to speak against the Catholics. With no opportunity to make their side of the story known through Vietnam’s state-controlled media, Catholics are reporting events through VietCatholic News, Zenit and other overseas news sites.

Catholic calls for media to retract specific, demonstrably false stories and appeals to press laws have gone entirely unheeded. Rather, sources said, improbable accusations and vicious slander against Catholics sharply escalated.

Vietnam Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man, archbishop of Saigon, wrote a letter to all priests, religious and faithful on Monday (Sept. 22) denouncing the state’s media lies. Unrest is spreading throughout Vietnam’s Catholic community, believed to number more than 7 million, as the letter by the cardinal and others by bishops are read in the churches.


Thugs Bussed In

Demonstrations escalated this week with estimates of 7,000 to 10,000 people, including students gathered at Thai Ha on Wednesday night (Sept. 24). It was said to be the largest public demonstration since the Communist unification of Vietnam 33 years ago.

Wednesday afternoon (Sept. 24), hundreds of police and plainclothes officers tried to control an upset crowd of Catholics as a statue of the Virgin Mary was removed from the Vatican Embassy area under police protection and taken to an unknown location. The next day, sources said, authorities recruited gangs that included uniformed Communist youth league members and others and bussed them to the site, where they attacked Catholic protestors outside the archbishop’s residence.

Similar gangs destroyed property, including sacred items at Thai Ha, the same day.

The state media also announced that the 17,000-square meter Thai Ha Redemptorist property in Hanoi is also to be turned into a public park.

The reversion to old-style, default Communist repression involving violence cloaked in lies is also worrying to Vietnam’s Protestants, some of whom have joined Catholics in the prayer vigils.

Protestant leaders contacted by Compass were united in their disappointment in and condemnation of the government’s belligerent response to peaceful prayer vigils.

“Sadly, the government has again shown its true attitude toward religions,” said one Protestant leader. “We have doubted the sincerity of recent improvements, and now they have clearly shown everyone what is still in their hearts.”

Some Vietnam observers fear the government’s belligerence may be evidence of hard-liners’ ascendance in an ongoing struggle with more moderate reformers. The timing of this property destruction, some Vietnamese church leaders said, is calculated to take advantage of uncertainty in the United States, especially as elections draw near.  

Report from Compass Direct News