Nearly 200 graves face demolition.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, January 25 (CDN) — Three years after the death of a Christian who was a captain in the Nepal Army, his widow, Gamala Guide, faces fresh grief.
The grave of her husband, Narayan Guide, is threatened with destruction as authorities of Nepal’s most powerful Hindu temple are reclaiming the forested land where it is located.
“What kind of strange country is this that doesn’t allow its own citizens to rest in peace?” the 55-year-old recently asked leaders of the Christian community in Kathmandu. “Please do something to stop the desecration, or my husband will die a second death.”
At least 200 graves, many of them unmarked due to Christians’ fear of discovery and destruction, could share the same fate. The Pashupatinath Area Development Trust, the organization administering the Pashupatinath temple that dates back to the fourth century AD, has begun renovating the shrine as Nepal celebrates 2011 as its “tourism year” with the goal of attracting 1 million visitors. The temple has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO.
“In the late 1980s, the government gave us 292 hectares of land to develop the Pashupatinath temple,” said Ram Saran Chimoria, director of the trust. “We have accordingly drawn up a five-year plan that will renovate the main shrine and beautify its surroundings. The forested land adjoining the temple will be used to grow plants considered sacred by Hindus.”
Chimoria said part of the forest is also meant to be used for Hindu burials.
“A Hindu sect called the Dashnami, which has 10 sub-groups under it, buries its dead here, as Muslims and Christians do,” he said. “Since Pashupatinath is a Hindu temple, the 10 sub-groups are allowed to bury their dead here. But other communities also began burying their dead here, first pretending to be the Dashnami and then clandestinely. This is against Hindu traditions, and the temple is seeking to reclaim what belongs to it. It is the responsibility of the government to allot burial grounds to non-Hindus, not the trust’s.”
The burial ground lies opposite Arya Ghat, a cremation ground at Pashupatinath, where bodies are burned on pyres according to Hindu tradition. Known as the Sleshmantak Forest, it is a steep and nearly inaccessible wooded tract where monkeys and foxes roam. Locals advise visitors not to wander into the forest alone, even during day time, for fear of robbers.
“I attended several burial rites there,” said Chirendra Satyal, spokesman of the Catholic Assumption Church of Kathmandu Valley. “They were all low-key. Many of the graves are unmarked to avoid detection. The burial ground is used as a garbage dumping site, and at times foxes dig up the buried bodies. There are also cases of bodies being dumped on top of one another.”
An increasingly angry Christian community, tired of petitioning the government for an official burial ground, is now seeking stronger measures.
“Nepal became secular in 2006, and two years later, we petitioned the prime minister, the culture minister and the top human rights agency in Nepal, saying that in a secular democracy Christians should have the same rights as others and should be given their own burial ground,” said C.B. Gahatraj, general secretary of a Christian committee formed to provide recommendations to parliament, which is drafting a new constitution. “We understand the temple’s position. But the state should understand ours too.”
The committee had identified forested land on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley, in an area called Duwakot, and proposed that it be given to them.
“We would make it one of the most idyllic sites in Nepal,” said Gahatraj. “It would have gardens and would be an attractive destination for tourists as well. But so far, there has been no response from the state.”
Believing the time has come for stronger action, Christians plan to discuss the issue with 22 major parliamentary parties on Sunday (Jan. 30).
“At the meeting, we will present our case again,” Gahatraj said. “We also want the trust to suspend the demolition drive till we are given our own land. If there’s no result, we will internationalize our case by taking our problem to international rights organizations and the United Nations.”
As the first such public protest, on Feb. 15 at Maitighar Mandala, one of the most prominent areas of the capital, the Christian community will begin a “relay hunger strike.” Christians are also beginning the first-ever Christian census this year to ascertain their true position in society.
“We estimate there are about 2 million Christians now [out of a population of nearly 29 million],” Gahatraj said.
Catholics, however, form a tiny fraction of the Christian community. Satyal assessed there were about 7,500 Catholics. In 2009, three women were killed at the Assumption Church when a militant underground organization planted a bomb there. All three had to be cremated.
“Land is a premium commodity in Kathmandu Valley,” said Anthony Sharma, Nepal’s first Catholic bishop. “When the living don’t have land, it is futile to seek land for the dead. We have accepted cremation for Catholics in Nepal in keeping with acceptance worldwide.”
But even the cremation is dogged by discrimination.
“The Arya Ghat cremation ground at Pashupatinath distinguishes between upper castes and lower castes,” the bishop said. “If Christians are taken there, they would be treated as lower castes. So we have organized our own cremation site in Teku [in a different part of the town].”
Madhav Kumar Nepal, who resigned as prime minister on June 30 but leads a caretaker government, was regarded as having a soft spot for Christians. After the attack on the Assumption church, he was among the first state officials to visit the injured in the hospital and kept his promise to bring the culprits to justice, with police managing to arrest the blast mastermind.
Nepal resigned last year under pressure by the largest opposition party, and since then the turbulent republic has remained under a powerless caretaker government, unable to make any major decision.
With the squabbling political parties unable to form a new government and a political deadlock spilling into its seventh month, there are now new fears about the prospective constitution, which is expected to consolidate the secular nature of the nation. The constitution was to have been completed last year, but as the bickering parties failed to accomplish the task, the deadline was extended to May 28.
The delay has enabled a spurt in activities of Hindus calling for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion. If Nepal’s May deadline fails as well, Christians fear it could be impossible to obtain their own official burial site.
Report from Compass Direct News
Suspected Hindu extremists accuse them of ‘forced conversion.’
NEW DELHI, July 27 (CDN) — Two evangelists said they survived an attack in Balaghat district, Madhya Pradesh by playing dead when suspected Hindu extremists on July 20 surrounded them and severely beat them.
The six assailants accused Mahindra Kharoley, 20, and 30-year-old Munshi Prasaad Bahey of “forced conversion.”
The two evangelists were bicycling to their home village of Susua following a prayer meeting at Dunda Sivni, 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Balaghat district, when the attackers on two motorbikes, with their faces covered, attacked them in Bhalwa village at around 10 p.m. The assailants did not wait for them to respond to the charges of forced conversion before they began hitting and kicking them, the evangelists said.
“They banged my head on the cement road and hit me hard with their boots on top of my head, splitting my forehead,” said Bahey, whose clothes became drenched with blood in the attack. He sustained a deep cut on his forehead above his right eye, as well as internal injuries.
Kharoley suffered internal head, chest and body injuries, and his right thumb was nearly fractured.
“We lay motionless and pretended to be dead after they had beaten us about 20 minutes, to escape their fury,” Kharoley said.
Bahey added, “If we had not done so, they would have killed us.”
Bahey told Compass that one of the attackers called another by name, saying, “Mahesh, stop hitting them, they are already dead – let’s get out of here.”
With no moonlight, Bahey and Kharoley were left bleeding in the pitch darkness of the jungle road about 800 meters from their home village. They called fellow evangelist Kamlesh Nagpure but managed to reach their village on their own.
“We could not wait for Kamlesh to arrive – we needed first-aid immediately,” Bahey said.
They were rushed to a government branch health center in Kirnapur, and then transferred to a hospital in Balaghat for advanced tests and X-rays.
Kirnapur police accepted a complaint about the incident but have yet to investigate, the station officer in-charge told Compass.
“No investigations have been done, and only after investigating will a First Information Report be filed,” said Sub-Inspector Sandhir Chaudhary.
He said he had spoken to higher officials about the incident, however, and that they told him to investigate.
“I am busy till Aug. 5 in other, more important cases,” Chaudhary said. “I will look into this only after that.”
In Dunda Sivni, where Kharoley and Bahey had recently begun to proclaim Christ, an uninvited visitor arrived at a prayer meeting the day of the attack and began accusing them of forced conversion, Nagpure said.
Kharoley and Bahey were at the house of 55-year-old Munnibai Gaurkar, who had recently come to trust in Christ. Gaurkar had lost her husband and oldest son due to what she called constant attacks of evil spirits, and as a result she had decided to attend church, Nagpure said.
“It was because of this that she started to attend church and invited us home to pray,” said Nagpure, who along with his wife and a few others were also present at the meeting.
During prayer, a visitor named Nand Lal arrived and asked the evangelists to pray for healing for him, he said.
“He objected to our taking the name of Jesus and started to argue about our Christian faith and belief, and he accused us of forceful conversion,” Nagpure said. “When he argued relentlessly, sister Gaurkar asked him to leave.”
After the meeting, they ate dinner together and left for their respective homes. Nagpure, of Hatta village seven kilometers (four miles) away, left on his motorbike with his wife, and Bahey and Kharoley set out in the opposite direction for their home village.
Bahey said he suspects the involvement of Lal in the attack.
“The same arguments of Nand Lal were stated by the unidentified attackers as they started to beat us,” he said.
The victims named Lal and Mahesh in the application submitted in the area police station.
Church Building Demolished
Four days before the attack, a church building under construction in Kotri village, five kilometers (nearly three miles) from the Kirnapur police station, came under attack.
Pastor Bhikamp Chaudhary, who has ministered in the area for 14 years, told Compass that on July 16 between midnight and 1 a.m., unidentified assailants demolished the church building.
“The walls had been completely constructed, and the roof was left [to be built],” Pastor Chaudhary said. “All the members of the church are so disheartened because of the demolition, as they had worked very hard raising funds for the building.”
Construction that started in August 2009 was more than half completed, said the pastor, whose house is about 500 meters from the site. Around 60 members meet at his house for weekly worship.
Pastor Chaudhary said police response has been nil.
“Though I have submitted an application in the Kirnapur police station, the police have not even come once to visit the site of the broken down church and have not registered a First Information Report for my written complaint,” he said.
The pastor said he suspects the hand of a person he does not wish to name who is closely associated with the Bajrang Dal, youth wing of the Hindu extremist World Hindu Council.
Pastor Chaudhary recalled that last year at almost the same time, in July 2009, some 25 to 30 men entered his house and dragged him out to beat him. He escaped when villagers heeded his cries and came to his rescue.
The pastor ministers in 16 villages, including Kirnapur and areas around Balaghat and leads worship services in six villages.
Report from Compass Direct News
Church likely to face another harsh year, report says.
DUBLIN, April 9 (CDN) — Christian human rights activist Gao Zhisheng, kidnapped by state security agents on Feb. 4, 2009, has been released, though he appears unable to move or speak freely.
On Tuesday (April 6) Gao told Bob Fu, president of the U.S.-based China Aid Association (CAA), by telephone that he had just returned to his Beijing apartment from his guarded location in Shanxi Province.
“Gao Zhisheng and his family have suffered deeply from the long separation,” Fu stated on CAA’s website. “Despite the persecution, he continues to trust the Lord.”
On Jan. 9, 2009, less than a month before Gao was abducted in his home village in Shaanxi Province, his family members began their escape from China. His wife, Geng He, along with then 16-year-old daughter Geng Ge and then 5-year-old son Gao Tianyu, arrived on foot to Thailand and eventually reached New York City on March 14, 2009.
With Fu and with reporters from The Associated Press (AP) this week, Gao declined to discuss his physical condition or how he was treated during his captivity. He told the AP that by leaving his role as a critic of human rights violations in China, he hopes to be re-united with his family.
“Gao is still not able to speak or move freely,” Fu said on the CAA website. “We urge the Chinese government now to allow Gao Zhisheng to be reunited with his family. It is his right, according the Chinese law, to be able to see them, since he has broken no laws during his time of probation.”
Gao’s disappearance had drawn protests from international human rights groups, U.S. and British officials and the United Nations. He had defended house church Christians and coal miners as well as members of the banned Falun Gong, which fuses Buddhist-inspired teachings with forms of meditation. In 1999 Beijing banned it as an “evil cult.”
Early in 2009, Gao authorized CAA to release his account of 50 days of torture by state-sponsored thugs in September and October of 2007. Gao had written the account in November 2007 while under house arrest in Beijing after prolonged beatings and electric shocks on his mouth and genitals.
Gao’s suffering in the fall of 2007 followed an open letter he wrote to the U.S. Congress describing China’s torture of Falun Gong members and other human rights abuses.
Another Harsh Year Expected
Chinese Christians can expect more attacks on large urban churches, more harsh punishments for house church leaders and tighter control of registered churches this year, according to CAA.
In a report summarizing persecution it monitored in 2009, CAA identified five key trends in China’s management of Protestant Christianity.
Authorities last year specifically targeted house church leaders, sometimes handing out harsh sentences and fines; carried out violent raids on large urban churches; attempted to disrupt regular worship meetings and tightened control of churches registered with the government-approved Three-Self Protestant Movement (TSPM).
In response, some urban churches engaged in a “power encounter” with local governments, refusing to quietly allow officials to close or destroy their meeting places, CAA noted. For example, almost 1,000 members of Beijing Shouwang church on Nov. 1 worshiped in Haidian Park during a snowstorm after officials pressured Huajie Plaza managers not to renew the church rental contract.
These trends were confirmed by a Chinese House Church Alliance (CHCA) report, released in December, which described harassment and arrest of church leaders, violent raids on house churches and the oppression of TSPM churches.
While CAA reported only 77 incidents in 2009, these occurred throughout China, giving a broad indication of the status of Protestant Christians, particularly those in unregistered churches. A total of 2,935 people were affected in these incidents, a 44.8 percent increase from 2008. Of these, 389 were arrested, a decrease in arrests of 49 percent; and 23 were sentenced to prison, a decline of 34 percent.
Of the 389 people arrested, 211 were church leaders. Several received harsh prison sentences and fines, including Beijing bookstore owner and church leader Shi Weihan, who on June 12 was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 150,000 RMB (US$21,945). Xinjiang officials on Aug. 6 sentenced Uyghur church leader Alimjan Yimit (Alimujiang Yimiti in Chinese) to 15 years in prison, while a day later, officials in Inner Mongolia sentenced church leaders Li Ming-shun and Zhang Yong-hu to 10 and seven years respectively, with fines of 30,000 (US$4,390) and 20,000 (US$2,925) RMB.
A court in Shanxi Province in November awarded five Linfen church pastors sentences ranging from three to seven years, with fines ranging from 10,000 to 50,000 RMB (US$1,462 to US$7,315). A further five pastors were sentenced to two years in labor camp.
At least 400 paramilitary police violently raided the Fushan county branch of Linfen church on Sept. 13, injuring a few dozen church members, confiscating Bibles and money and damaging church property. A similar raid was carried out on another large church in Shanxi Province in November.
Authorities also sealed or destroyed both house church and TSPM church buildings. In one prominent case last June, officials in Chengdu city, Sichuan Province declared Quiyu church to be an illegal organization, forcing the church to close and confiscating church property.
Officials in Rizhao city, Shandong province, raided a training event at a TSPM church and de-registered two church meeting places, CAA reported, while CHCA reported that officials tore down the meeting place of Changchun church in Ninan city, Shandong Province, giving only token compensation.
Churches in ‘Grey’ Zone
Chinese scholar and former policy writer Liu Peng believes the government is attempting to remove the “grey” zone in Protestant Christianity, where some churches operate openly without legal status.
China now permits churches to bypass joining the TSPM when registering, but many house church groups reject this solution. Leaders would prefer churches to be in one camp or the other, Liu said in a December interview with the China Daily.
In predicting harsher treatment this year, CAA quoted Wang Zuoan, head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, who in January told Oriental Outlook that the “reluctance, intimidation and inability” of local governments to deal with religious issues must be addressed.
If these words represent China’s religious policy direction in 2010, churches are likely to be targets of greater persecution, CAA concluded.
Report from Compass Direct News
Police try to extract bribe after attacking home; in Rawalpindi, militants attack chapel.
VEHARI, Pakistan, April 8 (CDN) — Police here filed false charges of alcohol possession against 47 Christians, including women and children, on March 28 in an attempt to intimidate and bribe them, Christian leaders said.
Police broke into and ransacked the home of Shaukat Masih at 10:15 p.m. on Palm Sunday, manhandled his wife Parveen Bibi, and threatened to charge them and 45 other area Christians with alcohol possession if they did not pay a bribe, said attorney Albert Patras. The Christians refused.
Those charged include two children and eight women. Patras said that three of the 37 Christian men, Shaukat Masih, Moula Masih and Shanni Masih, secured pre-arrest bail and thus averted detainment by Dane Wall police in Vehari, in Punjab Province. None of the others named in the First Information Report is being held either.
“Police are not interested in their arrest, instead they were trying to extort some money from the destitute Christians,” Patras said. “Police thought that Christians, being a soft target, would readily be bribed to save their families, particularly their girls and women.”
Non-Muslims with a permit are allowed to possess and drink alcohol in Pakistan, while alcohol is forbidden to Muslims in Pakistan. Shaukat Masih has a government permit to keep and drink alcohol, Patras said, thus making the possession charge baseless.
“No longer using just ‘blasphemy’ laws, police and fanatical Muslims have begun to use alcohol laws, Section 3/4 of the Pakistan Penal Code, to persecute the destitute Christians of Pakistan,” Patras said. “Only Christians in Pakistan are allowed to keep and drink alcohol, so Pakistani police can apprehend any Christian and then level section 3/4 of PPC against him or her.”
Patras, head of the Society for Empowerment of the People, told Compass that Sub-Inspector Irshaad-ur-Rehman of the Dane Wall police station, along with two other policemen illegally ransacked the house of Shaukat Masih and Sadiq Masih and threatened to file alcohol charges against them if they refused to pay the bribe.
Besides the alcohol accusations, police also filed charges against the Christians for interfering with police, attacking in the form of a mob, theft, confronting police and engaging in terrorist activities, Patras said.
Patras said that Rehman filed the false charges against the Christians only to protect himself and his cohorts against accusations over their attack on the household. Rehman was not immediately available for comment.
Khalid Gill, head of Lahore zone of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) and chief organizer of the Christian Liberation Front of Punjab Province, said that police violated the trust of their office.
“Keeping alcohol and drinking is taboo in Islam,” Gill said, “but Christians are issued permits to keep and drink alcohol. Now besides the discriminatory blasphemy laws of Sections 295-A, 295-B and 295-C of the penal code, fanatical Muslims and police have found this new way to harass and extort money from innocent, impoverished Christian families.”
The Rt. Rev. Bishop Naeem Essa condemned the police action, concurring with the other Christian leaders that Muslim extremists and police accustomed to using Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to unjustly jail Christians have found a new means of antagonism.
“Now they have grabbed a new weapon in Section 3/4 of the penal code to financially, socially and legally terrorize the weak Christians of Pakistan,” Essa said.
Armed Attack on Chapel
In another Easter week incident, in Rawalpindi law enforcement agents secured the liberty of Christians held hostage by several armed Muslim militants, including at least five burqa-clad women, who attacked a church building after a Good Friday (April 2) service.
APMA’s Gill said the assailants armed with automatic rifles and pistols desecrated Gordon College Chapel of Robinson Community Development Ministries (RCDM) Church and ripped apart books, including the Bible. The assailants also entered nearby residences and reprimanded adults and children for their faith in Christ, besides looting many of the homes, Gill said.
Eyewitnesses said that while two Christians, Shaban Gill and Imran Nazir, were scaling the wall of their property to enter their home, the Muslim militants opened fire on them. Gill managed to escape but Nazir was hit, and the militants held his wife and two daughters, one 4 years old and the other 18 months, at gunpoint.
A heavy contingent of police from City Police Station Raja Bazaar arrived at the scene, and with the help of local Christians broke down doors and gates to make their way into the property and its adjoining residential area. Police secured the liberty of all three Christian hostages and arrested at least 10 suspects.
Nine of the suspects have been identified as Mushtaq Ahmed, Amjad Zaman Cheema, Dildar Hussein, Muhammad Anwer and Saqib Ali, along with the burqa-clad Nusrat Bibi, Shahnaz Bibi, Irum Bibi and Fatima Bibi.
Police were initially reluctant to file charges against the arrested Muslims but eventually did so under the pressure from Christian rights activists Robinson Asghar, head of RCDM.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Report from Compass Direct News
Holding convert from Islam without formal charges since May, police seek ‘terrorism’ evidence.
NAIROBI, Kenya, February 18 (CDN) — Prosecutors and police are trying to concoct a terrorism case against an Ethiopian convert from Islam who has been jailed since May without formal charges, Christian leaders said.
Bashir Musa Ahmed, a 39-year-old Ethiopian national, was arrested on May 23 when police found him in possession of eight Bibles in Jijiga, capital of Ethiopia’s Somali Region Zone Five, a predominantly Muslim area in eastern Ethiopia. Zonal police arrested him after he was accused of providing Muslims with the Somali-language Bibles, sources said, though Ethiopia’s constitution protects such activity.
A state official joined Christian leaders in stating that Islamist interests have kept Ahmed in jail in spite of the state’s failure to find any legitimate charge against him. Initially the Christian was arrested for “malicious” distribution of a version of the Bible that is widely available in Ethiopia and is commonly used by Somali Christians inside and outside of the country.
Unable to mount a case rooted in Islamist accusations with no legal bases, authorities have turned toward the terrorism charge as a new tactic, Christian leaders said. Police have submitted the terrorism charge to prosecutors, prompting the prosecutors last month to ask police to find some evidence for the accusation, according to a church leader.
“Police have submitted their investigation results to the prosecutor’s office accusing Bashir of terrorism,” said the church leader. “We heard that the prosecutors asked police to solidify their accusations with evidences of Bashir’s connections [to a terrorist group, and to specify] which terrorist group. Prosecutors seem to feel they need to have some evidence to charge him with terrorism.”
Church leaders said they have received reports of authorities beating Bashir in jail.
“We repeatedly asked prison officials to take him to the hospital, and they are not willing to do so,” said the church leader. “We are only allowed to talk to him for few minutes in the presence of onlookers. We take food for him, and we don’t know whether it reaches him or not.”
The church leader said law enforcement officials are receiving pressure from tribal and Islamic religious leaders.
“We have visited a number of officials in the region – the regional state president, the chairman of security forces and others, and they openly told us that they don’t want to dismay the public by releasing Bashir,” he said. “Some of the officials were saying to us that it is not right to translate the Bible into the regional state language and cultural context.”
A Christian worker in Addis Ababa said a regional state official of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front who has close ties with authorities said that Ahmed was about to be released at one point, as prosecutors were unable to find any chargeable offense against him.
“I was almost sure he would be released within days,” at least on bail, the official told the Christian worker, but “other issues came into play to influence the turn of events.”
The official recalled participating in meetings in which regional state officials brought together all tribal and religious leaders in Somali state, he said.
“I heard the regional state leaders say that they are directly handling Ahmed’s case to protect the religion and culture of Somalis,” he said. “It was enough for me to realize that Ahmed’s case involved a different agenda.”
The Ethiopian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the official told the Christian worker.
“This is not the communist regime’s time,” he said. “Everyone has the right to follow and practice the religion of his choice. Ahmed shouldn’t be in jail for a single day. I suspect that the regional leaders are using Ahmed’s case for other purposes.”
Ethiopia’s constitution, laws and policies promote freedom of religion, but occasionally local authorities infringe on this right, according to the U.S. Department of State. An estimated 40 to 45 percent of Ethiopia’s population belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, evangelical and Pentecostal groups make up another 10 percent, and about 45 percent of the country’s people are Sunni Muslim, according to the report.
Held without a court appearance for several months, Ahmed has been repeatedly denied bail as police continued to ask the court for more time to carry out investigations. At one hearing, sources said, a judge in Dire Dawa asked what crime Ahmed had committed; the prosecutor responded that Ahmed was trying to perpetuate a religious clash in the region.
Prosecutors have repeatedly opposed the defendant’s pleas for bail with the argument that the case is a “very high sensitive matter with a potential to instigate religious instability.”
“Ahmed’s case is still pending and seems beyond legal proceedings,” said the Christian worker. “We have tried every possible way, and all didn’t work.”
Powers and Authorities
Bordering lawless Somalia, Ethiopia’s Somali state sees sporadic instability in various areas, and sources said federal officials appear reluctant to take action that could diminish trust with tribal and religious leaders.
An Ethiopian national, Ahmed is known as a bold preacher of Christianity and is credited with opening discussion of the two faiths between Christian and Muslim leaders. He is well-known in the area as a scholar of Islam.
The Christian worker said he has spoken to the speaker of the House of Federation in Addis Ababa, asking that he intervene; he has also brought the matter to the attention of the national security adviser to the prime minister. The adviser said he was unhappy with the handling of Ahmed’s case and promised to come back with some answers within a week.
“This one too just disappeared,” the Christian worker said. “It seems to me that we are only left with the exceptional intervention from God.”
He said a ministry representative in the region has visited the police commander in Somali state to ask why Ahmed has been kept so long without trial. The commander was not responsive, he said.
“When he was challenged that it was Ahmed’s constitutional right to get formal court proceedings, the commander abruptly responded that the constitution was second to his Islamic faith,” the worker said. He added that state authorities, unlike in other areas, are acting according to their personal will rather than the law.
A church leader following the case in Jijiga said that even after many months in prison, Ahmed was fervently telling about faith in Christ to other inmates. “He is zealous to reach his tribe’s men,” said the church leader.
A conviction on terrorism charges would bring him a harsh sentence, he said.
“Bashir has an indefinite and uncertain future,” he said. “Pray for him.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Attacks on Christians seen as politically expedient in majority-Buddhist nation.
CHIANG MAI, Thailand, January 21 (CDN) — As Burma’s military junta gears up for its first parliamentary election in two decades this year, observers fear attacks on the Christian minority could intensify.
Mungpi Suangtak, assistant editor of a New Delhi-based news agency run by exiled Burmese journalists, the Mizzima News, said the Burmese junta has “one of the world’s worst human rights records” and will “definitely” attack religious and ethnic minorities more forcefully in the run-up to the election.
The military regime, officially known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), pledged to hold the election this year, and analysts believe polls will be held after July in the country, also known as Myanmar.
Suangtak told Compass that the Buddhist nationalist junta would target Christians particularly in Karen state, bordering Thailand, and in Chin State, bordering India and Bangladesh.
Many Christians are part of the Karen National Union and the Chin National Front, armed resistance groups that have been demanding freedom or autonomy for their respective states for decades, and therefore the junta sees the Christian minority as a threat, said Suangtak.
There are over 100,000 Christian Chin refugees in India who have fled the junta’s attacks in the past two decades, according to Human Rights Watch.
Christians in Karen state are not safe. A Karen Christian worker living in the Mae La refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border told Compass that ethnic Christians were facing human rights abuses by the junta “on a daily basis.” Most recently, Burma army soldiers attacked a church, murdered a local farmer and injured others in Nawng Mi village on Dec. 19, 2009, reported Burma Campaign UK.
Parts of Karen state fall under the “Black Zone” – identified by the Burma army as an area under the control of armed resistance groups where its soldiers are free to open fire on anyone on sight – and the junta has been launching indiscriminate attacks to take control of village after village, said the Karen Christian.
“Those who are not able to flee across the border during such attacks are either killed or forcibly relocated in and confined to temporary camps set up by the junta,” the Christian said. “Since the army litters surrounding areas with landmines, many local people die or get injured while trying to run away from or coming to the camps to look for their relatives.”
Over 150,000 refugees from Karen and neighboring Karenni states of Burma are living along the Thai side of the border, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of them are Christian.
A representative of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), which trains and sends teams of local people to help victims of the junta’s attacks inside Burma, said youths have been forced to become Buddhists in Chin state, where over 80 percent of the people are Christian.
Printing of Bibles is restricted, and churches are destroyed on a regular basis in the state, the source told Compass on condition of anonymity.
Access for foreign visitors to Chin state is, with some exceptions, prohibited, and the state is widely acknowledged to be the poorest part of the country, said Rogers.
“According to one Chin, the reason Chin state is denied resources, and foreigners are denied access, is specifically because the overwhelming majority of Chins are Christian,” stated a 2009 report by London-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “The SPDC has, it is believed, taken a deliberate decision to discriminate against Chin Christians.”
The report cited a Chin Christian man who had served in the Burma army who faced discrimination.
“I had a colleague who was a Chin who became a Buddhist and he was promoted,” the Christian says in the report. “I was told to change my religion if I wanted to get promotion. I refused to convert.”
The report also quoted a Chin Christian as saying that students from a Christian youth fellowship at a university in Kalaymyo, in Chin state’s Sagaing Division, collected funds among their own community to construct a small church.
“However, in 2008 and again in 2009, ‘extremist Buddhists’ destroyed the church building, and when the students reported the incident to the local authorities, the youth fellowship leaders were arrested, detained and then released with a warning,” he said.
Suangtak said successive governments in Burma have promoted Buddhism since General Ne Win took power in 1962, leaving Christians insecure.
“There is a general feeling in Burma that the state represents Buddhism, and most Christians, particularly from conservative sections, cannot trust the regime,” said Suangtak.
Benedict Rogers of CSW said the junta doesn’t differentiate between individual Christians involved in armed struggle and ordinary Christians who have not taken up arms.
“And when it attacks villages in conflict zones, churches and pastors are often among the first to be attacked,” Rogers said.
A Christian worker from Burma’s Mandalay city, however, told Compass that thus far he has heard no reports of any major anti-Christian incidents there. He said he was hoping the junta would try to woo people with peace rather than violence.
“But nothing can be said about the unpredictable junta,” he said, adding that it was difficult to receive or send information in Burma. “Even in cities, the information infrastructure is limited and expensive, phones are tapped and e-mails are monitored. And the press is owned by the state.”
Rogers, deputy chairman of the human rights commission for the U.K.’s Conservative Party, said the Buddhist nationalist regime “distorts and perverts Buddhism for political purposes and is intolerant of non-Burman and non-Buddhist ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims.”
Of the 56 million people in Burma, around 89 percent are Buddhist, with only 4 percent Christian.
Given that the junta merely uses religion for political power, it doesn’t target Christians alone, Suangtak said.
“The junta has no respect for any religion, be it Christians or Buddhists, and anyone who opposes its rule is dealt with harshly.”
Burma was ruled by military regimes from 1962 to 1990; at that point the National League for Democracy party, led by Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won the parliamentary election. But the regime seized power again by imprisoning members of parliament after the election.
Rogers, who has co-authored a soon-to-be-published biography of SPDC chairman Senior General Than Shwe, said that while the armed groups are not perfect, they are essentially fighting to defend their people against a “brutal regime” and are “not in any way terrorists.”
“The armed groups have sometimes launched pre-emptive attacks on the military, but they have never attacked non-military targets and have never engaged in indiscriminate acts of violence,” he said. “Even the pre-emptive acts are conducted for defensive, rather than offensive, purposes.”
Rogers added that resistance groups were fighting to defend their people.
“Individual Christians who have joined the armed ethnic groups do so out of a perfectly biblical concept of just war, the right to defend your people from gross injustice.”
Added an FBR source, “In Burma, no one protects except the pro-democracy resistance groups, and all relief inside the country is only possible because of them.”
The 2009 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states that Burma’s military junta had “one of the world’s worst human rights records.”
“Burma’s Christian populations face forced promotion of Buddhism and other hardships in ethnic minority areas where low-intensity conflict has been waged for decades,” the report states. “In addition, a new law passed in early 2009 essentially bans independent ‘house church’ religious venues, many of which operate because permission to build church buildings is regularly denied.”
The report also pointed out that in January 2009, authorities in Rangoon ordered at least 100 churches to stop holding services and forced them to sign pledges to that effect. Burma, which the ruling junta describes as “The Golden Land” on its official website, has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. Department of State since 1999.
Even after the 2010 election, little is expected to change.
The FBR source said the election was not likely to be free and fair, pointing out that the new constitution the junta adopted after an apparently rigged referendum in 2008 virtually enshrined military power.
“However, having an election is better than not having one at all,” the source said.
Report from Compass Direct News
Muslim groups angered by ruling to allow Catholic newspaper to use word ‘Allah.’
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, January 11 (CDN) — In unprecedented acts that stunned Christians in Malaysia, suspected Islamists have attacked eight church buildings since the country’s High Court ruled that a Catholic weekly could use the word “Allah.”
Firebombs were thrown into the compounds of four churches in Kuala Lumpur and neighboring Petaling Jaya on Friday (Jan. 8); three more attacks occurred on Sunday (Jan. 10) in Taiping, Melaka and Miri; and another church building was hit today in Seremban. There were no reports of injuries.
Judge Lau Bee Lan delivered the controversial court ruling on Dec. 31, arguing that the Herald had a constitutional right to use the word “Allah” for God in the Malay section of its multi-lingual newspaper. The ruling caused an uproar among many Muslim groups widely reported to have called for nationwide protests after Friday prayers, asserting that “Allah” can be used only in the context of Islam. Among groups calling for protests were the Muslim Youth Movement and the National Association of Muslim Students.
Inflammatory rhetoric has emerged in the escalating conflict; at a protest in Shah Alam since protests began on Friday, a speaker at one rally urged listeners to “burn churches,” according to the online news site Malaysian Insider. The crowd reportedly stood in stunned silence.
Malaysia’s Home Ministry filed an appeal against the High Court decision on Jan. 4. Two days later, the court allowed a freeze on the decision to permit the Herald to use the word “Allah” pending hearing in the Court of Appeal.
The attacked churches were Metro Tabernacle (Assembly of God) in Kuala Lumpur, and three churches in Petaling Jaya: Life Chapel (Brethren), Assumption Church (Catholic) and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church (Lutheran); also damaged were All Saints’ Church (Anglican) in Taiping, Melaka Baptist Church in Melaka (vandalized but not firebombed), Good Shepherd Church (Catholic) in Miri (pelted with stones) and Sidang Injil Borneo (Evangelical Church of Borneo) in Seremban.
Though there were no casualties, a number of the church buildings were damaged in the attacks. Metro Tabernacle suffered the worst damage, with the ground floor of its three-story building, which housed its administrative office, completely gutted. The main door of the church in Seremban was charred.
The Rev. Ong Sek Leang, senior pastor of Metro Tabernacle, reportedly said that the church harbors no ill feelings toward the culprits and would forgive those responsible, but that it does not condone the acts.
Most of the other church buildings suffered minor damage, though the Assumption Church was spared when the Molotov cocktail thrown into its compound failed to go off. The Melaka Baptist Church building was splashed with black paint, while stones were thrown into the Good Shepherd Church building in Miri.
The Malaysian Insider reported on Friday (Jan. 8) that two other churches received telephone threats from unknown sources.
Christian leaders, government and opposition leaders, and Non-Governmental Organizations have condemned the attacks. Police have promised to increase security around church buildings, but Inspector-General of Police Musa Hassan told the Malaysian Insider that churches must beef up their own security since there is a shortage of police personnel.
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.
The spate of church attacks shocked the Christian community and nation, as acts of violence on places of worship are unprecedented in Malaysia.
Ramon Navaratnam, Chairman of the Centre of Public Policy Studies, said in a press statement on Friday (Jan. 8) that the attacks marked a “troubling trend” and “a low point in our nation’s history.”
The same day, Malaysian Bar Council Chairman Ragunath Kesavan said in a press statement that the attacks were “shocking and offensive” and that “all right-minded Malaysians must condemn it as indecent and unacceptable.”
Christian leaders strongly denounced the attacks and have asked the government to safeguard the community and its places of worship. They have also called on the government to take firm steps against the perpetrators while paving the way for greater understanding between the different religious communities.
The Rev. Dr. Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches Malaysia, called on the government to “show zero tolerance for the use, threat or incitement, of violence as a means to pressure the decision of the court.” The Rev. Eu Hong Seng, chairman of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, called on the government “to take the necessary steps to educate those who lack understanding and are ‘easily confused’ to be mature-minded in a progressive democratic society.”
Leaders on both sides of the political divide have also denounced the attacks, while a number of opposition leaders – including Anwar Ibrahim, adviser to the People’s Justice Party – put the blame on the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), the leading partner in the ruling coalition government. Anwar reportedly accused UMNO-owned newspaper Utusan Malaysia of having incited Muslims over the court decision.
A number of local commentators have also criticized Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein for not defusing rising tensions in the initial days of the court ruling. They have also come under fire for saying they would allow public demonstrations by Muslim groups to proceed, and that they would take action “only if things got out of hand.”
Despite the attacks, a check with parishioners of several churches in the Klang Valley showed Christians were undeterred by the acts of violence and continued to gather for worship yesterday.
Urging Christians to pray, Sam Ang, secretary-general of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, told Compass, “We see this as an opportunity to trust in the Lord and to revitalize our faith, especially for second-generation Christians.”
Report from Compass Direct News
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
Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa of Mosul said last week that last Thursdya’s anti-Christian attacks in Iraq which destroyed a church and damaged a convent “show that there is a strategy to erase our cultural heritage and more than 2000 years of history” on the part of Muslim extremists, reports Catholic News Agency.
In an interview with L’Osservatore Romano, the archbishop said these Islamic groups “want to destabilize the atmosphere of trust in our country. We must oppose this atmosphere of hatred with strength and with prayer,” he added.
The strategy of these groups “is clear,” the archbishop continued. “As soon as the situation becomes calm and it appears there is a chance Christians can return to their homes in their cities, the terror and violence reappear with greater threats.”
“This is the not the first time extremist groups lashed out at the symbols of the Christian community in Iraq. And it is not the first time that priests and religious have paid with their blood,” he explained.
After recalling the March 2008 assassination of his predecessor Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, Archbishop Casmoussa said, “It seems like nobody is able to guarantee the safety of Iraqi Christians.”
“The only path to take to placate violence is dialogue,” the archbishop continued. “Only then will we be able to isolate these extremist groups and become a tolerant country. Now we must seek to be close to our small community and give ourselves strength and encouragement.”
Report from the Christian Telegraph