Two Indian Christians Languish in Saudi Prison

‘Religious police’ raid apartment; no official charges.

LOS ANGELES, March 28 (CDN) — Friends and family of two Indian Christians arrested after a prayer meeting in Saudi Arabia in January have tried in vain to secure their release.

The two Christians were incarcerated for attending the prayer meeting with other Indian nationals and accused of converting Muslims to Christianity, though the government has not produced formal charges, sources said.

Yohan Nese, 31 and Vasantha Sekhar Vara, 28, were arrested on Jan. 21 when mutaween (religious police) raided an apartment where the two had lingered after attending the prayer meeting. Religious police interrogated and beat them to the point that they suffered injuries, according to sources. During this time, religious police who were cursing at them allegedly tore up and trampled on Bibles and Christian material they had confiscated, said a source who spoke to the men.

Authorities asked them how many Christian groups and pastors there are in Saudi Arabia and Riyadh and asked their nationalities. The religious police also put pressure on the two to convert to Islam, according to sources.

The next morning, Jan. 22, authorities took the two Christians to the Religious Court in Riyadh. The court sentenced them to 45 days in prison. At 2 p.m., police filed a case at the local civil police station, according to a source who requested anonymity.

To date the Christian Indians have been in prison for 67 days. Their family and friends say they still have not been able to obtain a document with official charges but know from the prisoners that the charges are religious in nature, according to the source. At the time of their detention, the Christians were not engaging in religious activities.

On Jan. 22, 15 mutaween in civilian clothes came back to the apartment they had raided the previous day, destroyed valuable items and wrote Islamic slogans on the walls with spray paint, the source said.

Nese and Vara’s situation in prison is “horrible,” said the source. The two men are cramped in a prison cell with only enough room to stand.

“There is no place to even sit,” said the source. “Only two hours a day they are sleeping in shifts. When brother Yohan is sleeping, brother Sekhar needs to stand, and when brother Sekhar wants to sleep, brother Yohan needs to stand. They have been doing this for more than a month. I don’t know how many more days they have to continue this.”

Since the arrest, other Christians have been too frightened to meet for prayer.

One week after his arrest, Vara was able to use a phone to call his family and pastor in India. His wife, Sandhya Vara, who is expecting their first child in three months, said she has not heard from him since.

“There were no Muslims in their prayer meeting, but they are accusing them of converting Muslims into Christians,” she told Compass by phone. “We got married eight months ago, but he’s very far from me now and he’s in very much trouble, and I’m six months pregnant.”

She and his pastor in India have communicated numerous times with the Indian embassy but have received no response.

“I have been complaining to the Indian embassy,” she said. “They cannot call me or give me any information. There is no help. So many times I informed them and they cannot give any reply and cannot take any action.”

Vara had worked in Saudi Arabia for more than seven years. Last summer he came to India and got married, returning on Jan. 9 to his post in Riyadh, where he worked as a supervisor for a catering company.

“Vasantha is from my church,” said his pastor in India, Ajay Kumar Jeldi. “He is very God-fearing, good, prayerful, supporting the pastor and working for the youth.”

The morning of his arrest, Vara called Pastor Jeldi and told him he planned to go to the evening prayer meeting in Riyadh. After the meeting, Vara, Nese and four other unidentified Christians lingered at the flat where the gathering had taken place. At around 7:30 p.m. two mutaween in plainclothes and one policeman in uniform raided the apartment.

On the phone with his pastor back in India, Vara said he was in prison for religious reasons and that he had been pressured to convert to Islam, but that he had refused.

“If I have to die for my God, I will die for him here,” he told Pastor Jeldi. “God will help me.”

The pastor said that in his sole conversation with him a week after his detention, Vara requested prayers for his release.

Typically in Saudi Arabia, a foreign worker’s documents remain with the employers who sponsor them in order for them to work in the country. Saudi employers are typically the only ones who can secure their employees’ release on bail.

“Only their sponsors can bring them out,” Pastor Jeldi said. “He has the right to bring him out, and no one else has the right to go and pay the bail or anything. Only the sponsor can have that responsibility.”

Since his arrest, Vara’s employer has handed his passport to local authorities and told them he is no longer responsible for him, according to the anonymous source.

“He doesn’t want him to work in his company anymore,” said the source.

The Saudi “religious police” or Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice (CPVPV) is a government entity that includes 5,000 field officers and 10,000 employees, along with hundreds of “unofficial” volunteers who take it upon themselves to carry out the CPVPV’s mandate, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“Despite the fact that the CPVPV is not allowed to engage in surveillance, detain individuals for more than 24 hours, arrest individuals without police accompaniment, or carry out any kind of punishment, its members have been accused in recent years of killing, beating, whipping, detaining, and otherwise harassing individuals,” the commission stated.

In the raid, authorities confiscated anything of value in the apartment, including two musical keyboards, a guitar, two sound boxes, a sound mixer, four microphones, music stands, power extension boxes, a laptop, mobile phone chargers and a whiteboard. They also confiscated 25 Bibles and other Christian materials, the source said.

The other Indian Christians at the apartment escaped.

The anonymous source said he has informed the Embassy of India in Riyadh of their arrest numerous times.

“I have lost hope in them,” he said, “because the only thing they are always saying is that this is a religious case, so we can’t do anything.”

Pastor Jeldi said he thought someone must have complained about the group of Christian Indians who were meeting regularly, causing authorities to act.

Nearly 7 million foreigners live and work in Saudi Arabia, of which an estimated 1.5 million are Indian nationals.

Human Rights Watch has reported that Saudi Arabia systematically discriminates against migrant workers and has called for the government to “abolish the sponsorship system for migrant workers, in particular the requirement for employer consent to transfer employment and to obtain an exit visa.”

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom, with rare exception, expatriate workers fear government interference with their private worship. The reasons for this interference can range from the worship service being too loud, having too many people in attendance or that it occurs too often in the same place, according to the report.

Riyadh was the stage for another raid and mass arrest of Christians in early October 2010. Arab News and other press reported the arrest of 12 Filipino Christians and a French Catholic priest celebrating mass in a private apartment. There were 150 Filipinos in attendance. The employers of the 12 Christian foreign workers secured their release, and the Philippine embassy negotiated their repatriation. The Catholic priest was also released within days.

“Saudi officials do not accept that for members of some religious groups, the practice of religion requires more than an individual or a small group worshipping in private, but includes the need for religious leaders to conduct services in community with others,” stated the State Department’s religious freedom report. “Foreign religious leaders continue to be prohibited from seeking and obtaining visas to enter Saudi Arabia and minister to local religious communities.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Massive Muslim Mob Damages Church Building in Indonesia

Crowd of 1,000 celebrating eve of Islamic New Year ransack, set fire to construction site.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, December 23 (CDN) — Hundreds of Muslims celebrated the eve of the Islamic New Year last Thursday (Dec. 17) by attacking a Catholic church building under construction in Bekasi, West Java.

A crowd of approximately 1,000 men, women and children from the Bebalan and Taruma Jaha areas of Bekasi walking in a New Year’s Eve procession stopped at the 60 percent-completed Santo Albertus Catholic Church building, where many ransacked and set fires to it, church leaders said. Damage was said to be extensive, but no one was injured.

The crowd initially gathered at the Tiga Mojang Statue about a mile from the church between 10 and 10:45 p.m., said Kristina Maria Rentetana, head of the church building committee. She said there were no hints that the group would become a mob and attack the church building.

Rentetana said she joined the crowd as they walked along. Upon nearing the church, she said, they began throwing stones.

“They shouted, ‘Destroy it, destroy it,’” Rentetana told Compass. “Even women carrying babies joined in stone-throwing. Then a large group dressed in white robes entered the church, which was under construction, and started fires.”

The mob burned the security post and leveled a nearby contractor’s office. “They broke roof tiles, marble slabs, floor tiles, and lamps which had been placed in the building,” Rentetana said.

Some among the mob apparently had come prepared to burn the church building; an empty jerry can was found at the site. The mob also left a computer belonging to the contractor trampled in the gutter.

Rentetana immediately called police, and the mob finally dispersed around 12 midnight after at least 100 officers arrived.

Sector Police Chief Imam Sugianto said the attack on the church was spontaneous.

“There were agitators among the crowd as they walked,” Sugianto said. “These persons incited the crowd to burn the church.”

At press time police had arrested 12 people thought to be leaders of the mob.

“It is not clear whether these are all from the same organization or not,” Sugianto told Compass. Among those arrested was Amat Rosidi, accused of stealing a drill from the construction site.

A Santo Albertus Church priest identified only as Father Yos said the mayor of Bekasi had issued a valid building permit on Feb. 6, 2008. Bekasi is near Jakarta.

The priest said the church building was 60 percent complete on a plot of land of 2,261 square meters. He said he did not know the amount of losses.

Sugianto said he encouraged the church to proceed with plans for a Christmas Eve service and promised to provide adequate security.

“Please hold the Christmas Mass,” he said. “The police will guard the church.”

Rentetana confirmed that police had guaranteed security for the scheduled Christmas Mass.

Sugianto added that the attack on the church will be duly prosecuted, saying, “We will attempt to arrest all of the leaders of this action.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Theology Students in Indonesia to be Evicted from Campground

Government stops paying rent for site where students were driven more than a year ago.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 20 (CDN) — Approximately 700 students from Arastamar Evangelical Theological Seminary (SETIA) are facing eviction at the end of the month from a campground where Muslim protestors drove them last year.

Education will end for students who have been living in 11 large tents and studying in the open air at Bumi Perkemahan Cibubur (BUPERTA) campground, many of them for more than a year. Hundreds of protestors shouting “Allahu-Akbar [“God is greater]” and brandishing machetes forced the evacuation of staff and students from the SETIA campus in Kampung Pulo village on July 26-27, 2008.

Urged on by announcements from a mosque loudspeaker to “drive out the unwanted neighbor” following a misunderstanding between students and local residents, the protestors also had sharpened bamboo and acid and injured at least 20 students, some seriously.

The Jakarta provincial government has ceased paying the rental fee of the campsite in East Jakarta, a bill that now totals 2.7 billion rupiahs (US$280,000), which camp officials said will result in the eviction of the students and the end of their studies at the end of the month.

At the beginning of the month, camp officials cut off electricity and water; as a result, the students have had to go 1,500 meters to bathe and use the toilet in the Cibubur marketplace. Additionally, several of the student tents were taken down. In spite of the conditions, sources said, the students have maintained their enthusiasm and no one has quit the school.

SETIA officials said camp management rejected their request for an extension.

“The electricity and the water were cut off after the Cibubur campground managers rejected Arastamar’s request,” said Yusuf Lifire, SETIA administrator.

Other students at the seminary have taken temporary shelter in the other parts of greater Jakarta. Those living quarters, however, are so overcrowded that some of the students have become ill.

Umar Lubis, head of BUPERTA campground, said camp officials have provided the students great leeway and shown great tolerance in the year that rent has not been paid.

“We have provided water, electricity, and other facilities,” Lubis told Compass. “However, Jakarta Province has not paid us campground rental since October 2008. The government did pay 700 million rupiahs [US$75,000], but that only covered the rental fees through September 2008.”

Muhayat, area secretary of Jakarta Province who goes by a single name, told Compass that beginning in October 2008, the provincial government was no longer responsible for campsite rental for the SETIA students. The provincial government made this decision, he said, because the seminary refused to move to Jonggol, Bogor, West Java, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the old campus.

“We offered to move them to Jonggol, but Arastamar took a hard line and wanted to be in Jakarta,” Muhayat said.

The Rev. Matheus Mangentang, rector of SETIA, said that they refused to move to Jonggol because their school permit was for Jakarta.

“If we moved to Jonggol, we would have to get a new permit,” Mangentang told Compass. “We suspect that this would be an extremely difficult process.”

Illness Strikes

Many students are suffering from respiratory and other illnesses, and some have breast cancer. The sick are being cared for at the Christian University of Indonesia hospital.

One of the students living at the BUPERTA campground told Compass that many of the students had fever from mosquito bites.

“When it rains here, we sleep on water and mud,” said a 21-year-old student who identified herself only as Siska. Her statements were echoed by a Christian education major named Ahasyweros.

“We struggle daily in a place like this – especially after our request was turned down,” the student said. “We don’t know where we are going to go. We hope that the Jakarta provincial government will have the heart to help us.”

The staff and students were forced from their campus by a mob that claimed to be acting for the local citizens of Pulo Kampung, Makasar District, East Jakarta last year. Key among motives for the attack was that area Muslims felt “disturbed” by the presence of the Christian college. They wanted it to be moved to another area.

The approximately 1,300 seminary students were placed in three locations: 760 at the BUPERTA campground, 330 at the Kalimalang Transit Lodge, and 220 at the former office of the mayor of West Jakarta.

The fate of the students at all locations was similar; they were overcrowded and short on water, and overall facilities were substandard.

Jakarta Vice-Gov. Prijanto, who goes by a single name, had promised to find a solution. He had also stated that the government was ready to help and would pay for the students’ room and board, but this has not been the case.

Mangentang said he continues to hope for good will from the Jakarta government, which he said should return the school to its original site in Pulo Kampung. 

“Even if there is talk in the provincial government that the locals don’t accept us, we still want to go back,” he said. “After we are back, then we would be prepared to talk and negotiate about the future. Healthy discussions are not possible if we are not back in our own home. If we tried to talk now, while we are trampled upon and pressured, nothing healthy would result. It is better that we return to our own place so that we can talk at the same level.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


14 believers reportedly killed; more than 100 homes burned in Gojra town, Korian village.


GOJRA, Pakistan, August 1 (Compass Direct News) – Islamic extremists today set ablaze more than 50 houses and a church in this town in northeastern Pakistan following an accusation of “blasphemy” of the Quran, leaving at least 14 Christians dead, sources said.

The dead include women and children, with several other burn victims unable to reach hospitals for medical care, according to the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). The attack came amid a protest by thousands of Muslim Islamists – including members of banned militant groups – that resulted in another six people dying when participants shot at police and officers responded with tear gas and gunfire.

The same rumor of desecration of the Quran that led to today’s massive protest and attack in Gojra, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Faisalabad, also prompted an arson assault on Thursday (July 30) by Islamic extremists on the village of Korian, seven miles from Gojra, that gutted 60 houses.

Punjab Minister for Law Rana Sanaullah reportedly said an initial investigation of allegations of the Quran being blasphemed indicated “there has not been any incident of desecration.”

Because of the earlier assault in Korian, Pakistani officials were already in the area and had sought reinforcements to help control the 11 a.m. demonstration today in Gojra, but security forces were slow to respond, according to CLAAS.

“There were unaccountable people in the mob and they were out of control because only four police constables were trying to stop the mob of thousands of people,” a CLAAS report said.

Crowd size and attacks grew, and Islamists managed to block main roads and railways to keep fire brigades from fighting the house fires, according to CLAAS.

With authorities also blocking roads to keep more Muslim extremists from entering from neighboring villages, clerics at local mosques broadcast messages that those “who love Muhammad and Islam should gather with them to defend the Islam because it is in danger,” according to CLAAS.

Asam Masih, a Christian in Gojra, said that that women and children were severely burned and had no way to get to a hospital, according to CLAAS, which was helping to transport victims for medical care.

Islamists set on fire a Catholic church on Sumandri road and destroyed it using firearms and explosives, according to CLAAS.

“50 houses are burned and totally destroyed,” the CLAAS statement read. “14 people including children, women and men are expired.”

Wedding and Funeral

As Christians have begun defending themselves against the onslaughts, mainstream media have already begun referring to the overwhelmingly Islamist aggression as “Christian and Muslim rioting.”

Compass investigated the facts of the trigger incident in the village of Korian, where more than 500 Muslims, responding to calls from a mosque, attacked Christians in Toba Tek Singh district. Local sources said nearly all village Christian families fled. The fires destroyed their homes – collapsing their wooden roofs or melting T-iron roofs – and all belongings within that the attacking Muslims had not first looted.

“Our house is burnt and everything is gone, but Muslim neighbors around are not willing to give us a loaf of bread or a sip of water to us,” 80-year-old Baba Sharif Masih told Compass.

He and his wife Hanifa Bibi, 73, were the only Christians left in the village in the northeastern province of Punjab. Masih, who is paralyzed, said the attackers let them live when they pleaded that they were unable to run away.

Two church buildings were ransacked but not burned, Compass sources said.

One Christian resident of Korian identified only as Shabir said the blasphemy accusation grew out of an incident at a wedding on Sunday (July 25). During the ceremony, Christian wedding guests tossed currency notes and coins into the air according to custom, with children catching most of them as they fall. Shabir told Compass a Muslim funeral was taking place at the same time, however, and that mourners told wedding celebrants to stop their music; they apparently declined.

The next day, Muslims met with the parents of the bride, Talib and Mukhtar Masih, and told them that their sons had cut pages of the Quran the size of currency notes and had been throwing them in the air the previous night, Shabir said.

“Talib said that nothing like this has happened, but that if there was anything, ‘I’ll call my son and he will definitely apologize for it,’” Shabir said. “But then they immediately began beating them and left Talib when he fell unconscious.”

Shabir said that afterward when Christian women went to the Muslims and told them that they were wrong to beat Talib Masih, the assailants yelled at them and tried to attack them, but they were able to flee to their homes.

On Thursday (July 30), Shabir said, Muslim clerics announced from the village mosque that “if any infidel Christian wanted to save his or her life, then get out of here or they would be killed.”

As the Muslim mobs gathered, he said, Christians immediately fled – leaving their meals prepared and fires burning in stoves.

“These assailants first looted these houses and then set them on fire and closed the door,” he said. “Since then, not a single Christian is left there except a very old couple.”

Islamist’s Version

Village Muslims declined to open their doors when Compass reporters called on them.

But one of three Muslim leaders standing with a crowd of turban-clad Islamists at the entrance to the village, Qari Noor Ahmed, told Compass the story of the alleged cut pages of the Quran at the marriage ceremony.

“Because it was night, no one noticed, but in the morning we saw that the pages of the Quran had been cut to currency note size, and they were trampled under people’s feet,” he said.

Ahmed said that village authorities later met and called in Talib and Mukhtar Masih. He said that council authorities decided that their son should apologize.

“But when his son came in the meeting, he by no means seemed apologetic, rather he was aggressive,” Ahmed said. “This was the root cause, and we told Talib and Mukhtar to tell their children to apologize.”

Ahmed said that afterwards they searched for Talib and Mukhtar Masih and their sons but could not find them.

“Then Muslims became furious that first they had profaned the Quran, and now they had fled and were not apologizing,” Ahmed said. “Then the villagers attacked their houses. All the Christians who are visiting here are armed, and we are sitting here to avoid any untoward incident. It is better for you to leave now or you may be attacked.”

Munawar Masih, a 20-year-old Christian in Korian, said that he was preparing supper around 7 p.m. when he heard the announcement from the mosque that “infidel Christians had profaned the Holy Quran, and let’s teach them exemplary lesson.”

He looked outside as his family was about to sit down to dinner and saw a large mob approaching.

“We just fled from there to save our lives, and since then we are hiding in Gojra,” he said.

Private TV channel reporter Ghulam Muhauddin told Compass that after the Korian houses were set on fire, the Islamic extremists blocked the Faisalabad-Gojra Highway to keep firefighters from arriving.

“When the attack was unleashed, several people were injured and even some domestic animals were killed,” he said.

Muhauddin said that after negotiations between the District Police Officer and the protestors, Station House Officer (SHO) Jamshed Iqbal Nasir was suspended for not properly handling the incident.

Christians Accused

Officials at the Sadar Police Station, in whose precincts the attack took place, were not available for comment, but a deputy called Imam Din said that a First Information Report (FIR) had been filed under Section 295-B, or blasphemy of the Quran, against Talib and Mukhtar Masih.

He said that the complainant in the case was Muhammad Ashraf, and that police had possession of the alleged burnt or cut papers of the Quran. Din said that after SHO Nasir was suspended and Ashiq Hussein replaced him, Hussein was willing to file an FIR against those who had ransacked and burned houses of Christians. He said the accused were still at large and that police would arrest them after Christians returned to their homes.

Asked if police were under pressure from Islamists or the government, Din declined to comment.

Advocacy group Community Development Initiative (CDI) field officer Napoleon Qayyum said that the group had informed high officials about the Korian attack, including the presidency, and that soon afterward the president issued a notice. Qayyum noted that the Korian and Gojra attacks follow a July 1 attack in Kasur, where swarms of Islamists ransacked and damaged 110 homes.

“It is a clear sign that violent attacks against Christians have dramatically increased in recent days,” he said, adding that CDI would provide legal help to victims. CDI works with assistance from the American Centre of Law and Justice.

Muhauddin of the private TV channel added that Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had taken the notice of the attacks and was forming an investigative team comprising the Faisalabad Regional Police Officer and Faisalabad Commissioner, which will send a report to him.

A spokesman from the Pakistani president’s office, former Sen. Farhatullah Babar, told Compass that President Asif Ali Zardari had taken a notice of the attack and had asked the provincial government to investigate. He said the president has condemned the attack and that there was no justification for anyone taking the law into their own hands.

Asked why the committee constituted by the provincial government did not have any Christians on it, he responded that it was the discretion of the provincial government to determine the make-up of the panel and that the federal government was concerned only about the report. Asked why an FIR had been filed against Christians and not Muslims for ransacking and vandalizing, he said only that appropriate action would be taken after the inquiry.

Member of National Assembly Farahnaz Ispahani, wife of Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, told Compass that President Zardari had directed Federal Minorities Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti to visit the area and “express sympathy with the victims.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


The international association Aid to the Church in Need presented its Report on Religious Freedom in the world this week, noting that in more than 60 countries there are various degrees of violations of religious liberty, especially in some Asian nations, reports Catholic News Agency.

The report, presented in Rome by the president of Aid to the Church in Need, Father Joaquin Alliende, specifies how in some countries there are “grave limitations on freedom of religion,” such as in Bhutan, where “although the law protects religious freedom, the government de facto limits this right regarding religions distinct from Buddhism, which is the religion of the State.”

The document also addresses the grave situation of the last two years in India, where the constitution recognizes religious freedom. It states that “in the years 2006 and 2007 anti-conversion laws have been passed, which in general represent a sort of systematic support by some local governments and other public officials of the activities of Hindu nationalists that are contrary to religious freedom.”

ACN hopes its latest report will “provide not only a specialist readership but also a broader public with information that is not published by the rulers and religious leaders of those countries where religious freedom is restricted or denied, thereby promoting a growing awareness which, it is hoped, can improve the lives of millions of people whose most basic right has been trampled underfoot.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph