Religious Club Closures in Schools Touch Nerve in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, August 11 (CDN) — More closures of non-Muslim religious clubs in Malaysian schools, including Christian fellowships, have surfaced since the first incident was reported on July 12.

Loh Seng Kok, central committee member of the Malaysian Chinese Association, said at a July 23 press conference that the situation was “getting worse” and that the initial incident at Klang High School was not an “isolated issue.”

Loh based his assessment on complaints received by various religious society representatives. Present with Loh at the press conference were Vice-President of the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia Loh Yit Phing, President of the Subang Jaya Buddhist Association Chim Siew Choon and Executive Secretary of the Christian Federation of Malaysia Tan Kong Beng.

The Malaysian Insider online news agency reported that Chin Fook Khiang, a parent, disclosed that the Buddhist Society and Christian Fellowship in SMK SS17 in Subang Jaya, Selangor were ordered to stop activities in January 2009 – and that it was the second time the clubs were ordered to close by education authorities since 2005.

The religious clubs were closed even though they had been in operation since before 2000, excluding them from the need for official approval. According to Circular Bill 20/2000, non-Muslim religious clubs formed after education authorities issued the circular in 2000 must obtain their approval before they are allowed. Clubs that existed before the circular was issued do not require approval.

Malaysiakini news agency on July 23 cited an unnamed retired teacher who described the situation as “very serious,” to the extent that some teachers had been transferred because they were active in Christian fellowship activities in their schools.

Loh called for a fairer treatment of non-Muslim associations in the co-curricular activities listed in the co-curriculum management guidelines issued to schools. The guidelines only allow for Islamic religious societies to operate unconditionally without requiring prior approval from the education authorities.

Several political leaders, including veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, have called on authorities to revoke outdated directives and circulars that contravene the Federal Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.


Public Outcry

Reports of non-Muslim religious club closures first surfaced when The Sun reported on July 12 that three non-Muslim religious student groups, including the Christian Union at Klang High School, were ordered closed by the Selangor education department last month.

Following the report, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Philips, president of the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), issued a strongly worded statement seeking “immediate confirmation” and “prompt explanation” from authorities.

“Needless to say,” Phillips added, “if indeed there had been such a directive to close non-Muslim religious societies in schools or to not permit the setting up of such societies in schools, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of National Unity should not be in doubt that MCCBCHST shall protest such a policy with the strongest possible vehemence.”

Following public outcry over the closure, Alimuddin Dom, director-general of education, reportedly said that the directive was a “misunderstanding” by the Selangor Education Department and ordered a reinstatement of the affected religious clubs.

Malaysia’s population is about 60 percent Muslim, 19 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. About 6 percent are Hindu, with 2.6 percent of the population adhering to Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions.


Church Attack Trial

Reports of the religious club closures came amid the trial of three men who have been charged with arson in the attack on Metro Tabernacle church’s building earlier this year.

Brothers Raja Muhammad Faizal Raja Ibrahim and Raja Muhammad Idzham Raja Ibrahim, along with their friend Azuwan Shah Ahmad, were charged with committing mischief by torching the church building at 11:50 p.m. on Jan. 7. Since the trial started on July 6, however, the court has acquitted Azuwan due to lack of evidence.

Both brothers deny burning the church building, though they admit to witnessing the incident. They claim they left the scene of the burning to attend a barbeque at a friend’s house. Raja Muhammad Faizal claims he sustained burns from starting a fire at the barbeque, while his brother Raja Muhammad Idzham says he was injured in the course of helping his brother take off his flaming shirt on the occasion.  

The trial is ongoing.

Metro Tabernacle Church was among several churches that came under attack in January following a controversial court ruling that allowed the Herald, a Catholic weekly, to use the word “Allah” in the multilingual publication. The Herald had challenged the ban imposed by the Home Ministry.

The court decision angered some Muslims in the country who claim the term is exclusive to Islam.

Following the high court decision, the Home Ministry filed an appeal in February and won a stay, preventing the weekly from using the word until the case was addressed in the court of appeal. To date there has been no indication when the case will be heard.

On Aug. 1, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was widely reported as saying his predecessor, Syed Hamid Albar, should not have banned the word “Allah” from being used by the Roman Catholic Church, and that the decision will continue to haunt his ministry for a very long time.

Report from Compass Direct News

Recent Incidents of Persecution

Punjab, India, March 1 (CDN) — Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena on Feb. 20 beat Christians and vandalized two churches in Batala after a protest against an objectionable picture of Christ. Christians had noticed the picture posted as part of a composite poster for an upcoming Hindu festival, Ram Naumi. The poster contained pictures of other religious deities as they normally appear, while Jesus was portrayed with a cigarette and a beer, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India. In response to the Christian protest, the Hindu extremists went on a rampage, beating the pastor of the Church of North India and a Salvation Army officer and burning and looting the two churches. With church leaders’ pressure, police registered a case against Hindu extremists Pratap Singh and Raj Kumar, who were said to have put up the picture of Jesus, for a “malicious act intended to outrage religious feelings of others” and “punishment of criminal conspiracy.”

Orissa – Police on Feb. 20 arrested the Rev. Anant Prasad Samantray after Hindu extremists filed a complaint against him of making derogatory remarks against Hinduism in Bhabanipatna, Kalahandi district. Having obtained written permission from local police, Samantray, a former Hindu priest, spoke at a revival meeting of his journey to becoming a Christian pastor, remarking that “Jesus is the only way, the truth and the life,” a local source told Compass. After hearing his speech, some Hindu hardliners dragged him to a police station and filed a complaint against him of speaking ill against Hinduism. Officers arrested the Christian for “malicious acts to outrage religious feelings of others” and “uttering words to wounds religious feelings.”

Karnataka – Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Feb. 15 attacked Christians in Gokalam, Mysore. A source told Compass that Hindu extremists attacked church members of Shekinah Assembly of God Church because of their faith. Running from one house to another, the extremists beat the Christians in their homes, took Bibles and Christian literature and burned them. A Christian identified only as Shivmurthy sustained serious head injuries, lost four teeth and underwent an operation on his right ear. Jaylaxmi Puram police refused to register a complaint filed by the Christians, who left the area out of fear of further attacks; at press time 22 families had taken refuge among Christians in a neighboring area. 

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Feb. 14 stopped the inaugural service of Native Village Vision Church’s new building and accused Christians of forceful conversion in Mysore. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at about 5 p.m. a mob of intolerant Hindu radicals barged into the inaugural service of the new church building, verbally abused the Christians and accused them of forceful conversion. The extremists filed a complaint against the Christians of forceful conversion at the Beechanahalli police station. Officers told the Christians to cease future worship, though GCIC reported that Pastor N.S. Suresh had obtained permission from the village head to construct a church building and had produced required legal documents. Nevertheless, revenue officials locked up the church building on Feb. 15. At press time area Christian leaders were meeting with authorities to resolve the matter. 

Karnataka – Hindu extremists from the Rakshana Vedike, affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, on Feb. 8 attacked a pastor identified only as Timothy G. and two Bible students in Bangalore. An Evangelical Fellowship of India representative reported that the extremists attacked the Christians, who belong to Lord Living Hope Church, as they made their way home after visiting a sick Christian in the area. The extremists verbally insulted them and manhandled them, shoving them and threatening to do more harm if they continued Christian activity in the area. The Christians reported the matter to the police and continued to conduct worship meetings in the area. 

Orissa – Hindu extremists on Feb. 7 attempted to rape a refugee at Mondakai Camp and threatened to harm Christians there if they filed a police complaint against them in Phulbani, Raikia P.S. area. A Christian Legal Association (CLA) representative reported that one unidentified man from the Hindu extremist community followed Afasari Nayak, who had fled her home during 2008 anti-Christian violence, as she went to take bath in a river near the camp after work. Nayak shouted for help as the man started attacking her, and people rushed to rescue her. At about 7 p.m. the suspect along with four other extremists went to the camp and threatened to hurt the Christians if they filed a complaint, saying also that the refugee Christians should not return to the village unless they convert to Hinduism, the CLA source said. 

Orissa – Police arrested 11 Christians after Hindu extremists filed a complaint against them of assault on Feb. 3 in Badimunda, Kandhamal. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that Hindu extremists verbally abused two Christians and threatened harm unless they stopped worshipping Jesus; when the two Christians asserted their right to worship Christ, the extremists began beating them. People of both faiths amassed, and the two Christians managed to escape further attack. At about 7:30 p.m. the next day, five extremists showed up at the same place searching for the two Christians. Forcefully entering the house of Dibyakand Nayak, a Christian, one of the extremists hurt his own forehead, according to EFI. Upon seeing this, the extremists started beating Nayak. They damaged household goods and dragged him to the police station. Police arrested 11 Christians for allegedly causing hurt, causing hurt by dangerous weapons and obscene acts and songs. All except Nayak were released on bail.

Orissa – Two Fast-Track Courts on Jan. 30 convicted 15 people and acquitted 39 others in cases related to anti-Christian violence in August 2008. Judge Sobhan Kumar Das sentenced 13 people to five years imprisonment and fined them 2,500 rupees (US$54) each for torching houses in the Sarangarh area, Kandhamal district, between August 2008 and October 2008. The court, however, acquitted 17 people for “lack of evidence” in the same case. In a separate case related to arson at Ranjabadi village of Kandhamal district, the court sentenced two persons to five years of prison and imposed a fine of 2,000 rupees (US$43) on each of them. Judge C.R. Das of Fast-Track Court II acquitted four people who were accused of violence in Baliguda block, while 18 people were acquitted in another case of arson that took place in Phiringia block, Kandhamal. The district was rocked by anti-Christian violence that lasted more than three months after the Aug. 23, 2008 death of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, who was assassinated allegedly by Maoists.

Andhra Pradesh – About 50 Hindu extremists on Jan. 29 accused a pastor of forceful conversion and forced him to eat food offered to Hindu idols in Secunderabad. The All India Christian Council reported that the extremists stopped Pastor Satyam Yellasiri of Good Shepherd Community Church at about 9:30 p.m. as he was returning from a birthday celebration and accused him of forceful conversion. The extremists forced him to eat the food offered to Hindu idols and threatened to beat him when he refused. Police, alerted by the extremists, arrived and took the pastor to the police station, where they detained him for two hours. Officers initially refused to register his complaint against his assailants. The next day, though, with area Christian leaders intervening, police accepted the complaint. Officers claimed they detained the pastor as a safety measure and assured the Christians that immediate action would be taken against the attackers. 

Karnataka – On Jan. 24 in Bidarikere, Chitradurga, Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsavak Sangh broke into the worship meeting of Indian Evangelical Mission and assaulted a Christian worker. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that at about 10:30 a.m. the extremists barged into the meeting shouting slogans and started beating H. Raju, who was leading the meeting, and accused him of forceful conversion. They also burned Bibles and Christian literature and dragged him out to the streets, forcing him to identify Christians’ homes in the area, according to EFI. Entering three Christian houses, the Hindu hardliners threatened to harm Christians if they did not stop worshipping Jesus. Local Christian leaders on Jan. 27 filed a police complaint with Jagalur police, and the next day police arrested three extremists. 

Karnataka – Hindu extremists accompanied by local police stopped the worship service of Calvary Gospel Church (CGC) on Jan. 24 in Dudda, Hassan. Two local police stopped the Sunday worship in the rented house of Sekhar Chandra and his wife, Kala Chandra, and chased the Christian worshippers out of the house. Hindu extremists had filed a complaint against the couple, whose rented home was being used for the worship service. After the Jan. 24 disruption, Hindu extremists announced to all villagers they were not to allow any house be used for Christian worship. Subsequently, the landlord along with an agitated mob threw the couple out of their rented house, along with their household goods. The Christian workers are now renting the house of another Christian in the same area and are continuing their ministry. 

Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal accompanied by Madhya Pradesh police stopped the worship meeting of Central India Christian Mission’s (CICM) Shahdol Christian church on Jan. 23 and forced church members to falsely testify against Pastor S.K. Ashawan in Shahdol. A source reported that the extremists barged into the prayer meeting attended by about 35 Christians, verbally abused them and dragged them to Shahdol police station. Amassing at the police station, the angry extremists beat, punched and kicked the Christians, forcing them to testify falsely against the pastor by saying he offered each of them 5,000 rupees (US$108) to convert them to Christianity and also forced them to eat beef. Under pressure, the Christians gave a written statement with these accusations. Police summoned the pastor, detaining and questioning him for two hours. The town inspector told Pastor Ashawan that 35 Christians had testified against him, and he threatened to beat and arrest the pastor if he did not give him 100,000 rupees (US$2,168). “It was midnight, and I was under pressure with the police threatening to beat and put me in jail if I did not submit the money,” Pastor Ashawan told Compass. The pastor started calling area Christians for help. That night, a source said, 100,000 rupees arrived into the inspector’s hands. Ajay Lal, Director of the CICM, took the matter to administrative authorities, but state Chief Minister Shivraj C. Chauhan advised the area district collector to close the case immediately. Christian leaders planned take the matter to a higher court.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists on Jan. 10 stormed a house church, disrupting worship and beating a pastor in Jillelguda L.B. Nagar, Hyderabad. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at 9 a.m. nearly 50 area extremists belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh barged into Heavens Glory Church, shouting Hindu devotional chants. Repeatedly slapping Pastor Benhur Johnson, they falsely accused him of forcible conversion and warned him against conducting Christian services in the area. The extremists also beat some who came forward to help the pastor. A GCIC regional coordinator told Compass that Christians telephoned police, who rushed to the church and stopped the attack. Pastor Johnson along with other Christians went to police to register a complaint, but an official mediated an agreement between them and the extremists. The pastor told Compass that no worship was held on Jan. 17 or 24 out of fear of another attack.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Special Investigations Team Sought in Orissa Violence

Acquittals increasingly surpass convictions due to shoddy or corrupt police investigators.

NEW DELHI, December 7 (CDN) — Christian leaders in India have called for a special investigations team to counter the shoddy or corrupt police investigations into anti-Christian violence in Orissa state in August-September 2008.

Of the 100 cases handled by two-fast track courts, 32 have been heard as of Nov. 30, resulting in 48 convictions and more than 164 acquittals. A legislator for the main Hindu extremist party has been exonerated “for lack of evidence” in six cases, most of them involving murder charges. The number of cases registered total 787.

“Christians are extremely shocked by this travesty of justice in Orissa,” attorney Bibhu Dutta Das told Compass.

The government of Orissa set up two fast-track courts in Kandhamal district headquarters for cases related to the violence that began in August 2008 after the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his disciples in Jalespetta on Aug. 23, 2008. The chief minister of Orissa state has admitted that Hindu extremist umbrella group Sangh Parivar was involved in the anti-Christian violence (see sidebar below), and Christian leaders have said they are increasingly concerned over verdicts in the fast-track courts based in Phulbani.

Among those exonerated “for lack of evidence” was Manoj Pradhan, a legislator from the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who was acquitted of murder on Nov. 24. He was accused of killing Trinath Digal of Tiangia village on Aug. 25, 2008.

Thus far, Pradhan has been cleared in six of 14 cases against him.

“Manoj Pradhan has been let off in all the major cases against him, mostly murder cases, for lack of evidence,” attorney Das told Compass. “Now only small cases of arson remain against him.”

Attorneys said acquittals have resulted from police investigations that were intentionally defective to cover up for Hindu extremist attackers. In many cases, for example, police have fraudulently misrepresented the ages of suspects so they would not match with those denoted in the victims’ First Information Reports, leaving the court no option but to let the alleged culprits go.

Nine people were convicted, and five suspects, including Pradhan, were acquitted “for lack of evidence” on Nov. 18 for burning the house of Ratha Nayak in Mlahupanga village, Kandhamal on Aug. 27, 2008. Those convicted were sentenced to four years of prison and fined 3,500 rupees (US$75) each.

In a previous case, witnesses had testified to the involvement of Pradhan in the kidnapping of Kantheswar Digal – subsequently murdered on Aug. 25, 2008 – in Sankarakhole village, Phulbani district, but their testimony failed to convince the court to condemn the BJP politician.

Pradhan was arrested and jailed in October 2008 and was elected as BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly from the G. Udayagiri constituency while in jail.

On Nov. 24, Judge C.R. Das acquitted six suspects: Budhdeb Kanhar, Purander Kanhar, Gadadhar Kanhar, Sudhir Pradhan, Ajibana Pradhan and Dadhi Mallick. They were accused of killing Meghanad Digal and his wife Priyatama from Dutukagam village, Tikabali on Sept. 25, 2008.

Judge S.K. Das sentenced 12 persons to four years of prison along with a fine of 2,000 rupees (US$43) each on Nov. 28 for torching houses and shops at Sirtiguda village, under Nuagaon police jurisdiction, on Sept. 13, 2008.

Indo-Asian News Service reported that on Nov. 30 Sanjeev Pradhan was convicted of torching the house of Shravan Kumar Digal of Penagari village on Aug. 25, 2008. Sanjeev Pradhan was sentenced to prison for five years and fined 7,500 rupees (US$160).

Special Investigation Team Sought

Christian leaders are calling for a special investigation team like the one created after communal violence wracked Gujarat state in 2002.

“The need of the hour is a special investigation team, for the investigations of the Orissa police have caused doubts,” attorney Das said. 

He added that the cases should be transferred out of Kandhamal, as Christian leaders feel justice cannot be served in the district’s Hindu extremist atmosphere.

Many of the Christians displaced as a result of the violence have yet to return to their villages. The archbishop of Bhubaneswar-Cuttack, Raphael Cheenath, told media that out of 50,000 people displaced, about half have returned, “but they are facing housing problems. The state government should take it up earnestly.”

Dr. John Dayal of the All India Christian Council stated in a Dec. 4 report that “several thousand of the 50,000 Christian refugees are still to return home. Many cannot, as they have been told they have to convert to Hinduism before they will be accepted in the villages. The threats and coercion continue till today.”

He added that most of the more than 5,000 houses destroyed in December 2007 and August-October 2008 mayhem have yet to be rebuilt.

Attorney Das told Compass many of those who fled their village fear returning home.

“It is true that in many cases, the pre-condition of converting to Hinduism and facing violence if they do not has been the factor that has prevented the people from returning to their homes,” he said. “The fear of being attacked again has also stopped many from going into their villages. The government has not been very successful in instilling trust in the Christian community that such incidents can be prevented in the future.”

Orissa police yesterday arrested a man accused in the rape of a nun during the violence in Kandhamal. Gururam Patra was reportedly arrested in Dharampur.

He was accused of leading a mob that attacked the nun at on Aug. 25, 2008. Police have so far arrested 19 people in the incident, with another 11 still at large. The 29-year-old nun has told police she was raped and paraded naked by a Hindu extremist mob, and that officers only stood by when she pleaded for help.


Official Names Hindu Nationalist Groups in Orissa Violence

NEW DELHI, December 7 (Compass Direct News) – The ruling party of Orissa state, which labelled last year’s mayhem in Kandhamal district as “ethnic violence,” has publicly admitted that Hindu nationalist groups were behind the killings and arson of Christians and their property.

“It is learnt from the investigation into the riot cases that the members of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], the VHP [World Hindu Council] and the Bajrang Dal were involved in the violence that took place last year,” Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told the state legislative assembly last month.

Patnaik, in response to a question by a member of the Communist Party of India, also disclosed that police had arrested 85 people from the RSS, 321 members of the VHP and 118 Bajrang Dal members in the attacks. He said that only 27 members from these groups were still in jail.

The others were either bailed out or acquitted for lack of evidence, which Christians say is due to shoddy or corrupt investigation by police and prosecutors (government attorneys).

Soon after violence in Kandhamal broke out in August 2008, Patnaik blamed it on “conflict of interest” between Dalits (people at the bottom of the caste hierarchy in Hinduism and formerly known as “untouchables”) and tribal people.

National media speculated that Patnaik was seeking to deflect attention from the Bajrang Dal, which had been accused of the attacks on the Christians. The Bajrang Dal (Army of Hindu God Hanuman) is the youth wing of the VHP, which is seen as part of the RSS family.

Local Christians had suspected the role of the RSS and related outfits since the violence began on Aug. 24, 2008 – one day after Hindu nationalist leader Laxmanananda Saraswati was killed by Maoists (extreme Marxists) and RSS members blamed Christians for it.

The RSS is a Hindu nationalist conglomerate whose political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was part of the ruling coalition during the 2008 eruption of the violence that killed more than 100 people, mostly hacked to death or burned alive, and incinerated more than 4,500 houses, over 250 churches and 13 educational institutions.

Patnaik’s party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) broke up its 11-year-old alliance with the BJP in March 2009, a month before state assembly and national elections were held. The BJD, which fought the two elections alone, won a majority in the state assembly and most seats in parliament from the state.

It was only after the coalition’s break-up that the BJD began to hint at the culpability of the RSS and related groups.

“It was important to break up with the BJP, because I don’t consider them healthy any longer for my state after Kandhamal [violence] – which I think is very apparent to everyone,” Patnaik told CNN-IBN, a private TV news channel, on April 19.

A state government-constituted panel, the Justice Mohapatra Commission of Inquiry, is probing the Kandhamal violence but has yet to issue its final report.

Meantime, a report of another panel, the Justice M.S. Liberhan Commission of Inquiry, said that top leaders of the BJP, the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal “meticulously planned” the demolition of the 17th century Babri Mosque 17 years ago.

More than 2,000 people were killed in communal violence across the country following the demolition of the mosque on Dec. 6, 1992. The incident polarized voters along religious lines and subsequently contributed to the BJP’s rise in Indian politics.

The Liberhan report, presented to parliament on Nov. 25, indicted several Hindu nationalist leaders, including former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, current Leader of Opposition in the People’s House L.K. Advani, VHP leader Ashok Singhal and former RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan.

Observers said the indictment of extreme Hindu nationalists, however, has come too late, as the BJP no longer seems to be powerful at the national level.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Two Copts wounded in Minya province over plan to use building as church venue.

ISTANBUL July 31 (Compass Direct News) – The recent eruption of sectarian violence in Egypt’s Minya province continued last week as local Christians again faced harsh reprisals from Muslims for trying to convert a building into a worship facility.

On July 24 security forces in the village of Hawasliya were able to prevent a crowd of Muslims, which numbered in the hundreds according to some reports, from torching the building. But the mob succeeded in setting fire to four neighboring stables, killing sheep and cows belonging to Copts.

During the melee two Copts, including an elderly woman, were wounded. Both received hospital treatment.

“When Muslims see that Christians are making a church, they get upset about it,” said Teresa Kamal, a local journalist. “Why are people full of hate like this? Something has happened to radicalize the people.”

Pastor Milad Shehata, 39, heads up the project to convert the four-story property into a church building. He told Compass that the village’s Protestant Christians had no other place to worship.

“I have no intention of leaving this place at any price,” said Shehata. “This place has been built from the sweat and hard-earned money of very poor people. Even if I or my family is killed, it doesn’t matter. I will not leave this place.”

Shehata had begun to refurbish the building to accommodate church meetings and was planning to apply for permission to use it as a place of worship before holding services on the premises.

On July 23, officers investigating complaints from Muslim villagers about two crosses Shehata had installed on the outside of the building took him to the local police station. After questioning, they released him with orders to return the next morning. At that time two policemen escorted him to the main prison in Minya, where he was held without charge until Saturday afternoon (July 25).

“I don’t know why I was arrested,” said Shehata. “I was there for 37 hours, but no one even gave me even a cup of water.”

Since the attack on July 24, elders from the Muslim community have extended the offer of a reconciliation meeting on condition the church is never opened.

“There is no point in holding a reconciliation meeting if we have to close the church,” said Shehata. “The church is the whole point.”

Recent Troubles

There have long been drafts of a unified law for the building of places of worship in Egypt aimed at resolving recurrent conflicts faced by new churches. Such legislation, however, has been consistently passed over in parliamentary sessions.

Human rights lawyer Naguib Gobraiel said there was a stark contrast between the freedom to practice religion given to Muslims and that afforded to Christians.

“Muslims can put a mat down anywhere and pray and no one objects,” he said, pointing out the contrast with Christians’ inability to secure worship sites. “Why do they differentiate? It implies that we can’t have private prayers.”

The July 24 incident marks the fourth time in as many weeks that planned new church buildings have sparked violent responses from inhabitants of villages surrounding the city of Minya.

Despite the recent high incidents of sectarian strife, Minya Gov. Ahmad Dia’a El-Din told Compass that inter-faith relations are not as strained as they may seem.

“These kinds of attacks are not as frequent as some people imagine,” he said. “They are not happening night and day. The proof is the businesses – you find many shops owned by Copts. People live together and Copts are wealthy, they are doing fine business.”

El-Din seemed eager to demonstrate that he led by example.

“I personally work closely with Christian people and have good relationships with them,” he said. “I harbor no personal animosity.”

Gobraiel, however, was not impressed.

“The governorate of Minya has the highest level of radicalization and intolerance,” he said. “The governor has totally failed in tackling this issue from all different aspects – education, media, culture and security.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Five Christians injured as officials raze ‘illegally constructed’ worship place.

HO CHI MINH CITY, December 17 (Compass Direct News) – Local government officials in Dak Lak Province this morning made good on their threat to destroy a new wooden church building erected in September by Hmong Christians in Cu Hat village.

At 7 a.m. in Cu Dram Commune, Krong Bong district, a large contingent of government officials, police and demolition workers arrived at the site of a Vietnam Good News Mission and Church, razing it by 8:30 a.m. Police wielding electric cattle prods beat back hundreds of distraught Christians who rushed to the site to protect the building.

Five injured people were taken away in an emergency vehicle authorities had brought to the scene. The injured included a child who suffered a broken arm and a pregnant woman who fainted after being poked in the stomach with an electric cattle prod. Villagers said they fear she may miscarry.

By day’s end one badly injured woman had not yet been returned to the village, and authorities would not divulge where she was.

One sad Vietnamese church leader said that the demolition of the church ahead of Christmas showed the heartlessness of officials toward Christian believers.

“They think no one will notice or do anything about what they do in a remote area,” he said.

Nearly eight years ago a congregation numbering more than 500 Hmong Christians had joined thousands of others fleeing persecution in Vietnam’s northwest provinces, migrating to the Central Highlands. They aspired to construct a church building so they could worship protected from the rain and sun.

In September they were finally able to assemble materials needed to erect a 12-meter by 20-meter church building, large enough for them to meet. Eventually they were able to put a durable tile roof on the building, and with great joy they began worshipping together in a single location.

Although virtually all buildings in this area of Vietnam are erected without building permits, local authorities accused the Christians of “illegal construction” and ordered the congregation to “voluntarily” tear it down. On Dec. 2, Krong Bong district officials made a formal decision to demolish the church within two weeks if the Christians would not do so themselves.

The Vietnam Good News Mission and Church is an organization that for more than a year has tried to register more than a hundred of its congregations without any success. Contrary to Vietnam’s new religion legislation, these requests for registration have either been denied or ignored.


Agony and Ecstasy

In contrast to this hostility toward ethnic minority Christians in a remote area, several Ho Chi Minh City congregations of the legally-recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) on Dec. 12-13 were allowed to hold a large Christmas celebration event in a soccer stadium.

An estimated 10,000 attended on each night of the event. The program, which featured a popular Vietnamese entertainer who recently came to faith in Christ, a U.S. soloist and Korean and Chinese choirs, included an evangelistic invitation to which hundreds responded.

In a country where Christians have suffered under communist attitudes and actions against them for more than 30 years, many Vietnamese Christians were ecstatic that such an event could take place.

Likewise, in Pleiku in Gia Lai Province in mid-October, some 20,000 Jarai ethnic minority Christians gathered to hold an unprecedented celebration of the 65th anniversary of the coming of the gospel to their people. They had sought permission for more than a year, but it was granted only four days before the event. Participants said they suspected officials granted permission chiefly because several high-profile U.S. visitors made it clear they would attend.

In contrast, authorities have worked to limit the spread of Christianity to new areas. In a remote commune of Lao Cai Province, officials pressured new Hmong Christians to recant their new faith and re-establish their ancestral altars (See Compass Direct News, “Vietnamese Authorities Pressure New Christians to Recant,” Nov. 21).

Also, Christians in Dien Bien Province are trying to verify recent reports of the torching of Christian homes in the area.

Vietnam’s large Catholic Church was also reawakened to authorities’ residual hostility toward Christianity this year, with the government reacting violently to sustained but peaceful pressure by thousands to recover church land and buildings confiscated by authorities after the prime minister had agreed to negotiations.

Vietnam gave unusually light, house-arrest sentences to eight Catholics arrested during the prayer vigils-cum-protests. Previously others arrested for similar reasons have been sentenced to prison for years.

“Unfortunately, the mostly urban bright spots are cancelled by the persistence of old-style repression among Vietnam’s ethnic minorities in remote areas,” said one veteran Vietnam observer. “The easier registration of churches promised in 2005 is being granted very selectively and is used as a means of limiting and controlling Christianity.”

That central government authorities responsible for implementing improved religion policy seem to turn a blind eye to old-fashioned thugs at the local level, he added, “is very discouraging to Vietnam’s Christians. Religious freedom reserved for some is not religious freedom.”  

Report from Compass Direct News