Two Churches Forced to Close in Indonesia


Islamists pressure officials to stop Baptist services; Batak worshippers also told to cease.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, February 4 (CDN) — Local governments have ordered the closure of two churches on Indonesia’s Java island.

Under pressure from Islamist groups, authorities ordered Christian Baptist Church in Sepatan, Tangerang district, Banten Province to cease services. In Pondok Timur, near Bekasi in West Java, officials abruptly closed the Huria Christian Protestant Batak Church (HKBP) after delaying a building permit for four years.

Tangerang district authorities issued a decree on Jan. 21 ordering all worship activities to cease at the Baptist church. At a meeting in the district offices, officials pressured church officials to sign a statement that they would stop all worship activities, but they refused.

The Rev. Bedali Hulu said that he received the government order on Jan. 26. In addition, a sign was placed on his church’s worship building saying, “Stop! This building violates government decree number 10 of 2006.”

Hulu told Compass that on Dec. 7 a banner was placed on the street leading to the housing area that said, “We Reject the Presence of Uncontrolled Churches in our Area,” and “We Reject Uncontrolled Churches in Sepatan District.” On Dec. 12, citizens presented a letter rejecting the presence of the congregation to church leaders.

The church has permission to worship from both local citizens and the Christians in accordance with a Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006, Hulu said.

“However, the pressure from Islamic groups is so strong, it’s as if the local government can do nothing,” he said.

Islamic groups stirred up demonstrations against the church on Dec. 19, when 30 people demonstrated during a Christmas celebration for children, and another demonstration followed the next day. On Dec. 27, a large crowd from the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) arrived and demanded that worship cease.

Police on Dec. 29 issued a letter ordering that services stop because they violated local government regulations. The next day church leaders met with local officials but did not reach an agreement.

The church of 130 people has been facing such obstacles since 2006. It began in 2005 after reporting to local authorities and receiving permission.

Opposition from the FPI began the next year, and the church was forced to move services from house to house. On Nov. 4, 2007, as children attended Sunday school, around 10 FPI members arrived and broke up the meeting. On Nov. 19 of that year, several FPI members sent a letter to Hulu warning him and his family to leave the village within six days or the extremists would chase them out.

Hulu left temporarily on the advice of police, but his wife and mother-in-law were allowed to remain.

Last year, unidentified people burned the church building on Sept. 20; police have done nothing, he said.

Closure Order

Near the city of Bekasi, West Java, the government has given a deadline for the cessation of services to the Huria Christian Protestant Batak Church in Pondok Timur. The Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak said that services were ordered to cease after last Sunday (Jan. 31).

The government requested that church officials sign a letter agreeing to this order, but they refused, Simanjuntak said.

The pastor said a local official told them that the order was based on a meeting between the local government and nearby residents who objected to worship services. Simanjuntak told Compass that they were invited to a meeting with the residents who objected, the village officials and the head of the Interfaith Harmony Forum for Bekasi City, Haji Hasnul Chloid Pasaribu. Instead of discussing the situation, however, officials immediately gave the church a letter stating that permission for services extended only to Jan. 31.

“The letter was composed after consulting only one side,” said Simanjuntak. “The church aspirations were never heard.”

The church had been worshipping at that location since 2006.

“From the beginning we worked on the permission, starting at the block level and village level,” he said. “At that time we received permission to worship at my home. We never had problems in our relations with the local citizens.”

The church applied for a worship building permit in 2006, but local officials have yet to act on it, he said.

“Are we not allowed to worship while awaiting the building permit?” Simanjuntak said.

Rev. Gomar Gultom, general secretary of the Indonesian Fellowship of Churches, said that the organization will formulate a request to the Indonesian Senate to provide solutions for the two churches.

“In the near future, we will meet senators from the law and religion committees to discuss this matter,” Gomar said.

Johnny Simanjuntak of the Indonesian National Human Rights Committee told Compass that the government has failed to carry out its constitutional duty to protect freedom of worship for all citizens.

“Clearly the stoppage of any particular religious activity by the government is proof that the government is neglecting the human rights of its citizens,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christians Most Hit by Religious Freedom Violations


Mob succeeds in getting local official to shut down HKBP church in West Java.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, January 21 (CDN) — A moderate Muslim research institute focusing on interfaith issues in Indonesia reported 35 cases of government violations of religious freedom – including 28 against Christians – and 93 instances of community intolerance of churches in 2009.

The Wahid Institute issued a year-end report of violations that included the revocation of the building permit for the HKBP Cinere Church – later overturned in court – opposition to a Catholic Church in Purwakarta and an order forbidding worship by the Filadelfia Huria Kristen Batak Protestan Church (HKBP) in Bekasi, West Java.

The highest number of violations occurred in West Java, with 10 cases, including seven against Christians; next was East Java with eight, including four against Christians, followed by Jakarta Province with four (three against Christians). In Central Java, two of three religious violation cases were against Christians, and in West Nusa Tenggara, one of the three violations violated Christians’ rights.

Government infractions included closing churches and failing to intervene in mob actions. Police were cited in 18 cases, provincial governments in eight, village and sub-district governments in six cases each and courts in two incidents.

Just as government violations were highest in West Java, community intolerance there was also highest with 32 cases, of which 14 were against Christians. Next was Jakarta, where eight of 15 cases of community intolerance were against Christians, then East Java where six of 14 cases hurt Christians. In Central Java, Christians were the victims in five of the 13 cases of community intolerance.

In West Java, the root problem is the spread of hatred against religious groups, including Christians and Jews, according to the report.

While the reported violations of religious freedom were lower than in 2008, the issue of religious intolerance continued to grow during 2009, aided by legislative and presidential elections as religion is often used to gain votes in Indonesian elections, according to the study. The overall figure of 128 cases of violations of religious freedom by government or society in 2009 represents a drop from the 2008 figure of 234 cases, according to the Wahid Institute.

Yenny Zanuba Wahid, director of the institute, told Compass that the government has not considered freedom of religion an important issue that needed attention. As a result, the government has not addressed reports of intolerance even in the face of international pressure.

“The government has been timid to acknowledge violations of religious freedom, but these are real and are carried out directly by government bodies or indirectly as a result [of government] policies,” Wahid said.

Muslims make up 88.2 percent of Indonesia’s population of about 240 million people, with Protestant Christians making up 5.9 percent, Catholics 3.1 percent, Hindus 0.8 percent, Buddhists 0.2 percent, and other religions 0.2 percent.

Church Closure

In West Java, mob efforts to shut down the Filadelfia Huria Kristen Batak Protestan Church (HKBP) in Bekasi succeeded on Dec. 31 when the district officer issued a decree ordering a stop to all worship activities at the site of the church building under construction.

The decree ordered that the construction of the building stop, and that the structure not be used for worship until the building permit process was final. The district officer based his recommendation upon a 1990 rule regarding building permits in Bekasi.

Tigor Tambubolon, head of the church building committee, acknowledged that the building permit had not been formally granted even though the process had been under way since 2000.

“We already have the permission of the Jejalen citizens,” Tambubolon told Compass. “That’s why we were brave enough to hold Christmas Eve services.”

Last Christmas Eve hundreds of protestors demanding a halt to worship demonstrated against services at the site, where 279 Christians had gathered.

A New Year’s service scheduled to take place at the site moved to the office of the village head due to fears that protestors would become unruly. Police Chief Herry Wibowo said his officers guarded the church site at that time.

The Rev. Palti Panjaitan of Filadelfia HKBP told Compass that the church had been worshipping in the area since 2000 by meeting at various members’ homes. As the congregation grew, they rented a building combining a home and store in Vila Bekasi 2 Tambun.

“The local citizens demonstrated against our worship services,” said Panjaitan. “From there we moved to a member’s home in Jejalan village. We profited because the Jejalan citizens were very good.”

Eventually the church bought a piece of land there. A number of the community leaders and the village head gave their agreement to build the Filadelfia HKBP church there.

The Interfaith Harmony Forum of Bekasi district gave approval for the building with the stipulation that the church obey a joint ministerial decree revised in 2006 regarding construction of houses of worship. The building committee obtained signatures of 259 non-Christians endorsing the project, though the joint decree required only 60 signatures. Then the building committee wrote a formal request for a building permit.

Church elder Tambubolon, however, added that a sub-district officer collected signatures from citizens opposed to the construction of a house of worship in Jejalan. The total number of signatures is unknown, but the sub-district office sent a letter to the district officer rejecting the building permit.

Nevertheless, Tambubolon said, the church is not considering a lawsuit over the district officer’s decree.

“We are going to continue worshipping, because it is the right of every citizen,” he said. “If we are forbidden to worship even in the village office, we will continue to do so.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

European Human Rights Court Rules in Favor of Turkish Church


Christians hope decision will lead to greater religious freedom.

ISTANBUL, December 18 (CDN) — In a decision many hope will lead to greater religious freedom in Turkey, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that a Turkish court ruling barring a church from starting a foundation violated the congregation’s right to freedom of association.

Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a Turkish attorney and legal advisor for the litigants, said the decision earlier this year was the first time the ECHR has held that religious organizations have a right to exist in Turkey. Other issues the court addressed dealt with organizations’ rights to own property, he said.

Cengiz added that this case is just the first of many needed to correct conflicts within the Turkish legal system in regard to freedom of association, known in Turkey as the concept of “legal personality.”

“This case is a significant victory, but it is the first case in a long line of cases to come,” Cengiz said.

Ihsan Ozbek, pastor of Kurtulus Church in northeast Turkey, which set out to establish the foundation, said he was pleased with the court’s decision.

“It’s a good thing to have that decision,” he said. “It will help future churches and Christian organizations.”

On Dec. 21, 2000, Ozbek and 15 other Turkish nationals applied to a court in Ankara to form the “Foundation of Liberation Churches,” to provide assistance to victims of disasters. The court referred the matter to the Directorate General of Foundations, which opposed it because, according to its interpretation of the organization’s constitution, the foundation sought to help only other Protestants. Such a purpose would be in violation of the Turkish civil code, which states that establishing a foundation to assist a specific community at the exclusion of others was prohibited.

On Jan. 22, 2002, the church group appealed the decision to the higher Court of Cassation. They agreed that the constitution should be changed to more accurately reflect the true nature of the organization, which was to give assistance to victims of natural disasters regardless of their spiritual beliefs. In February of the same year, the court rejected their appeal.

Later that year, on Aug. 29, 2002, under the guidance of Cengiz, the group appealed the decision to the ECHR. Founded in 1959 by the European Convention on Human Rights, the ECHR is the highest civil human rights court in Europe. Of the 47 countries that are signatories to the convention, Turkey accounts for more that 11 percent of the court’s caseload.

On Oct. 11, 2005 the court agreed to hear the case. More than four years later, on June 10, it publicly issued a verdict.

In its decision, the court unanimously found that the Turkish Courts’ “refusal to register the foundation, although permitted under Turkish law, had not been necessary in a democratic society, and that there had been a violation of Article 11.”

Article 11 of the convention deals with the rights of people to associate and assemble with others.

“The applicants had been willing to amend the constitution of their foundation both to reflect their true aims and to comply with the legal requirements for registration,” the court decision stated. “However, by not allowing them time to do this – something they had done in a similar case – the Court of Cassation had prevented them from setting up a foundation that would have had legal status.”

The decision was issued by seven judges, one of them Turkish. The court awarded 2,500 euros (US$3,600) to each of the 16 members of the group, in addition to 5,200 euros (US$7,490) to the group as a whole.

After being forbidden to open a foundation, the Protestant group opened an association in 2004, after Turkish law had been amended allowing them to do so. Foundations and associations in Turkey differ mostly in their ability to collect and distribute money. The aims of the association were similar to that of the proposed foundation, with the exception of reference to supporting one particular community.

Ozbek said the directorate’s office has been the main obstacle in preventing people from forming Christian foundations.

“Now that they have the decision, they will be forced to say yes,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Judge in Tajikistan bans Baptist church worship services


Members of a Baptist congregation in the capital Dushanbe have appealed to the City Court against a ban on their activity imposed because they meet for worship in a private home without state registration. But Judge Soliya Ismailova of Somoni District Court, who handed down the ban, defended her decision and denied that this violated the Baptists’ freedom of worship.

"The Law demands that all non-government organisations register," she told Forum 18 News Service.

The court-imposed ban came after a 9 October raid on a church service by officials of the City Administration, Dushanbe city Prosecutor’s office, Police and National Security Committee secret police. Baptists told Forum 18 they are continuing to meet for worship despite the ban. State control of religious activity has been steadily tightening in 2009, including through a new Religion Law.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Five More Christian Leaders Sentenced in China


Arbitrary administrative decision sends church leaders to re-education labor camp.

LOS ANGELES, December 3 (CDN) — Bypassing the court system, China arbitrarily sentenced five more leaders of the Fushan Church in Linfen City, Shanxi Province, on Monday (Nov. 30), this time to re-education labor camps for two years, according to China Aid Association (CAA).

A Chinese court last week sentenced five house church leaders to three to seven years in prison after they were arrested en route to Beijing to file a complaint about an attack on their church, according to the advocacy organization. The five leaders sentenced to labor camps this week were accused of “gathering people to disturb the public order” after they organized a prayer rally of 1,000 people the day after military police and others attacked their church members and building on Sept. 13.

In what CAA termed “an arbitrary administrative sentence by the Public Security Bureau enacted so the leaders would not be ‘required’ to go through the court and prosecution system,” China delivered the verdicts to church leaders Li Shuangping, Yang Hongzhen, Yang Caizhen (wife of Pastor Yang Xuan, who was sentenced to three years of prison on Nov. 25), Gao Qin (also known as Gao Fuqin), and Zhao Guoai.

“Yang Caizhen was seen being beaten severely during an interrogation,” CAA said in a press statement. “Having had one of her front teeth knocked out during a beating, and fasting and praying during her detention, Ms. Yang is reported to look very fragile.”

The church leaders, the latter four women, were arrested on Nov. 11. They had helped to organize a prayer rally after the Sept. 13 attack on the Fushan Church branch congregation in Linfen, when some 400 uniformed police and civilians bearing shovels, batons, bricks, iron hooks and other weapons had beaten members of the church who were sleeping at the nearly finished factory building used as a worship site.

With several Fushan County officials involved in the attack, more than 30 Christians were seriously injured among the 100 Christians who were hurt, CAA reported. According to the Epoch Times, a church member’s relative obtained a license to build the shoe factory and was allowing the group to meet there, as the church was growing too large to meet in homes and the building could hold up to 400 people.

As Chinese authorities had kept the families of Gao Qin and Zhao Guoai under tight surveillance, CAA relied on church sources to confirm their sentences to labor camp. The organization said family members had confirmed the sentences of the other three.

“Linfen house church Christians continue to be monitored by Chinese military police, including neighboring Golden Lampstand Church (Jin Dongtai) in Linfen City,” CAA stated.

The organization said authorities violated Chinese law by refusing to provide family members of the prisoners with copies of documents notifying them of the sentences.

All 10 of the Fushan Church leaders plan to appeal their sentences, according to CAA.

“To arbitrarily send five innocent citizens to labor camps is in direct violation against the international human rights covenants and norms the Chinese government has signed and even ratified,” said CAA President Bob Fu.

The five pastors previously sentenced were arrested on Sept. 25 without a warrant, according to CAA. Yang Rongli was sent to prison for seven years for “illegally occupying farming land” and “disturbing transportation order by gathering masses.”

She and four other pastors were sentenced on Wednesday (Nov. 25) at the People’s Court of Raodu district, Linfen City, Shanxi Province. Yang’s husband, Wang Xiaoguang, was handed a sentence of three years on the charge of “illegally occupying farming land.” Cui Jiaxing was sentenced to four and half years, and Yang Xuan to three and half years, on the same charge; Zhang Huamei received four years of prison for “disturbing transportation order by gathering masses.”

The pastors were arrested by Shanxi Province officers of the Public Security Bureau (PSB). Fu characterized their trial as a farce, saying the case demonstrated a deteriorating state of religious freedom in China.

Yang Rongli and Wang Xiaoguang had led the Fushan Church, part of a 50,000-strong house church network in Linfen and the surrounding villages, for more than 30 years.

The Beijing PSB has misrepresented the demolition and attack on the Linfen branch church as a response to a “violent uprising,” Fu said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Mexican High Court Frees Nine Men Accused in Acteal Massacre


Joy mixes with disappointment as 28 of 57 convicted in Chiapas remain in prison.

MEXICO CITY, November 6 (CDN) — More than 35 mainly evangelical Christian prisoners unjustly accused in the December 1997 massacre in Acteal, Chiapas had hoped they would be released from jail this week, but after long deliberations the Supreme Court of Mexico on Wednesday (Nov. 4) ruled only nine should be freed and ordered new trials for 16 others.

The high court thus ended its involvement in the controversy over the ordeal of the peasant laborers, ordering the release of the nine men – without declaring them innocent – and retrials for 16 others, this time without “invented” evidence and testimony. Those 16 men, plus several others including six who had previously been granted retrials, remain in prison.

In a 4-1 vote, the court ruled the federal attorney general violated legal process, fabricated evidence and false testimonies, formulated non-existent crimes and provided no concrete argument establishing culpability of the nine men.

Supreme Court Justice José Ramón Cossío Diaz said the decision to free the men was not a declaration of innocence but recognition of “a lack of impugning evidence” against them in the Dec. 22, 1997 massacre, in which 45 people were killed, including women and children.

“These Indians were condemned and declared guilty as a result of a trial that was plagued with violations,” Cossío Diaz said, according to El Universal. “No material proving their guilt exists.”

When prisoners convicted in the Acteal slayings learned that only nine were being released, they reportedly wept – some for joy, but most from disappointment.

“Everything was invented – I did not kill anyone,” one of the evangelical Christians released, 45-year old Manuel Luna Perez, told Proceso magazine. “Many of our companions [in jail] also know nothing about who planned the massacre.”

The court ruled that federal authorities had used “invented proofs and witnesses” in convicting the men, many of them evangelical Christians supportive of the then-ruling party who had land disputes and other conflicts with their accusers – mainly Roman Catholics sympathetic to the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army.

At least five of the nine men released were known to be evangelical Christians when they were rounded up 12 years ago: Pablo Perez Perez, Emilio Gomez Luna, Juan Gomez Perez, Hilario Guzman Luna, and Manuel Luna Perez. Also released were Mariano Diaz Chicario, Pedro Lopez Lopez, Juan Hernandez Perez and Ignacio Gomez Gutierrez.

The nine were released from El Amate federal prison in Cintalapa, Chiapas yesterday and transported to Tuxtla where they are temporarily housed.

“There must have been about 200 to 250 people who made the trip [to the prison] – many were spouses and family members anxious to see the men,” said a Compass source in Chiapas. “As per the previous occasion, the people waited patiently outside the prison for the men to be released, only to be disappointed because they were not allowed to speak with them when they left the prison. The men were put in a mini-bus and taken to where they will be housed under government supervision for the next couple of weeks.”

The relatives and others traveled on to the men’s temporary quarters in Tuxtla, where they were able to meet with them, and several of the ex-prisoners’ spouses and other family members are staying with them there, the source said.

The freed men said the government has offered them what it promised 20 prisoners released on Aug. 13, the source said: farmland, help with building houses, water, electricity and other basic amenities, as well as helping them monetarily until they become self-supporting. 

Disappointment

An attorney representing 31 defendants in the case, Jose Antonio Caballero, reportedly expressed disappointment that the high court didn’t free more of those accused. But the attorney told EFE news service that the ruling would help remedy some of the mistakes in the legal process.

In the case of the 16 men to be given new trials, the high court ruled there was sufficient evidence for prosecution to retry them in a lower court in Chiapas. This time, the Supreme Court ruled, the lower court will not take into consideration any of the fabricated evidence or false testimonies, and the charges of use of military weapons and carrying a gun without a license are dropped.

On Aug. 12 the high court ordered the release of the first 20 prisoners (freed the next day), for the same reasons the nine men were released yesterday. All the freed men, mostly evangelical believers who insisted on their innocence, had been sentenced to 25 years and had already served nearly 12.

The most recent group was to have been freed on Oct. 28, but the Chiapas government led by Gov. Juan Sabines requested extra time to present “new proofs which demonstrate the probable responsibility of previous state and federal public officials, as well as civilians” in the massacre, according to La Jornada. Over the years, lawyers have insisted that the men were tried without access to interpreters or legal defenders acquainted with their indigenous culture and customs, as required by Mexican law.

For the past several weeks, families of the condemned men had set up a form of tent protest in the central plaza of Mexico City, attempting to call attention to the plight of their husbands, fathers, brothers and cousins.

With this week’s decision and the decision on Aug. 12, the court has ordered the release of 29 of the total 57 prisoners and retrials for 22 others accused in the Acteal massacre. Those 22 plus six others remain in prison.

Controversy over who killed the 45 people has revolved around whether there was a “massacre” by numerous “paramilitary” villagers or a “confrontation” between a handful of neighboring peasants and Zapatista National Liberation Army rebels. Historian Héctor Aguilar Camín has argued that there was both a confrontation and a massacre, with some overlap between each, but that they were largely separate incidents.

Five confessed killers have testified that they and four others engaged only Zapatista militia to avenge the death of a relative, while the federal attorney general’s office charged that at least 50 pro-government “paramilitaries” descended on a relief camp hermitage full of displaced peasants bent on killing and robbing them. The testimonies of the five confessed killers – four others remain at large – agree that the nine avengers were the only ones involved in the firefights, and that the decision to attack the Zapatistas was a private family decision made with no involvement from government authorities.

They also agree that the sole motive was to avenge the assassination of a relative – the latest of 18 unprosecuted murders by Zapatistas over the previous three months, according to Aguilar Camín.

Government prosecutors unduly dismissed much of the testimony of the five confessed avengers, Aguilar Camín wrote in a 2007 article for Nexos, noting that the killers testified that state security forces were nearby and did nothing. He highlighted the judicial irregularities of the round-up and conviction of the peasants – apprehensions without evidence or warrant, charging 83 people with homicide when only 45 people were killed and lack of translators and attorneys for the suspects, Tzotzil Mayans who did not know Spanish.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Prisoners Freed in Acteal, Mexico Case Yet to Return Home


 

Christians bear no grudges, fear no threats from accusers.

TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, Mexico, October 12 (CDN) — Alonso Lopez Entzin, a Tzotzil-speaking Christian in Chiapas state, Mexico, spent 11 years and eight months in prison for a crime he did not commit. Accused of participating in the tragic “Acteal massacre” in December 1997 in which 45 persons died near San Cristobal de las Casas, he and more than 80 of his neighbors were summarily arrested and charged with the murders.On Aug. 12, the Federal Supreme Court of Mexico ordered that Lopez Entzin and 19 other indigenous men accused in the Acteal killings – 18 are Christian, including Lopez Entzin – be freed from El Amate Penal facility in Chiapas. Their release came as a surprise to him and his fellow prisoners, as well as to thousands of people in Mexico and around the world advocating their release.

Of the 18 Christians released, only five were Christians when they were arrested; the rest came to trust in Christ while in prison. At least 27 innocent men who were Christians at the time of their arrest remain in prison, according to advocacy organizations.

“I thank God that I have been granted freedom,” Lopez Entzin told Compass. “We are no longer imprisoned thanks to the power of God. There is no other person that has this kind of power, only God.”

The court is reviewing the cases of another 31 men convicted in connection with the massacre. Six more defendants will be granted new trials.

“Right now we see the first fruits of our prayers,” said Tomas Perez Mendez, another of the 20 freed prisoners. “We are confident in the Lord that the rest of the brothers are going to obtain their freedom as well.”

Lopez Entzin added that winning their freedom will not be easy.

“When we were inside El Amate, we began to pray, fast and glorify our Lord Jesus Christ. There are thousands and thousands of brothers who prayed for us inside the jail – thank God He answered those prayers,” he said through tears. “That’s why those brothers who remain behind in El Amate believe that if God’s will is done, they will soon be free.”

Most of the remaining Acteal inmates are evangelical Protestant Christians sentenced to 25- and 36-year prison terms. For years, human rights advocates and legal experts have presented legal arguments showing that the men were convicted on dubious evidence. The district court of the state of Chiapas, however, has consistently ruled against the defendants in appeals.

Attorneys for the defendants finally succeeded in bringing the case before the Federal Supreme Court in Mexico City. The justices who reviewed the case found clear violations of due process and on Aug. 12 overturned the convictions in a 4-1 decision.

The court ruling stated that the decision was not a determination of the guilt or innocence of the men, only that their constitutional rights had been violated during their arrest and conviction.

Though grateful to be free at last, Agustin Gomez Perez admitted that prison was “very difficult, very difficult indeed.”

“There inside the jail, everybody loses,” Gomez Perez said. “I saw it. Many lost their wives, their families, their homes. In the years I was in jail I lost my son. It was May 7, 2005. Twelve families were traveling in a truck to visit us in El Amate. They had an accident, and my 3-year-old son Juan Carlos was killed.”

Inmates expressed gratitude for church groups and international organizations that lent support to their families during their incarceration. Some groups supplied chicks, piglets and coffee plants for wives and children to raise on family plots. A volunteer team of doctors and nurses from Veracruz provides free treatment to prisoners and their dependents.

The prisoners said that one of the greatest helps was regular visits from their families. International Christian organizations raised money for bus fares and chartered vehicles to ensure that the prisoners’ families, who could not otherwise afford the travel, saw their husbands and fathers as often as possible.

Normalcy Not Returned

Despite being freed, the 20 men have yet to resume normal life with their families.

“When I left jail, I didn’t think I would be stuck half-way home,” Gomez Perez said. “I was thinking I would come home and see my wife and children. But we haven’t got there. We are left here half-way home.”

“Half-way home” for the released men is the market district in hot, bustling Tuxtla Gutierrez. They are living in makeshift half-way houses provided by the federal government, awaiting resettlement on land that state authorities have promised them.

Compass met with seven of the former inmates in a rented building they occupy with their wives, children and, in some cases, grandchildren. The families share windowless, sparsely furnished rooms with bare cement floors. Government food rations sustain them. While the half-way house is better than prison, it is nothing like the lush, green Chiapas mountains to which they long to return.

The men agreed to the relocation scheme because the farms they worked before going to prison have long since reverted to their heirs or, in some cases, neighbors. They welcome the assistance to get back on their feet financially.

Government officials, however, insist that the Acteal prisoners must relocate to new communities because they fear violent clashes will flare between them and their old rivals.

The seven freed men were unanimous in their opinion that such confrontations would not happen.

“In the first place, we do not agree with what the government is saying,” Gomez Perez said. “We hold no grudges against those who accused us. What happened, happened. We are not thinking vengeance.”

Perez Mendez agreed with Gomez Perez that the men feel no ill will against those who accused them and no resentment for what they suffered in jail.

“God does not want that we hold grudges or take vengeance against anyone,” he said. “There is not really much danger out there in our communities either. When people saw the news on television on Aug. 12 that we were getting out, they were happy. Well, now we hear that they found out we are not coming home, that we are here in Tuxtla, and some are saying, ‘Why don’t they come home? Tell them to come.’”

The Acteal prisoners have reason to hold grudges. Their attorneys say many of them were arrested in random police sweeps in the days following the massacre simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Public indignation over the brutal slayings, fueled by numerous inflammatory press releases from Las Abejas, a civic group whose members were primary targets in the massacre, as well as by the left-leaning human rights organization Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, swelled to fever pitch in December 1997.

Authorities responded by arresting dozens of “suspects,” without evidence or warrants, to quell the outcry.

Some Acteal defendants found themselves accused of the crime by allies of the rebel Zapatista guerrilla army. A land dispute between Zapatista sympathizers and opponents of the rebels intensified during the waning months of 1997, claiming the lives of 18 indigenous men, the majority of them Protestant Christians. Attorneys say indifferent law enforcement officers failed even to investigate the murders, let alone arrest the perpetrators.

Frustrated with the authorities’ foot-dragging and desperate to defend themselves against further aggression, nine indigenous young men armed themselves and confronted their enemies on Dec. 22, 1997. The ensuing firefight and subsequent massacre at the Catholic hermitage in Acteal ended with 45 dead, many of them women and children who were participating in an Abejas-sponsored program that day.

Five of the nine armed men have confessed to participating in the Acteal shootings and insist they acted alone. Those five are serving prison terms in El Amate. Two others were arrested and released because they were minors at the time of the crime. Two more remain at large and, ironically, have reportedly come under the protection of the Zapatistas.

Las Abejas and its allies continue to assert that that the Acteal killings were carried out by “paramilitary” units equipped and assisted by the Mexican army. With the passage of time, many of those who hold this thesis have admitted that most of the Acteal prisoners did not, in fact, participate in the shooting. Nevertheless, they insist that until the “intellectual authors” of the atrocity come forward and confess, not one prisoner – even though innocent of the crime – should be released.

That strange logic has helped to keep more than 50 innocent men in prison for nearly 12 years.

“It is certain that we suffered an injustice for nearly 12 years,” Perez Mendez said. “A lot of people tell us that we are guilty. But as far as we are concerned, God knows all. We did not commit that crime.

He implored Christians to pray for the innocent men who have yet to be released.

Pray as well for we who are not at home in our communities,” he said. “I ask that you not forget us.”Report from Compass Direct News 

MEXICO: CHRISTIANS JAILED FOR ACTEAL MASSACRE WIN RELEASE


Supreme Court rules their rights were violated; violence threatened in Chiapas.

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 13 (Compass Direct News) – At least 20 men accused of participating in a massacre in Chiapas state in December 1997 left prison early this morning – amid concerns over threats of violence at their home communities near San Cristobal de las Casas – following a Supreme Court ruling yesterday that their convictions violated fundamental norms of justice.

The release of the 20 men, most of them evangelical Christians, came after Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in a 4-1 decision that they had been convicted in unfair trials in which prosecutors fabricated testimony and illegally obtained evidence. Area evangelicals view the imprisoned Christians as caught between survivors clamoring for convictions and government police and military forces eager to shift blame away from their minions following the Dec. 22, 1997 killing of 45 civilians in Acteal village.

“Acteal is a double tragedy,” attorney Javier Cruz Angulo reportedly said after the ruling. “On the one hand you have an abominable massacre, and on the other more than 50 human beings imprisoned without proofs.”

The court will review the cases of another 31 men convicted in connection with the massacre, and six more will be given new trials, according to news reports.

The identities of those released were not immediately known. As 32 of those imprisoned for the crime were Christians and another 15 received Christ while in prison, most of the previous total of 57 prisoners are Christians.

“In prison, the majority of us converted to the Presbyterian faith,” Tomas Perez Mendez, 60, told El Universal before the Supreme Court decision; at press time it was not known if he was among those released.

He told the Mexican newspaper that he bears no resentment even though his imprisonment led to illnesses that contributed to the deaths of family members. “My wife is ill, my father and one brother died from sorrow at seeing us here in prison . . . I no longer feel anger or resentment against those who accused me, and I plan to preach.”

Authorities had told a total of 57 prisoners that they would be freed after their paperwork was reviewed, a source in Chiapas told Compass.

“Naturally, those prisoners who had been informed of their impending release last week are extremely disappointed, as well wondering if they will ever be released,” said the source, who requested anonymity.

Two brothers, Pablo and Juan Hernandez Perez, reportedly said that they have no home to return to; their house was burned to the ground while they were in prison. Another hoping for release, Javier Vazquez Luna, told El Universal he played no part in the crime, and that indeed his father was one of the victims of the massacre.

The Supreme Court justices stated that they were not ruling on the guilt or innocence of the men, only on the violation of due process.

“During the investigation, their constitutional rights were violated,” the court said in a statement. “The majority of cases … were based on the use of illegally obtained evidence.”

In recent months relatives of the imprisoned men ratcheted up citizen campaigns seeking their freedom, backed by many others. For several years Presbyterian churches have carried banners outside their buildings requesting justice for those wrongly convicted in the Acteal violence. The Chiapas government had said it could do nothing because the case was under federal jurisdiction.

Pressure to reopen the case has intensified each December with remembrances of the massacre. In spite of intense political pressure to the contrary, the Supreme Court finally agreed to review the facts.

Threats of Violence

Amid statements by survivors of the Acteal crime that tensions could heighten in the area – and a grim warning from a former leader of Las Abejas, a supposedly non-violent group sympathetic to rebel militants whose members were killed in the massacre – defense attorneys and family members of the released men appealed to authorities to provide security and guarantee social peace.

“A former leader of the Abejas made a public declaration that if the men returned to their homes, the Abejas would be waiting for them, and the released prisoners would be repaid for the pain they caused 12 years ago,” the Chiapas source told Compass. “Tensions exist, and with statements like he made, the government is nervous about letting the men return to their homes due to possible violence. At this point, there are still no violent actions, but the threat of an outbreak is real.”

At press time authorities had prevented the released men from returning to the Acteal area, keeping them in a hotel in Berriozabal after loading them onto a truck through a back door of the El Amate prison at 3:35 a.m., El Universal reported.

Initially the prison director refused to see the men’s lawyers when they arrived at El Amate prison in Chiapas near midnight with orders for their release, the Compass source said.

“When he finally relented and met with the lawyers, it was only under extreme pressure from the Mexico City lawyers who refused to be dissuaded,” the source said. “There was an extended time of wrangling before the warden eventually released the prisoners, only under threat of returning to the Supreme Court and the Human Rights Commission about his intransigence.”

The released men had been promised there would be a government-paid bus waiting to take them to San Cristobal de las Casas, he said, but instead they were taken to the hotel in Berriozabal.

“The men were to meet with government officials today in Tuxtla, and we are still awaiting word on their arrival in San Cristobal after some five hours of waiting,” the source said. “It appears there are delaying tactics, hindrances and lack of cooperation in the entire release process.”

Some of the released men were able to meet with family members, and most expressed desire to return to the Acteal area, but the prison director said that authorities had determined that it was not safe for them to go back to their communities, according to El Universal. Authorities have reportedly proposed the possibility of providing them land parcels to avoid their returning to the area of the original conflict.

The evangelical Christians convicted were serving 25- or 36-year sentences and had exhausted all appeals. Some of them say they were arrested because rebel sympathizers with whom they had been embroiled in years of land disputes named them. Others said they were simply nearby when authorities made random round-ups.

Of the 34 men originally convicted, one died in prison and another had been released as a minor.

The family of one prisoner, Agustin Gomez Perez, tried to visit him in 2005. He told El Universal that they had an accident on the way, killing one small child and putting his wife in the hospital for 20 days – leaving their other five children without parents during that period.

Controversy over who killed the 45 people has revolved around whether there was a “massacre” by numerous “paramilitary” villagers or a “confrontation” between a handful of neighboring peasants and Zapatista National Liberation Army rebels. Historian Héctor Aguilar Camín has argued that there was both a confrontation and a massacre, with some overlap between each, but that they were largely separate incidents.

Five confessed killers have testified that they and four others engaged only Zapatista militia to avenge the death of a relative, while the federal attorney general’s office charged that at least 50 pro-government “paramilitaries” descended on a relief camp hermitage full of displaced peasants bent on killing and robbing them. The testimonies of the five confessed killers – four others remain at large – agree that the nine avengers were the only ones involved in the firefights, and that the decision to attack the Zapatistas was a private family decision made with no involvement from government authorities.

They also agree that the sole motive was to avenge the assassination of a relative – the latest of 18 unprosecuted murders by Zapatistas over the previous three months, according to Aguilar Camín.

Government prosecutors unduly dismissed much of the testimony of the five confessed avengers, Aguilar Camín wrote in a 2007 article for Nexos, noting that the killers testified that state security forces were nearby and did nothing. He highlights the judicial irregularities of the round-up and conviction of the peasants – apprehensions without evidence or warrant, charging 83 people with homicide when only 45 people were killed and lack of translators and attorneys for the suspects, Tzotzil Mayans who did not know Spanish.

The Supreme Court pointed out those violations in its ruling. Arturo Farela Gutierrez, head of the National Association of Evangelical Christian Churches, praised the court decision.

“We are in the presence of a court different from that of 12 years ago,” he said, according to El Universal. “The court is strengthened without fear of anything or anyone, and it’s the court that democratic Mexico needs.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

BANGLADESH: POLICE TORTURE PASTOR, TWO OTHERS


Local Muslim leaders prompt officers to arrest, abuse evangelistic team.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, August 4 (Compass Direct News) – At the urging of local Muslim leaders, police in western Bangladesh have tortured a pastor and two other Christians for legally proclaiming Christ.

Habibur Rahman, 45, pastor of Boalia Spiritual Church (Boalia Ruhani Jamat) in Boalia in Cuadanga district, 220 kilometers (136 miles) west of Dhaka, said he was about to meet with 11 others for a monthly meeting on evangelism at 8 p.m. on June 8 when local police stormed in and seized him and Zahid Hassan, 25, and a 40-year-old Christian identified only as Fazlur.

The first question the police commander asked him, Rahman said, was, “Why did you become Christian?”

“Using a lot of filthy words, he charged me that I was teaching the Bible and converting people to Christianity in this area,” the pastor told Compass.

In May, a police patrol chief had threatened to seize him at a church meeting but was misinformed about the time it would take place, Rahman said.

The commander who seized him and the two others was a sub-inspector with the name Khaleque on his badge, Rahman said. Police dragged them to a nearby parked vehicle and transported them to Shamvunagar police camp.

“Police told us, ‘We will teach you in the camp how to forget your Christ,’ while dragging us to the vehicle,” said Rahman.

Police blindfolded them after reaching the camp and took them to three separate rooms.

“I heard blood-curdling scream from other rooms,” Rahman said. “I was sitting on the floor blindfolded. I could not understand what was happening around me. Later several police came to me and one of them kicked me on the back of my head, and my head ricocheted off the wall. They also kicked my waist.”

Ordering him to say how many people he had converted to Christianity in the Muslim-majority nation, the commander said he would kick him a like number of times. The official told him to call out to Jesus, saying he wanted to see how Jesus would save him, Rahman said.

“While beating us, police told us there will be no Christian in this area,” the pastor said. “Police hurt our hands, lips, thighs and faces with burning cigarettes. They beat me in the joints of my limbs with a wooden club. They beat us for one hour, and I became senseless at some point.”

Police officers told Rahman to admit that whatever he had done in his life was wrong, he said. When they sent them to Boalia police station early the next morning, dozens of Christians arrived to try to obtain their release.

Police, however, were reluctant to release the detained Christians.

“Some Christian villagers then said, ‘We are also criminal because we believe in Christ like Habibur Rahman and the other two Christians,’” Rahman said. “They told police, ‘If you do not release them, then arrest us and put us in jail.’”

Police did not release the three Christians until 9:30 that night.

The next day, June 10, thousands of Muslim villagers demonstrated in front of a local government office called the Zamzami Union Council chanting, “We want a Christian-free society,” and “We will not allow any Christians in Cuadanga.”

The frenzied mob called for Rahman to appear at the local government office, and a sub-district administrative chief called in 10 Christians and 10 Muslims including imams to try to resolve the matter. In that meeting, the administrative official told everyone to practice their religion freely without disturbing others.

“The administrative chief also said nobody should interfere in other religions, but even now we cannot attend our churches for worship,” Rahman said. “Local people said, ‘You will come in the church alive but return home dead.’”

Police Denial

Police denied carrying out any torture, saying they arrested the Christians for interrogation because villagers had informed officers that some underground Maoist terrorists had gathered in the house.

Jotish Biswas, executive director of Way of Life Trust, said the marks of torture were unmistakable.

“There were streaks of blood on their legs, hands and faces,” said Biswas, who interceded with police on behalf of the arrested Christians. “I have seen marks of cigarette burns on their bodies. They were beaten so severely that they could not walk properly.”

Biswas said he had learned that a local official and some Muslim clerics had prompted police to torture the Christians because they objected to their evangelistic activity.

“Police violated the rights of minorities enshrined in the Bangladeshi constitution,” Biswas said. “It was a gross violation of human rights.”

Chanchal Mehmud Kashem, a Christian journalist who visited the area, told Compass that the area is lacking in freedom of religion.

“Torture by police suggests that those Christians are not citizens of Bangladesh,” Kashem said. “It suggests they are illegal, alien and that evangelism is a crime.”

Kashem added that the notion that “underground terrorists” had gathered in a house was a pretext for harassing the Christians. “Rahman has been working as an evangelist in this area for one and half years,” he said.

There are 176 Christians in the area where Rahman works as an evangelist and pastor, he said.

“The local government council chairman told me two times not to come in this area,” Rahman said. “He said, ‘There is no Christian in this area, so why do you come here to make Christians?’”

Local Muslim villagers have since refused to give work to area Christians, most of whom are day laborers dependent on obtaining daily jobs to survive.

Report from Compass Direct News 

LAOS: OFFICIALS ANNOUNCE BAN ON CHRISTIANITY IN VILLAGE


Chief warns Christians to worship only local spirits or lose homes.

DUBLIN, July 16 (Compass Direct News) – Following the confiscation of livestock from Christian families earlier this month, officials in a village in Laos on Saturday (July 11) called a special meeting for all residents and announced that they had “banned the Christian faith in our village.”

The chief of Katin village, along with village security, social and religious affairs officials, warned all 53 Christian residents that they should revert to worshiping local spirits in accordance with Lao tradition or risk losing all village rights and privileges – including their livestock and homes, according to advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).

The Katin village leader also declared that spirit worship was the only acceptable form of worship in the community, HRWLRF reported. Katin village is in Ta Oih district, Saravan Province.

The previous Sunday (July 5), officials and residents confiscated one pig each from nine Christian families and slaughtered the animals in an effort to force them to renounce their faith. Officials said the seizure of the pigs – each worth the equivalent of six weeks’ salary for an average laborer in the area – was punishment for ignoring the order to abandon Christianity. (See “Officials Seize, Slaughter Christians’ Livestock,” July 10.)

According to HRWLRF, the chief’s order clearly contravened Article 6 and Article 30 of the Lao Constitution, which guarantees the right of Christians and other religious minorities to practice the religion of their choice without discrimination or penalty.

In addition, HRWLRF stated that Katin officials had violated Article 53 of the 2003 Law on Local Administration, which requires them to abide by the constitution and other laws and to provide for the safety and well-being of all people living under their care.

Officials in Katin have a history of ignoring constitutional religious freedoms. On July 21, 2008, officials detained 80 Christians in the village after residents seized a Christian identified only as Pew and poured rice wine down his throat, killing him by asphyxiation.

When family members buried Pew and placed a wooden cross on his grave, officials accused them of “practicing the rituals of the enemy of the state” and seized a buffalo and pig from them as a fine.

On July 25, 2008, officials rounded up 17 of the 20 Christian families then living in the village – a total of 80 men, women and children – and detained them in a school compound, denying them food in an effort to force the adults to sign documents renouncing their faith. The other three Christian families in the village at that time had already signed the documents under duress.

As their children grew weaker, 10 families signed the documents and were permitted to return home. The remaining seven families were evicted from the village and settled in an open field nearby, surviving on whatever food sources they could find in the jungle.

Suffering from the loss of their property and livelihoods, however, the seven families eventually recanted their faith and moved back into the village. But over time, some of the Christians began gathering again for prayer and worship.

On Sept. 8, 2008, provincial and district authorities called a meeting in Katin village and asked local officials and residents to respect the religious laws of the nation.

Four days later, however, village officials seized a buffalo worth approximately US$350 from a Christian resident identified only as Bounchu, telling him the animal would be returned only if he renounced his faith. When he refused, they slaughtered the animal in the village square and distributed the meat to non-Christian residents.

Report from Compass Direct News