Article: Restaurant Investigated for Religious Discrimination

The link below is to an article reporting on a restaurant that is being investigated for discrimination because it offered discounts to people bringing in a church bulletin on Sundays.

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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

Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law

Already suppressed Christians say bill is designed to control growth.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, July 21 (CDN) — Christians in this Himalayan nation who are still longing to openly practice their faith were disheartened this month when the government proposed the kind of “anti-conversion” law that other nations have used as a pretext for falsely accusing Christians of “coercion.”

The amendment bill would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement” – vaguely enough worded, Christians fear, that vigilantes could use it to jail them for following the commands of Christ to feed, clothe and otherwise care for the poor.

“Now, under section 463 [of the Penal Code of Bhutan], a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytization if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” reported the government-run Kuensel newspaper on July 9.

“There was always a virtual anti-conversion law in place, but now it is on paper too,” said a senior pastor from Thimphu on condition of anonymity. “Seemingly it is aimed at controlling the growth of Christianity.”

Kuenlay Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s Parliament and the chairperson of its Legislative Council, told Compass that the new section is consonant with Article 7(4) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which states, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

He said that the National Council had proposed that offenses under the proposal be classified as misdemeanors, punishable by one to less than three years in prison.

Tshering said that the amendment bill “may be passed during the next session of Parliament, after the National Assembly deliberates on it in the winter session.”

Asked if he was aware that similar “anti-conversion” laws in neighboring India had been misused to harass Christians through vague terms of “inducement,” he said he was not.

Authorities usually act on complaints by local residents against Christian workers, so frivolous complaints can lead to their arrest, said another pastor who requested anonymity.

Of the 683,407 people in Bhutan, over 75 percent are Buddhist, mainly from the west and the east. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

There are around 6,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Nepalese, but there is neither a church building nor a registered Christian institution. The Bible, however, has been translated into the national language, Dzongkha, as well as into Nepali.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has not officially recognized the presence of Christians, whose practice of faith remains confined to their homes.

The Drukpa Kagyue school of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion, with Hinduism dominant in the south, according to Bhutan’s official website, which adds, “Some residues of Bon, animism and shamanism still exist in some pockets of the country,” but makes no mention of Christianity.

Still, since Bhutan became a democracy in 2008 after its first-ever elections – following more than 100 years of absolute monarchy – people have increasingly exercised their freedom, including religious choice.


‘Why More Religions?’

Home and Culture Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji told Compass that Bhutan’s government had “no problems” with Christianity or any other faith.

“But Bhutan is a small country, with a little more than 600,000 people, and a majority of them are Buddhist,” Dorji said. “We have Hindus, also mainly in southern parts. So why do we need more religions?”

Buddhism is closely linked with political and social life in Bhutan. Dorji’s office sits in a gigantic monastery in Thimphu known as Tashichho Dzong. Buddhism unites and brings people together, Dorji said, explaining that the social life of a village revolves around its dzong (monastery).

Dorji said India’s multi-religious society had led to tensions and bloodshed.

“India can survive riots and unrest,” he said, “but Bhutan may not, because it is a small country between two giants [India and China].”

With leaders who have been proud that they have not allowed it to be colonized, Bhutan historically has been keenly concerned about its survival. Bhutan’s people see their distinct culture, rather than the military, as having protected the country’s sovereignty. And it is no coincidence that Dorji’s portfolio includes both internal security and preservation of culture.

The constitution, adopted in July 2008, also requires the state to protect Bhutan’s cultural heritage and declares that Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan.

A government official who requested anonymity said that, as Tibet went to China and Sikkim became a state in India, “now which of the two countries will get Bhutan?”

This concern is prevalent among the Bhutanese, he added.

Sikkim, now a state in India’s northeast, was a Buddhist kingdom with indigenous Bhotia and Lepcha people groups as its subjects. But Hindus from Nepal migrated to Sikkim for work and gradually outnumbered the local Buddhists. In 1975, a referendum was held to decide if Sikkim, then India’s protectorate, should become an official state of the country. Since over 75 percent of the people in Sikkim were Nepalese – who knew that democracy would mean majority-rule – they voted for its incorporation
into India.

Bhutan and India’s other smaller neighbors saw it as brazen annexation. And it is believed that Sikkim’s “annexation” made Bhutan wary of the influence of India.

In the 1980s, Bhutan’s king began a one-nation-one-people campaign to protect its sovereignty and cultural integrity, which was discriminatory to the ethnic Nepalese, who protested. Their non-compliance, however, resulted in a harsh crackdown by authorities, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

“Bhutan did not want to become another Sikkim,” said a local resident, explaining why the government did not tolerate the protests.

Bhutan is also rigorous in implementing its laws related to the use of the national language, the national dress code and the uniform architectural standards throughout the country to strengthen its cultural integrity. Bhutanese men are required to wear the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, when they go to work or attend a public function. Women have to wear the kira, an ankle-length dress clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. Non-compliance can lead to fine
and imprisonment.


Brighter Future

One hopeful pastor said he expects the government to officially acknowledge the existence of Christianity in Bhutan in the near future.

“Religious freedom will be good for both Christians and the government,” he said. “If Christians are not officially acknowledged, who will the government go to if it wants to implement an executive decision related to religious communities?”

Explaining the reason for his hope, he recalled an incident in the Punakha area in January, when a house under construction was demolished after rumors that it was used as a church.

“The house owner, a Christian, went to his majesty [King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck] and told him he was not constructing a church but would have worship with other believers on Sundays,” the pastor said. “The king allowed him to build the house.”

He also said that a delegation of Christians met with Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley in May 2009, who reassured them that there would be more freedom soon.

Christianity is gradually growing, but through word-of-mouth – testimonies of those who have received healing from sickness – and not public preaching, he said, adding that Christians needed to understand and be patient with the government, “which cannot and should not make changes or give freedom overnight.”



Christians’ Skulls, Bones Used for Buddhist Ritual

The ambiguity in Bhutan over the status of Christians has brought with it a new difficulty: A national daily recently reported that at least eight graves of Christians had been exhumed and the skulls and thigh bones extracted for a Buddhist ritual.

Although the report marked the first time the practice had made the news, Christian leaders said more than 100 graves have been dug up as the trade in human bones has been going on for more than five years.

A local resident of the Lamperi area, near Thimphu, identified as Namgay, told the Bhutan Observer that he found eight graves in a “secret forest graveyard” that had been exhumed by hunters of craniums and thigh bone.

“We saw skulls without craniums and a hand sticking out of a grave,” he was quoted as saying in the daily on May 27.

A human skull garners between 5,000 ngultrum (US$105) and 10,000 ngultrum (US$211) in Bhutan, with men’s skulls considered more valuable. The skull of a man affected by leprosy is not considered ideal for purification. Rather, such skulls are considered best for rituals to subdue evil spirits.

In a visit to the graveyard, the Bhutan Observer found at least eight graves freshly dug up. “Hand gloves, khaddar [a coarse homespun cotton cloth], a currency note, a wooden cross, and a wooden hammer lay scattered all over,” it reported.

The daily said the graveyard apparently belonged to the Christian community in Thimphu and nearby areas.

“Christians in the country say that there should be an official recognition that there are Christians in the country, and other things like burial rights will naturally follow,” the report noted.

A local pastor told Compass that since Christians did not have a burial ground, they buried their dead in forests.

“More than 100 bodies have been dug up, even though we have changed several locations for burial,” he said. “I wonder how the traders in human bones discover these locations. Where do we go now?”

Some local residents reportedly believe that a Christian grave brings bad luck.

Damcho Wangchu, a resident of Thinleygang area, told the daily that the area surrounding the graveyard was holy. He attributed all misfortune in the area – including storms, the death of three students and of four others – to the Christian cemetery.

“We never experienced such misfortunes in our gewog [cluster of villages] before,” he said.

The daily explained that the tradition of use of human skulls and thigh bones in Buddhist rituals was as old as Tantric Buddhism itself. “Thoepai Dagpa is a generic name for the text that illustrates the use and study of quality of skulls,” it reported.

Tantric Buddhism, widespread in Bhutan, involves rituals as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.

An editorial in the same newspaper noted, “Our hunt for the criminal will probably lead us from the unplanned graveyard to the sacred altar.”

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

Pakistani Christians’ Employer Has Them Illegally Arrested

Upset with their objections to discrimination, factory owner uses police to beat them.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 12 (CDN) — Police illegally detained three Christians on false charges of alcohol possession in Sialkot last week at the request of their Muslim employer.

The men – garment factory workers Atif Masih, Kamran Masih and Naveed Gill – said they had objected to their boss demanding they work on Sundays. Factory owner Rana Ejaz promptly accused them of selling alcohol, which is forbidden to Muslims in Pakistan and illegal to sell without a permit.

On May 4 the station house officer of Paka Garah, Sialkot, arrested the three Christians even though Ejaz had filed neither a First Information Report nor registered a written complaint, the Christians said.

“We went to the factory for work at 9 a.m. on May 4, and at around 11 a.m. we were arrested by the SHO [station house officer],” Atif Masih said. “We were severely beaten and asked to give a false statement that we sold alcohol.”

Authorities released them after three days when local human rights groups charged that they had been illegally detained.

Paka Garah police SHO Zulfiqar Ali refused to comment after their release. Previously he had said, “We arrested the three from the factory, and they confessed that they sell alcohol.” Parents of the three Christians denied the charge, asserting that their sons had been falsely accused.

Factory owner Rana Ejaz reportedly said, “I did all this on the advice of the SHO, Zulfiqar, so that I could terminate the Christian workers.”

Kamran Masih said Ejaz seemed to object to the crosses the Christians wore since they began work at the factory last year.

“He didn’t say it, but he used to look at the cross with strange looks,” Kamran Masih said. “Then since February, he said that no one will be allowed to wear a cross at work.”

In March Ejaz began demanding that only the Christian employees come to work on Sundays, Kamran Masih said.

“No other Christians raised any voice,” he said. “We were the only ones to stand up and ask for permission to go to church on Sundays, but he threatened us with dire consequences.”

Their local priest, the Rev. Illyas Mall, said he had known the three families for more than 40 years.

“None of their family members have ever been involved in anything illegal,” he said.

Likewise a friend of the three Christians who spoke on condition of anonymity said they had never touched alcohol and were detained only because Ejaz is a good friend of the SHO, “so he got them illegally detained and tortured.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Iranian Pastor Tortured, Threatened for ‘Converting Muslims’

Arrest, imprisonment appear to be part of larger crackdown in Isfahan.

ISTANBUL, March 8 (CDN) — An Assyrian pastor the Iranian government accused of “converting Muslims” is being tortured in prison and threatened with execution, sources close to the case said.

State Security agents on Feb. 2 arrested the Rev. Wilson Issavi, 65, shortly after he finished a house meeting at a friend’s home in Isfahan. A city of more than 1.5 million people, Isfahan is located 208 miles (335 kilometers) south of Tehran.

According to Farsi Christian News Network, Issavi’s wife, Medline Nazanin, recently visited her husband in prison, where she saw that he had obvious signs of torture and was in poor condition. Iranian intelligence officials told Nazanin that her husband might be executed for his alleged activities.

Issavi is the pastor of The Evangelical Church of Kermanshah in Isfahan, a 50-year-old church body affiliated with The Assemblies of God that caters to the local Assyrian population.

During the raid, State Security police detained everyone in the house, later releasing all but Issavi and the owner of the home. Security officials also seized personal property from the home. Typically in Christian arrests in Iran, security officials confiscate all documents, media materials, computers, and personal documentation.

Issavi is being held in an unmarked prison, according to FCNN.

Last month’s arrest seems to be part of an anti-Christian sweep that is taking place across Isfahan. In addition to the politically motivated detentions and executions that have taken place after June’s contested election and subsequent nation-wide political protests, it appears authorities are rounding up Christian leaders.

More Arrests

On Feb. 28, Isfahan residents Hamid Shafiee and his wife Reyhaneh Aghajary, both converts from Islam and house church leaders, were arrested at their home.

Aghajary was at home with a group of other Christians when police came for her and her husband, who was not at home, according to Middle East Concern, a group that assists persecuted Christians. Police handcuffed Aghajary and, upon finding boxes of Bibles, began beating her.

The assault continued until eventually Aghajary was pepper-sprayed and removed from the scene. Her husband Shafiee was arrested an hour later when he returned to the house.

Their fate and whereabouts are still unknown.

Authorities assaulted another Christian visiting the house at the time of the raid when he protested the police action. Other Christians at the house were threatened, but no one else was arrested. Approximately 20 police officers raided the home, seizing Bibles, CDs, photographs, computers, telephones, personal items and other literature.

One regional analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Iranian government is set on crushing religious freedom within the country.

“The recent spate of church leader arrests provides clear evidence of the Iranian authorities’ desperate determination to strangle the growing church movement, along with all other forms of perceived political dissent,” he said.

February’s arrest was not the first time Shafiee has had run-ins with Iranian authorities. He has routinely been ordered to appear before police for questioning and then released. This arrest, however, was different. When family members contacted police on March 1, they were told that the couple’s case was under the jurisdiction of the Revolutionary Court and were turned away with no other information.

While the couple is imprisoned, family members are caring for their two teenage boys.

Frequent Harassment

Like Shafiee, Issavi has been harassed frequently by the Isfahan branch of the State Security police. He has been ordered to appear before the police many times, then arrested and interrogated. In addition, police have threatened members of his family and have broken into his house and taken items such as his computer.

On Jan. 2, 2010, police sealed the Kermanshah church and ordered Issavi not to reopen it. The church continued to have house meetings, and authorities charged Issavi with not cooperating with the government.

The Assyrians were one of the first ethnic groups in the Middle East to adopt Christianity. The existence of the Assyrian Christian community in Iran predates the existence of their Islamic counterparts by several hundred years. There are 10,000 to 20,000 Assyrian Christians living in Iran, according to unofficial estimates cited in the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report issued by the U.S. Department of State. The total Christian population is 300,000 nationwide, according to the United Nations. Most of those Christians are ethnic Armenians.

Isfahan has been the site of some of the worst religious persecution in Iran. On July 30, 2008, Abbas Amiri, a Christian man in his 60s, died in a hospital after being beaten by Isfahan security police. Authorities had arrested Amiri along with seven other men, six women and two minors during a July 17 raid on a house meeting. Four days after her husband died, Sakineh Rahnama succumbed to her injuries and a stress-related heart attack. Later, officials wouldn’t allow local Christians to hold a memorial service.

Iran, where Shia Islam is the official state religion, is known to be one of the worst countries for repression against Christians. The U.S. Secretary of State has designated Iran as a Country of Particular Concern every year since 1999 for its persecution of non-Shia Muslims, among others.

Last year, according to the International Religious Freedom Report, persecution of Christians and other religious minorities continued to get “significantly worse.” The state department placed the blame for this squarely at the feet of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s conservative media, who “intensified a campaign against non-Muslim religious minorities, and political and religious leaders” by issuing a continual stream of inflammatory statements.

“Christians, particularly evangelicals, continued to be subject to harassment and close surveillance,” the report states. “The government vigilantly enforced its prohibition on proselytizing by closely monitoring the activities of evangelical Christians, discouraging Muslims from entering church premises, closing churches, and arresting Christian converts.”

Evangelical Christians were required to carry church membership cards and provide photocopies to authorities, according to the report.

“Worshippers were subject to identity checks by authorities posted outside congregation centers,” it states. “The government restricted meetings for evangelical services to Sundays, and church officials were ordered to inform the Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance before admitting new members.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Militia destroys church building in the Nuba Mountains

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 8 (Compass Direct News) — Support for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in the wake of an International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant is fast turning into orchestrated attacks on Christians.

A thatched-grass building in the Nuba Mountains village of Chat, used by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Sudanese Church of Christ, is one of the latest targets of such attacks.

The building was destroyed by fire on March 27 by a suspected government militia. Pro-Bashir mobs have attacked those they believe support the ICC’s determination to prosecute Bashir for atrocities in the Darfur region.

As support for President Bashir escalates, especially in the North, the church faces one of the worst threats to its existence in the recent past. Today, it struggles simply to survive.

Drivers on the streets of Khartoum, even the road leading toward the airport, see huge pictures of Bashir staring down from billboards with pro-Bashir messages, such as “Mr. President, we are with you” and “You are not alone.”

Kuwa Shamal, acting director of the Sudanese Church of Christ, says of the billboard campaign: “I wish the same government assuring support to the president could have the same encouraging message for the struggling church.”


Chief Accused of Leading Attack

The Sudanese Church of Christ was forced to conclude a morning worship service prematurely on March 27 when a hostile group attacked. An eyewitness said this militia was led by the area chief, Kafi Tahir, who supports an Islamist agenda and is said to receive government support.

The eyewitness, a Muslim who requested anonymity, said the chief and his accomplices were armed. Helpless church members fled the structure, which had a capacity of about 500. The chief then ordered his accomplices to set the church ablaze and church members ran for their lives, the eyewitness said.

“The Sudanese Church of Christ is concerned of the government move to frustrate the activities of the churches in Nuba Mountains,” said Barnabas Maitias, president of the Sudanese Church of Christ. “It is alleged that the Ministry of Defense has distributed a number of weapons to individuals who are out to support Islamic agenda and the government in Nuba Mountains, including Chief Kafi Tahir of Chat village, who recently led a group of unknown people to destroy our church.”

Indeed, many Christians are worried as a new wave of intolerance sweeps the region. The intolerance could worsen as ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo continues to press for a court trial of Bashir.

Matta Mubarak, general secretary of the Sudanese Church of Christ, told Compass that the villagers of Chat have previously opposed the chief, who then destroyed the church building in retaliation.

“The chief fled for his life to Kadugli and he is living a comfortable life. As a result, justice for the church in Nuba Mountains has been thrown out of the window,” Mubarak said. “What kind of a world are we living in, where criminals are not charged? The church feels that the Sudanese government is not concerned about the rights of Christians in the North. The future of the church in the North is uncertain.”


Worshiping Without Buildings or Land

For a month now, members of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church have worshiped outdoors and without the help of an evangelist who had led them.

Shamal said that evangelist Aburahaman Tai of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church was attacked in early March outside the church by the same group that later destroyed the building.

“He was beaten and sustained head injuries and was treated at a local dispensary before being discharged,” Shamal said. “He is still recovering. Indeed, it is a big blow to the church, to have no place to worship and to lack a pastor. This is a big tragedy.”

Mubarak said that in some parts of Sudan, Islam has conquered the church. “In Northern Sudan, at a place called Dongola, the church building has been converted into a mosque and the few Christians forced to convert to Islam,” Mubarak said.

Church struggles extend even to land ownership. Maitias told Compass that after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, the Sudan Inter-religious Council petitioned the government for a piece of land to be allocated to the church for worship. He said three churches were allowed to apply for land allocation for the purpose of building houses of worship: the Sudanese Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church of Sudan and the Catholic Church.

But to their surprise, the offer was given with some conditions: every year, the government must cross-check church operations and is free to repossess land at will.

“We as the church find our free operation not guaranteed,” Maitias said.

Andrea Amet Ubiu, who works with the Sudan Council of Churches in Khartoum, bought a piece of land from Zinab Adut in 1994 and constructed a temporary house at Salma village, which is about two miles from Khartoum.

“In 2005 the government began demolishing temporary structures in the area with a view of carrying out reallocations. To my surprise, when this [reallocation] was done, I was left out and was informed that the land I bought was not legitimate since the lady who sold the land to me was not entitled to it because she had no husband or children,” Ubiu said.

“But I knew it was a calculated move by the local authorities to deny me the land, because all along I had not supported the government before the signing of the peace agreement between the North and the South,” Ubiu added. “Life for me in Salma has been harsh, so I decided to forget the issue of the land and moved to a new location called Hagyouf area, five kilometers [three miles] from the town center.”

Maitias sees such discrimination as common for Christians in northern Sudan.

“Here in the North, the Church is discriminated [against] in almost everything, even including education,” Maitias said. “Christian institutions are not recognized by the government. Christian religious education is not taught in government schools. Christian programs are only given less than three hours in the national media on Sundays and Christian workers given only two hours for Sunday worship. Christmas celebrations are restricted to a day for celebrations, like marching with police security.”

Christians who wish to operate a restaurant during Ramadan must obtain a permit from authorities. “We always ask ourselves, why all this? Our identity as Christians is an anathema,” Maitias said. “Instead, the government prefers calling us ‘non-Muslims.’”

A dozen non-governmental organizations have been expelled from the country because of their vocal opposition to human rights abuses in Darfur.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Three Christians have each been sentenced to 15 days in prison in the Andijan region of eastern Uzbekistan after police raided a home. Uzbekistan is located in Central Asia, north of Afghanistan, reports MNN.

According to Forum 18 News, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation, three additional Protestants at the house were detained in a homeless center for between four and eleven days, for not having their identification documents with them.

In a separate case, a Baptist in the capital city of Tashkent was given a ten-day prison sentence after approximately 20 officials from various state agencies — including the Presidential Administration — raided a prayer meeting in a registered church.

Officials told church members that they need special permission for any services aside from those on Sundays, though Forum 18 said the news service can’t find any legal requirement for this alleged regulation.

Vice President of Russian Ministries Sergey Rakhuba says they have work in the region, and he confirms that attacks against Christians are on the increase. “It looks like officials are targeting everybody who is talking about their faith, claiming that they are there to destroy their country.”

Rakhuba says these aren’t isolated cases of oppression. He says it’s happening all over the country. “People we work with are sending us messages saying that this is the beginning of another wave of very intense and very serious persecution.”

Ironically this has nothing to do with a new religion law in Uzbekistan, according to Rakhuba. “The believers were in their homes. They were in their churches. They were doing what their constitution allows. They were praying and reading the Bible. But government officials arrested them under their terrorist act or regulation, implying that they’re trying to [create an uprising] against their country, which it totally not true.”

Rakhuba says authorities are even trying to fabricate violations of the religion law. “They will stop somebody in the car, or arrest somebody on the streets, and then they plant New Testaments or Bibles or other literature, claiming that they were trying to distribute it on the streets, when they’re not trying to do that.”

He says even the long time Russian Baptist are having difficulties in the country.

Because the government’s taking such a hard stand on evangelical Christians, the church has gone underground. “That’s really who they are after. The more pressure they create, the more success we see in the underground movement, just like any other place on earth.”

Rakhuba reports that the underground church movement is growing like wildfire. Russian Ministries’ Schools Without Walls program has been created to work well in underground situations — training the next generation church leaders. “You don’t have to have schools or classrooms or schedules or approvals. You just have to have a leader” who’s willing to go and train.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Uzbekistan has since the beginning of March imposed short jail terms on four Protestants, as well as detaining three more in a centre for the homeless, Forum 18 News Service has learnt.

Three Protestants were each jailed for 15 days, after police raided a meal in a private home where the three were present, and three more were held in a homelessness centre for between four and eleven days.

Asked why individuals must ask for permission to gather for a religious purpose, the judge told Forum 18 that “I am not a law-maker, and I don’t want to discuss the law.” In a separate case, a Baptist was jailed for 10 days after some 20 officials from various state agencies – including the Presidential Administration – raided a prayer meeting in a registered church.

Officials told church members that they need special permission for any services apart from those on Sundays, though Forum 18 can find no requirement for this in published laws or regulations.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Despite a fatwa from the Grand Mufti, Alexandria judge denies custody for mother.

ISTANBUL, October 2 (Compass Direct News) – Following the Appeal Court of Alexandria on Sept. 24 granting custody of 13-year-old Christian twins to their Muslim father, their mother lives with the fear that police will take away her children at any moment.

Kamilia Gaballah has fought with her ex-husband Medhat Ramses Labib over alimony support and custody of sons Andrew and Mario in 40 different cases since he left her and converted to Islam so that he could remarry in 1999.

The court ruled in favor of Labib in spite of Egyptian law’s Article 20, which grants custody of children to their mothers until the age of 15, and a fatwa (religious ruling) from Egypt’s most respected Islamic scholar, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, giving her custody.

“This decision was dangerous because it was not taken in accordance with Egyptian law but according to sharia [Islamic] law,” said Naguib Gobraiel, Gaballah’s lawyer and president of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations.

He explained that Egypt’s civic code calls for children under the age of 15 to stay with their mother regardless of their religion. Gobraiel said that sharia tends to favor the Muslim parent in such cases.

“They want to stay with their mother,” said Gobraiel. “They don’t know anything about Islam and sharia. They are Christians and go to church on Sundays.”

The twins have publicly stated their faith, and during a test in a mandatory religious class two years ago they scribbled only, “I am a Christian” on their answer sheets and otherwise turned them in blank. The twins intend to go on a hunger strike if they are forced to live with their Muslim father, whom they hardly know, sources said.

“We only want one thing,” said Gobraiel. “We want the law to be applied in our cases like this one, not the sharia, because the government owes us citizenship. This is a civilized, secular country, not a religious country.”

The decision of the presiding judge, El Sayed El Sherbini, to give the father full custody is not even based on sharia but is purely arbitrary, Gaballah and her eldest son George Medhat Ramses claimed, since the country’s State Mufti had granted custody to the mother in April 2006.

“We don’t want to give them to anyone or comply with the sentence,” Ramses told Compass. “All the legal ways have been wrong to us. We’ve been trying to make it as legal as we can, but the court has not been fair.”

Ramses, 21, who is also a Christian and lives with his mother and two little brothers, said the judged showed bias in favor of his father because he converted to Islam shortly after he left Gaballah.

“The decision was unfair and oppressive,” Gaballah told Compass. “I am treated differently than other Egyptians, as if this is not my own country.”

Gaballah, who has been fighting to keep her sons since the court decided in 2006 that custody of her sons should be given to her ex-husband, fears that her children will grow up without hope and a sense of justice.

“I am so sad and afraid about their psychology,” she said, “because they are facing something that is fundamentally against all the principles I have taught them.”

Gaballah said she is ready to keep fighting with the few means left in her power to keep her sons, even if it means tarnishing her with a criminal record by not handing them over to their father.

“And I’m determined to get justice in my own country, because it is my natural right and my sons’ right,” she said. “I cannot see how I can comply with the people who are taking my rights away from me and taking my children from me to give them to an unworthy father and another woman.”

Labib is now married to his third wife, with whom he has a 4-year-old son. He is a businessman working in exports and travels between Alexandria and Cairo.

Gobraiel said that he intends to send a clear message to Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and the international human rights community that judgments like this one are hypocritical on the part of a government that claims to be “civilized.”

“How can they think we live in a civilized and secular country when they are applying sharia law on us?” he asked. “We will send a message to human rights organizations in Egypt and around the world to help us. We are angry and we want to declare it!”


Problematic Birth Certificates

Even under their father’s custody, the twins have the legal right to live with whomever they choose in two years, when they turn 15. But Ramses said he doubts the court would let them return to their mother.

“The same law that states that they should stay with mother until the age of 15 is the one that says they can decide where to live after the age of 15,” he explained. “If the court didn’t apply the first part of the law, they won’t apply the second.”

At the age of 16, when Mario and Andrew apply for their identification cards, they will face yet another hurdle, said Ramses. In 2005, Labib went to the population register and changed the twins’ birth certificates from Christian to Muslim, to reflect his own religion.

Now Ramses fears that a Sept. 23 court ruling in the case of Bahia Nagy El-Sisi, sentencing her to prison for three years for “forgery of an official document,” could be what awaits him and his little brothers. Nagy El-Sisi’s father had converted to Islam briefly in 1962, when she was 3 years old, and her documents were never altered to reflect the change as she remained a Christian. She and her sister discovered that their father had temporarily converted to Islam when the sister, Shadia Nagy, tried to issue marriage papers for her son.

Shadia Nagy was sentenced to three years in prison in 2007, also for “forgery.”

“These women are us in the future,” said Ramses.

Over the past few years, as Christians have found out about the twin boys’ case, Ramses said many have called them to give support. Many also have pledged to go on a hunger strike with the boys if they are handed over to their father.

“Christians see them as Coptic heroes and martyrs who stood up in front of all and said they were Christians and held on to it,” said Ramses. “All of them say they see the greatness of their ancestors and Christian heroes of long ago in them … and they carry a lot of respect and love for what they have done.”

Report from Compass Direct News