Church leaders fear legislation will lead to religious intolerance; church, orphanage opposed.

JAKARTA, August 19 (Compass Direct News) – The Indonesian Council of Churches (PGI) has called for the rejection of two bills inspired by sharia (Islamic law).

The Halal Product Guarantee Bill and the Zakat Obligatory Alms Management Bill, both under consideration in the Indonesian parliament, cater to the needs of one religious group at the expense of others, violating Indonesia’s policy of pancasila or religious tolerance, said the Rev. Dr. A.A. Yewangoe, director of the PGI.

“National laws must be impartial and inclusive,” Yewangoe told Compass. “Since all laws are binding on all of the Indonesian people, they must be objective. Otherwise discrimination will result … The state has a duty to guard the rights of all its citizens, including freedom of religion.”

Dr. Lodewijk Gultom, head of PGI’s Law and Human Rights Department, pointed out that according to regulations on the formation of proposed laws, a bill cannot discriminate against any group of citizens. But the Halal product bill several times mentions sharia, as if Indonesia were an exclusively Muslim state, he said.

“If this bill is enforced, it will cause other religions to demand specific rights, and our sense of unity and common destiny will be lost,” Gultom said.

Gultom also said the bills were an attempt to resurrect the Jakarta Charter, a statement incorporated into Indonesia’s constitution in 1945 before it was quickly withdrawn. It declared that the newly-created state would be based on a belief in the one supreme God “with the obligation to live according to Islamic law for Muslims.”

Public opinion on the Jakarta Charter remains sharply divided, with some insisting that Islamic law is warranted because of the country’s Muslim majority, while others believe its implementation would disturb national unity.

Two members of Parliament, Constant Pongawa and Tiurlan Hutagaol, both from the Prosperous Peace Party, have requested the withdrawal of the Halal and Zakat bills to avoid creating conflict between Muslims and other religious groups.

“These bills are a step backward and will lead to the isolation of different religions,” agreed Ronald Naibaho, head of the North Sumatran chapter of the Indonesian Christian Youth Movement.

National church leaders have requested a meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to discuss the impact of these bills and a number of other discriminatory laws being applied at provincial levels across the country.

Church, Orphanage Closed

Muslim groups, meantime, recently moved to close more Christian institutions.

On July 21, following complaints from community groups, police forcibly dismantled a church in West Java on grounds that it did not have a building permit, while similar groups in East Java successfully lobbied for the closure of a Catholic orphanage claiming that it planned to “Christianize” local children.

Police in Bogor district, West Java, dismantled the temporary bamboo structure erected by the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan church in Parung Panjang on July 21. Church leaders insist that the church had long ago applied for a building permit that was not granted even though they had met all requirements, including obtaining permission from the Bogor Interfaith Harmony Forum.

“There are 234 buildings in Parung Panjang that lack building permits, including a mosque,” church elder Walman Nainggolan told Compass. “Why was our house of worship singled out?”

The church has filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia. Commissioner Johny Nelson Simanjuntak agreed to clarify the status of the church building permit with local officials and asked local police to permit peaceful worship as guaranteed by the constitution.

Separately, a group of Muslims lobbied for the closure of a Catholic orphanage for crippled children in Batu, in the Malang district of East Java, stating concern that the facility would become a covert vehicle for “Christianization.” In response to demonstrations in front of the mayor’s office in October 2008 and June 2009 and complaints from 10 different Muslim religious and community organizations, Batu Mayor Eddy Rumpoko on June 19 rescinded a building permit issued to the Catholic Bhakti Luhur Foundation and ordered that construction cease immediately.

The foundation operates 41 orphanages serving approximately 700 children with special needs.

“We are greatly saddened by this action,” the Rev. Laurentius Heru Susanto, a local vicar, told Compass. “The home was meant to serve the people. There was no other purpose.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


On Friday the Rev. Walter Hoye of Berkeley, California, was ordered to serve 30 days in county jail by Judge Stuart Hing of the Alameda Superior Court. Rev. Hoye had been found guilty on January 15, 2009, of unlawfully approaching two persons entering an abortion facility in Oakland. Judge Hing had also ordered him to stay one hundred yards away from the abortion facility for three years. However, Rev. Hoye refused this term of probation and would not agree to a stay-away order. Therefore, the judge denied the defense motion to stay the sentence pending appeal. Mr Hoye was taken into custody from the courtroom, reports

At a hearing on February 19, Judge Hing stated that he had not intended to impose any fine or jail time on Rev. Hoye if he would agree to stay away from the abortion facility. After Rev. Hoye refused to agree not to offer alternatives to abortion-minded women, Judge Hing imposed a 30-day sentence and $1130 fine.

Dozens in the African-American and pro-life communities from around the nation who came out in support of Rev. Hoye were outraged by the sentence.

“It is absolutely incredible that in America an individual can be sentenced to jail for engaging in peaceful free speech activity on a public sidewalk,” remarked Allison Aranda, Staff Counsel for Life Legal Defense Foundation. “Rev. Hoye is being singled out for particularly harsh punishment because he refused to agree not to offer help to women considering abortion. Where is the justice in that?”

Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, today denounced the sentence leveled against the pastor.

Rev. Hoye, said Pavone, “has just begun serving a sentence which is blatantly unjust. Rev. Hoye did no violence, but rather attempted to stop violence by his prayerful presence at an abortion mill in Oakland.

“He was right to refuse to promise not to approach the abortion facility. By intervening for these children, he simply seeks to fulfill the command, ‘Do to others what you would have them do to you.’ No government can put a cap on peaceful efforts to save children from violence.”

Rev. Hoye is an African-American pastor who says he feels a special calling to work for the end of what he calls the genocide by abortion taking place in the African-American community. As part of his efforts, he stands in front of an abortion facility in Oakland with leaflets offering abortion alternatives and a sign reading, “Jesus loves you and your baby. Let us help.”

In response to Rev Hoye’s efforts, the Oakland City Council passed an ordinance making it a crime to approach persons entering abortion centers to offer alternatives to abortion. Approaching women to encourage them to enter the clinic is permitted, according to City policy.

According to 2004 statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics, about 37 percent of pregnancies of black women end in abortion, compared with 12 percent for non-Hispanic white women and 19 percent for Hispanic women.

LLDF Legal Director Catherine Short and attorney Mike Millen, who also represented Rev. Hoye at trial, are currently challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance on Rev. Hoye’s behalf in federal court. They say they are hopeful the ordinance will be struck down and Rev. Hoye vindicated.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Churches ordered to cease services, stop meeting in ‘unauthorized’ venues.

DUBLIN, January 21 (Compass Direct News) – Burmese authorities last week increased restrictions on Christian activity in the capital city of Rangoon and surrounding areas, including the closure of several churches, Compass sources confirmed yesterday.

Orders issued on Jan. 5 had already forced many Christians meeting in residential homes or apartments to cease gathering for worship. Officials last week ordered several major Rangoon churches, including Wather Hope Church, Emmanuel Church and the Assemblies of God Church, to cease holding services and continued enforcing the Jan. 5 ban on meetings held in unauthorized facilities.

In the late 1990s authorities stopped issuing permits for land purchase or the construction of new churches, leading many Burmese Christians to conduct services in rented apartments or office buildings, according to the Burmese news agency Mizzima.

The Kyauktada Township Peace and Development Council on Jan. 5 invited pastors from more than 100 Rangoon churches to a meeting where they were told to sign documents pledging to cease operation of their churches. About 50 pastors attended, according to Mizzima.

The documents threatened punishment, including potential jail terms and the sealing of church facilities, for pastors who refused to obey the closure orders.

Another local online news source, the Democratic Voice of Burma, claimed officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs had summoned the owners of buildings where churches met and ordered them not to rent their properties to religious groups.

Mizzima quoted an unnamed Burmese Christian who claimed that 80 percent of churches in Rangoon were affected by the order.


History of Religious Repression

Some local Christians and international observers say the crackdown is related to Christian involvement in relief efforts for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma in May 2008.

Despite widespread devastation and loss of life, Burma’s reclusive government initially banned foreign aid but finally accepted it on condition that Burmese officials would distribute it. Christians, however, had responded immediately to the crisis, gathering relief supplies and transporting them to the Irrawaddy Delta region. Police or army officials stopped some groups, but many were allowed to proceed. At least one such group told Compass that officials likely feared the conversion of Buddhists who accepted aid from Christians.

The military junta ruling Burma promotes Buddhism at the expense of other minority religions, according to Paul A. Marshall’s 2008 Religious Freedom in the World. The country’s population is 82 percent Buddhist, 9 percent Christian and 4 percent Muslim, with traditional ethnic, Chinese and Hindu religions accounting for the rest.

The church closure orders may simply be an extension of Burma’s existing religious policies, which elevate Buddhism in an effort to solidify national identity. Burma ranks high on lists of religious and human rights violators at several watch organizations, including the U.S. State Department, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Open Doors.

Documents declaring the government’s intention to “stamp out” Christianity have circulated for some time. Rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide drew attention to one such document in a 2007 report entitled, “Carrying the Cross: The military regime’s campaign of restriction, discrimination and persecution against Christians in Burma.” The report summarized a 17-point document allegedly produced by an organization affiliated with the Ministry of Religious Affairs entitled, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma.”

The first point in this document declared that, “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced.”

A military dictatorship has ruled Burma since 1962. Following the takeover, the government renamed Burma as the Union of Myanmar and the capital city as Yangon, but many news agencies and government bodies continue to use the original names. When elections were held in 1988, with the opposing National League for Democracy clearly in the majority, the generals rejected the popular vote and used brute military force to cement their power throughout Burma. A similar show of force met hundreds of Buddhist monks who initiated mass anti-government protest rallies on the streets of Rangoon in September 2007.

While almost all Burmese citizens suffer under the regime, Christians are often singled out for specific attack or repression because of their perceived connections with the West.

Reports from various mission groups suggest Christianity is flourishing under the regime, but believers must be creative with their worship – particularly in rural areas. In reports confirmed by Compass, Christians in one state began photocopying Bibles to overcome restrictions on religious publications. Others baptized new Christians during the annual water festival, where citizens douse each other with buckets of water, ceremonially washing away the “sins” of the past year.


Heightened Security, Control

Rangoon residents say a much heavier security presence has been evident in the city since early January, when political activists began distributing anti-government leaflets, The Irrawaddy newspaper reported on Jan. 13. The leaflet drops may have contributed to the current crackdown on church gatherings, as generals suspect all organized groups of having a political agenda.

At a graduation of military students in Rangoon on Jan. 9, Vice-Senior Gen. Maung Aye, who is commander-in-chief of the army and deputy commander-in-chief of Defense Services, warned students to steadfastly uphold the country’s “Three Main National Causes” to prevent “recurrences of past bitter experiences.” The causes were listed as non-disintegration of the Union of Myanmar, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty.

The New Light of Myanmar, a government newspaper, reported the general as saying that, “You will have learned bitter lessons from a number of world events, in which certain States have become weaker … owing to external intervention in their conflicts.”  

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