Government crackdown on missionary presence could get worse


The Kazakh government continues to put pressure on foreign missionaries attempting to obtain visas to stay in the country. The Kazakh church is prepared for matters to get worse, reports MNN.

"Foreign involvement for the purpose of missionary work in Kazakhstan becomes increasingly difficult to happen," confirms Eric Mock, vice president of Ministry Operations for Slavic Gospel Association.

Norwegian news network Forum 18 conveys a number of instances in which the Kazakh government has denied visas to foreign missionaries of various minority faiths. A missionary visa, as it is, lasts only 180 days and cannot be renewed.

Mock says there is some fear that the visas will become even more restrictive. According to Forum 18, the Nur Otan Party has even created a document calling for further crackdown on "non-traditional faiths." Forum 18 quotes a report as saying, "The Nur Otan Party should devote special attention to the activity of non-traditional religious movements of destructive character. The destructive impact of such movements is very great."

With clear contempt toward the presence of evangelical Christian missionaries as well as missionaries for other minority faiths, the church as well as ministries like SGA need to prepare for any change. "[We need to] be sure that we do not assume that the world that we minister in today is the same that we minister in tomorrow," says Mock.

Whether or not missionary presence is increasingly restricted does not directly affect SGA, since their ministry mainly focuses on helping nationals. Still, won’t a crackdown harm the church? Mock says not as much as you might think.

"There is one thing that I saw [in Kazakhstan] that mostly encouraged my heart," explains Mock. "I saw a group of ethnic Kazakh young men who God has raised up with a passion to reach their own people. I had not really seen that in the past; it [had been] more of a Russian Baptist influence, but now I’m seeing Kazakh Baptist."

As long as changes don’t happen too abruptly, Mock says he believes the church will be able to handle any blows headed their way. The energy generated by young church leaders could be just what the Kazakh church needs to become self-sustaining. "With this new generation coming up, I think even with law changes, God has raised up this younger generation to make a profound impact for the sake of the Gospel."

If laws are passed too quickly or even just gradually, their effects will still of course be evident in the church. Mock says the best thing that we can do for them now is to pray. "There is nothing more important than praying for the believers in Kazakhstan to be passionate in reaching their own people, and to see more churches planted with that same commitment to advance the Gospel."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Church ministry in Syria treads carefully after shut down


The spiritual climate in Syria is a changing one. While Syria’s Christian minority is generally respected, conversions to Christianity from Islam are rare and sometimes met with opposition, reports MNN.

Voice of the Martyrs reports that evangelizing is legal, but visas are not granted for missionary work. And while there is freedom to worship, any activity that could threaten communal harmony is suspect, making it difficult to spread the Gospel.

Despite the challenges, Reach Global in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) began in 2008. The team working in the area is focused on holistic ministry: meeting physical and emotional needs as well as the spiritual needs of an individual.

They have been working together with churches, national partners, and collaborating with like-minded ministry organizations in order to reach the Syrians with the hope of Christ, and there has been success. A church has been planted.

This June however, the Syrian government closed the doors of that evangelical church. The group is still hoping to meet for worship and Bible study, but they are praying for wisdom and discernment on how to do that and still remain within the law.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Prospects of Religious Freedom Appear Grim in Islamic Maldives


Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.

MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”

After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.

This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.

Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.

Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.

While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.

In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.

According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.

“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”

The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.

“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”

The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”

“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.

 

Religion Excluded from Rights

The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”

Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.

“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”

Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”

He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.

“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”

Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”

Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.

“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”

Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.

 

Politics of Religion

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.

The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.

In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.

“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.

That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.

When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.

Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.

Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.

To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.

Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.

 

Growing Extremism

Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.

Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”

Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”

Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”

As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.

How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?

“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.

Report from Compass Direct News

India Finally Allows EU to Visit Orissa – But No Fact-Finding


After months of asking, delegation wins clearance to enter Kandhamal district.

NEW DELHI, January 29 (CDN) — Weary of international scrutiny of troubled Kandhamal district in Orissa state, officials yesterday finally allowed delegates from the European Union (EU) to visit affected areas – as long as they do no fact-finding.

A team of 13 diplomats from the EU was to begin its four-day tour of Kandhamal district yesterday, but the federal government had refused to give the required clearance to visit the area, which was wracked by anti-Christian violence in 2008. A facilitator of the delegation said that authorities then reversed themselves and yesterday gave approval to the team.

The team plans to visit Kandhamal early next month to assess the state government’s efforts in rehabilitating victims and prosecuting attackers in the district, where a spate of anti-Christian violence in August-September 2008 killed over 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

When the federal government recommended that Orissa state officials allow the delegation to visit the area, the state government agreed under the condition that the diplomats undertake no fact-finding, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency. The government stipulated to the EU team, led by the deputy chief of mission of the Spanish embassy, Ramon Moreno, that they are only to interact with local residents. The delegation consented.

Delegates from the EU had also sought a visit to Kandhamal in November 2009, but the government denied permission. The diplomats from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Finland were able to make it only to the Orissa state capital, Bhubaneswar, at that time.

Ironically, three days before the government initially denied permission to the EU team, the head of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Mohan Bhagwat, visited Orissa and addressed a huge rally of its cadres in Bhubaneswar, reported PTI on Tuesday (Jan. 26).

While Bhagwat was not reported to have made an inflammatory speech, many Christians frowned on his visit. It is believed that his organization was behind the violence in Kandhamal, which began after a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, was killed by Maoists (extreme Marxists) on Aug. 23, 2008. Hindu extremist groups wrongly blamed it on local Christians in order to stir up anti-Christian violence.

On Nov. 11, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told the state assembly House that 85 people from the RSS, 321 members of the VHP and 118 workers of the Bajrang Dal, youth wing of the VHP, were rounded up by the police for the attacks in Kandhamal.

EU’s Indictments

It is believed that New Delhi was hesitant to allow EU’s teams into Kandhamal because it has indicted India on several occasions for human rights violations. Soon after violence broke out in Kandhamal, the European Commission, EU’s executive wing, called it a “massacre of minorities.”

Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, who was attending the ninth India-EU summit in France at the time of the violence, called the anti-Christian attacks a “national shame.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy, head of the European Council, and Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, took up the issue “strongly with Singh,” reported The Times of India on Sept. 30, 2008.

On Aug. 17, 2009, the EU asked its citizens not to visit Kandhamal in an advisory stating that religious tensions were not yet over. “We therefore advise against travel within the state and in rural areas, particularly in the districts of Kandhamal and Bargarh,” it stated.

The EU’s advisory came at a time when the state government was targeting the visit of 200,000 foreign tourists to Orissa, noted PTI.

Kandhamal Superintendent of Police Praveen Kumar suggested that the advisory was not based on truth.

“There is no violence in Kandhamal since October 2008,” he told PTI. “The people celebrated Christmas and New Year’s Day as peace returned to the tribal dominated district.”

Before denying permission to the EU, the Indian government had restricted members of a U.S. panel from coming to the country. In June 2009, the government refused to issue visas for members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to visit Orissa. The panel then put India on its “Watch List” for the country’s violations of religious freedom.

Tensions Remain

Local human rights activist Ajay Singh said that while the state government had made some efforts to rehabilitate the victims, a lot more needed to be done.

An estimated 300 families are still living in private relief camps in Kandhamal, and at least 1,200 families have left Kandhamal following the violence, he said. These families have not gone back to their villages, fearing that if they returned without converting to Hinduism they would be attacked, he added.

Singh also said that authorities have asked more than 100 survivors of communal violence living in an abandoned market complex known as NAC, in G. Udayagiri area of Kandhamal, to move out. He said it is possible they were asked to leave because of the intended visit of the EU team.

Of the more than 50,000 people displaced by the violence, around 1,100 have received some compensation either from the government or from Christian and other organizations, he added.

Additionally, the state administration has to do much more in bringing the attackers to justice, said a representative of the Christian Legal Association. Of the total 831 police cases registered, charges have been filed in around 300 cases; 133 of these have been dropped due to “lack of evidence,” said the source.

Report from Compass Direct News 

INDIA: OFFICIALS ON DEFENSIVE AT ‘WATCH LIST’ DESIGNATION


U.S. religious rights panel cites culture of impunity at authorities allowing atrocities.

NEW DELHI, August 18 (Compass Direct News) – Ahead of one-year remembrances of massive anti-Christian violence in the eastern state of Orissa, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has put India on its “Watch List” for the country’s violations of religious freedom, evoking strong reactions from the Indian government.

USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said in a statement on Wednesday (Aug. 12) that it was “extremely disappointing” that India “has done so little to protect and bring justice to its religious minorities under siege.”

The U.S. panel’s decision was “regrettable,” a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Vishnu Prakash, said in a statement on Thursday (Aug. 13), after the USCIRF put India on the list due to a “disturbing increase” in violence on minorities and a growing culture of impunity in the country.

Violence erupted in Kandhamal district of the eastern state of Orissa in August-September 2008, killing more than 100 people and burning 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to rights groups such as the All India Christian Council (AICC), the Global Council of India Christians (GCIC) and the Christian Legal Association (CLA).

“India’s democratic institutions charged with upholding the rule of law, most notably state and central judiciaries and police, have emerged as unwilling or unable to seek redress for victims of the violence,” Leo said. “More must be done to ensure future violence does not occur and that perpetrators are held accountable.”

Disagreeing with the USCIRF report, the foreign ministry’s Prakash said India is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. “The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of religion and equality of opportunity to all its citizens, who live and work together in peace and harmony,” he said.

Christians were shocked by the foreign ministry spokesman’s claim that “aberrations, if any, are dealt with promptly within our legal framework, under the watchful eye of an independent judiciary and a vigilant media.”

Attorney Robin Ratnakar David, president of the CLA, told Compass that one year after the violence only six people have been convicted in just two cases of rioting, while several suspects have been acquitted in four such cases despite the formation of fast-track courts.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC, pointed out that the more than 50,000 people who fled to forests or took shelter in refugee camps have not returned home out of fear of Hindu nationalist extremists who demand they either convert to Hinduism or leave their villages.

He said there also had been several “pogroms against Muslims, often sponsored or condoned by the state.”

In 2002, India’s worst-ever anti-Muslim violence occurred in the western state of Gujarat. A compartment of a train, the Sabarmati Express, caught fire – or was set on fire (as claimed by Hindu extremists) – near the Godhra city railway station on Feb. 27. In the fire, 58 Hindu passengers, mainly supporters of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), were killed. The VHP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed it was an attack by Islamic terrorists; the ensuing violence killed more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Following the anti-Muslim violence, the USCIRF recommended that India be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), its list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. India was removed from the CPC list in 2005.

Designation on the Watch List means a country requires “close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the government,” according to USCIRF. The other countries on USCIRF’s Watch List are Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, the Russian Federation, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Venezuela.

CLA attorney David said the August-September 2008 violence in Kandhamal could have been prevented had the administration brought to justice those responsible for previous mayhem in December 2007. The December 2007 violence in Kandhamal killed at least four Christians, burned as many as 730 houses and 95 churches and rendered thousands homeless.

The attacks were launched under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on a VHP leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. It was the assassination of Saraswati by Maoists (extreme Marxists) on Aug. 23, 2008 that sparked the second spate of violence in Kandhamal, as Hindu nationalists blamed non-Marxist, local Christians for it.

Dayal said the USCIRF’s latest conclusions could have been avoided if more action had been taken against the perpetrators of last year’s violence.

“The USCRIF action would not have been possible, and India would have been able to rebuff the U.S. scrutiny more effectively, if several thousand Christians were still not in refugee camps, if the killers were still not roaming scot-free and if witnesses, including widows, were not being coerced,” he said.

‘Indifferent’

Shashi Tharoor, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, told a private news channel that India did not need approbation from outside its borders.

“As far as we are concerned, we are essentially indifferent to how others view the situation,” he said. “In democracy, what matters to us is how we deal with our own internal issues. I don’t think we need any certificates from outside.”

He dismissed the report as meddling in internal affairs even though between June 2002 and February 2007 Tharoor served as under-secretary general for communications and public information for the United Nations, a body representative of international accountability in human rights.

In its annual report, India’s home (interior) ministry had acknowledged that the incidence of communal violence was high. It noted that in 2008, as many as 943 communal incidents (mainly against Muslims and Christians) took place in which 167 persons were killed and 2,354 persons were injured. The figures were up from those of 2007, when there were 761 incidents in which 99 persons were killed and 2,227 persons were injured.

Justifying its decision, the USCIRF report stated that several incidents of communal violence have occurred in various parts of the country resulting in many deaths and mass displacements, particularly of members of the Christian and Muslim minorities, “including major incidents against Christian communities within the 2008-2009 reporting period.”

“Because the government’s response at the state and local levels has been found to be largely inadequate and the national government has failed to take effective measures to ensure the rights of religious minorities in several states, the Commission decided to place India on its Watch List.”

The USCIRF had released its 2009 annual report on religious freedom across the globe on May 1 but put the India report on hold, planning to prepare it after a visit to the country in June. A USCIRF team planned to visit India to speak to the government and others concerning the situation in Kandhamal and Gujarat on June 12, but the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C. did not provide visas in time.

“USCIRF’s India chapter was released this week to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the anti-Christian violence in Orissa,” Leo pointed out in last week’s statement.

‘Teflon-Coated State’

The AICC’s Dayal seemed pessimistic about a change in the government’s attitude.

“Unfortunately, nothing really impacts the government of India or the government of Indian states,” he said. “The state, and our social conscience, seems Teflon-coated. The patriotic media and political sector dismiss international scrutiny as interference in the internal affairs of India, and a beaten-into-submission section of the leadership of religious minorities assumes silence to be the best form of security and safety.”

Dr. Sajan George, the national convenor of the GCIC, said the report showed that India had become a “super violator” of human rights. The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said the U.S. panel’s report did not augur well with India’s claim to find a respectable place within the community of nations.

“India as an emerging economic power in the world should also endeavor to better its records of protecting human rights, particularly when it comes to religious freedom of its citizens,” Joseph said.

Joseph told Compass the USCIRF report was “a clear indication of the growing concern of the international community with India’s repeated failure to take decisive and corrective measures to contain religious intolerance.”

Christian leaders generally lauded the report, with Dayal saying, “India’s record on the persecution of minorities and the violation of religious freedom has been a matter of international shame for the nation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

INDIA: REFUSAL OF VISAS TO U.S. PANEL STUNS CHRISTIANS


Commission on religious freedom would have found violence-torn Orissa far from normal.

NEW DELHI, June 29 (Compass Direct News) – The Indian government is silent on why it refused visas to allow members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to visit troubled Orissa state, but there are indications that it was ducking protests from Hindu nationalist groups.

The USCIRF team was to leave for India on June 12, but the Indian embassy in Washington did not give them visas in time, the religious panel said in a June 17 statement.

“Our Commission has visited China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and over 20 other countries,” Commission Chair Felice D. Gaer said in the statement. “India, a close ally of the United States, has been unique among democracies in delaying and denying USCIRF’s ability to visit. USCIRF has been requesting visits since 2001.”

The team was to discuss religious freedom with officials of the new government, which began its second five-year term on May 22, as well as with religious leaders, civil society activists and others in the wake of anti-Christian attacks in Kandhamal district of the eastern state of Orissa in December 2007 and August-September 2008.

The U.S. panel also intended to discuss conditions in the western state of Gujarat, where more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in a communal riot in 2002. The victims have reportedly not been properly rehabilitated, and many of their attackers remain at large. In 2005 the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was denied a visa to the United States to attend the World Gujarati Meet because of his alleged involvement in the violence.

In 2002 the USCIRF, a bipartisan federal commission, recommended India be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) following the 2002 violence in Gujarat. India was removed from the CPC list in 2005.

The Commission released its 2009 annual report on religious freedom across the globe on May 1 but put the India report on hold, planning to prepare it after the intended visit this month.

“I am profoundly surprised and distressed that it is the government of Dr. Manmohan Singh, in its second and so much secure term, which has denied visas to the USCIRF at the last moment,” said John Dayal, member of India’s National Integration Council.

Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), told Compass that such a decision would have been more expected under the previous administration of the BJP-led alliance.

“There would have been an acceptable, albeit very perverse, logic if a National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP federal government – as existed in New Delhi until 2004 – had refused visas to the USCIRF,” he said, “because they had so much to hide and because that government’s professed ideological moorings were in fascism and theocratic arrogance.”

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the left-of-center Congress Party, won the general elections in April and May of this year with a comfortable majority in. While the UPA got 262 of the 543 parliamentary seats, the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP, could bag only 160.

The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, said the Indian government’s decision was “very unfortunate.”

“Its visit and objective report would have helped in clearing the air of suspicion about the whole tragic episode in Kandhamal,” he said. “For, since the tragic events, there have been claims and counter-claims about what triggered and sustained the communal flare-up that caused unprecedented damage to life and property of people who were already in disadvantaged conditions.”

What USCIRF Would Have Found

The atmosphere in Orissa’s Kandhamal district has remained tense since a spate of attacks began in December 2007 that killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches. The attacks were carried out to avenge an alleged attack on a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.

Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal in August 2008 after the assassination of Saraswati by a Maoist group, though non-Marxist Christians were blamed for it. This time, the violence killed more than 100 people and resulted in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

Had the USCIRF team been able to visit Kandhamal, Christian leaders said, it would have found the situation far from normal even eight months after violence reportedly ended.

According to The Indian Express of May 31, the deployment of five companies of the Central Reserve Police Force, a federal agency, was extended for another month. One company comprises 100 personnel. The federal internal minister had earlier decided to withdraw the force from Kandhamal, but state Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik requested he retain some of the contingent.

The Rev. Ajaya Singh of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese said that around 3,000 victims were still living in government-run relief camps, and some 900 families were in village relief camps. Initially about 24,000 victims were housed in government relief camps. These internally displaced people cannot go back to their villages because of continuing threats from “fundamentalists and criminals,” he added.

Most of the people who carried out attacks remain at large, continue to pressure victims to withdraw complaints they filed against the rioters, and are still threatening harm to Christians who refuse to convert to Hinduism, he complained.

Singh told Compass that a legal aid center run by the Christian Legal Association (CLA) from a rented house in Phulbani, district headquarters of Kandhamal, had been ordered to move out after Hindu nationalist groups pressured the owner of the house.

“For the last one month, lawyers have been staying here to help the witnesses to speak the truth,” he said. “The momentum of the cases was picking up, but now the legal center itself is facing problems.”

Singh also said some witnesses were issued death threats on June 17. The witnesses were told not to go to court or else they would be killed.

“However, a complaint has been lodged at the police station and an affidavit submitted before a judge,” he added.

In addition to the 753 cases filed by police in connection with the August-September 2008 violence, the CLA has filed 63 private complaints, and 70 more will be filed in the coming days.

The Orissa United Forum of Churches (OUFC), a new interdenominational grouping, wrote to Chief Minister Patnaik recently, informing him that an administrative officer of the Raikia area had taken victims from the relief camp to their respective villages on June 6, but the local residents did not allow them even to enter their villages.

The OUFC added that there were around 2,000 Christians who were asked to go back to their villages, but that villagers chased them out. They are now living in marketplaces or on the outskirts of those villages in abject conditions.

According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), extremists on June 2 burned down three homes that were partially destroyed during the August 2008 violence in Sirsapanda area in Kandhamal to prevent victims from returning to their villages.

The Christians were able to identify the attackers, but police advised them against naming them, said the EFI report.

“Christian properties were seized by local villagers, and having the Christians back in the village means giving back the land to their owners,” said the EFI’s Ashish Parida.

A CLA team, which recently visited two camps in Kandhamal, also said that the Christians were consistently ostracized by their neighbors.

Orissa is ruled by a regional party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which was in partnership with the BJP when the violence took place. The BJD broke up with the Hindu right-wing party before the state assembly elections that were held simultaneously with the general elections.

Federal Internal Minister P. Chidambaram was in Kandhamal on Friday (June 26) to assess the law-and-order situation there and admitted police failure.

“What happened on Aug. 23 and thereafter was regrettable and condemnable. Moreover, it was the failure of the police for 30 to 40 days,” he said, according to The Hindu. “Now the situation is returning to normal but we cannot lower our guards.”

Chidambaram also said he wanted displaced Christians to return to their homes, seemingly because it will be difficult for the government to claim that normalcy has returned as long as they remain in relief camps.

“The government will ensure that no one harms you anymore. It is absolutely safe for you to return to your villages,” Chidambaram said at a relief camp in Raikia block, according to The Indian Express. “You have every right to practice your religion, build and pray in churches. You please return to your villages. I want to come back within one month and would like to see you in your homes in your villages.”

Christian leaders said that if the displaced people return home, many more reports of threats, attacks and ostracism are expected.

Why Visas Were Denied

Sources told Compass that both the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) were behind the government’s move to block the USCIRF from entering the country.

Compass persistently tried to contact the spokesperson of the MEA, Vishnu Prakash, without success. The spokesperson of the MHA, Onkar Kedia, was travelling.

According to the June 17 The Times of India, the Indian Embassy in Washington pleaded innocent, saying the visa applications of the USCIRF team had been forwarded to New Delhi, as is the standard practice for all such visits.

Sources in the government in New Delhi denied that the visas were deliberately withheld, saying the time was not “proper” for such a visit, according to the daily.

“We really don’t care about what they [USCIRF] report,” it quoted an official as saying. “But a high-profile visit seen as having government sanctions would have raised hackles in India.”

The visas were denied amid diatribes by Hindu right-wing groups against the proposed visit of the U.S. religious freedom panel. An influential Hindu leader, Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati, had called for refusal of entry to the USCIRF team. “We will not allow interference in our internal religious affairs by external bodies,” he said in a press conference in Mumbai on June 12, according to the Press Trust of India. “We see USCIRF as an intrusive mechanism of a foreign government which is interfering with the internal affairs of India.”

Jayendra Saraswati is known to be close to Hindu nationalist groups.

The U.S. branch of the Hindu extremist VHP had also criticized the intended visit of the U.S. Commission, calling it “incomprehensible,” reported The Times of India. “The largest functioning democracy in the world with an independent judiciary, a statutorily constituted Human Rights Commission, an independent press and other supporting organizations would appear to be quite capable of taking care of the religious freedoms and human rights of its citizens,” it said.

Later, on June 22, Ashok Singhal, international president of the VHP, said in a statement that the USCIRF was “a self-appointed committee as an expression of the big brother attitude of the USA to enquire into the status of religious freedom in other countries … This commission is concerned only about the Christians in other countries whenever there is a hue and cry by the church that the Christians are persecuted in such countries. They never bother about the status of religious and racial discriminations meted out to other religionists in the Western countries, including the U.S.”

Rev. Joseph of the Catholic Bishops Conference, however, said it was “preposterous” to construe the USCIRF’s visit as interference in India’s internal matters, “as the organization is recognized the world over as a credible watch-dog of human rights and religious freedom.”

“Everyone knows that the government of the day did/could not effectively check the communal frenzy,” he added. “And the failure of the state has to be investigated not by the officials of the same state themselves, but by someone who can objectively view and make independent judgment on it.”

The USCIRF is expected to release the pending India report in the next few weeks.

“The denial of visas seeks to make opaque an otherwise healthy transparency in India’s human rights discourse,” said the AICC’s Dayal. Added Joseph, “Probably India missed a chance to come clean on its track records on human rights and religious freedom.”

Report from Compass Direct News

US religious freedom panel denied visas to visit India


Indian government officials have denied visas to commissioners of a U.S. religious freedom watchdog panel for the second time since 2000, reports Ecumenical News International.

Members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom were forced to cancel their plans to assess religious freedom in India. Panellists, who were scheduled to leave on 12 June, have been trying to obtain Indian visas for the past seven years.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

CHRISTIANS IN ALGERIA ACCUSED OF ‘SHAKING THE FAITH OF MUSLIMS’


Courthouses in Algeria are collecting more and more Christians. Operation Mobilization reports the sentencing of five missionaries and several local believers, reports MNN.

The Christians received two to three years in prison plus fines, but they are appealing. Although persecution is an opportunity to witness and grow, it’s also emotionally draining.

So far, 20 churches have been told to stop their activities, but they’re ignoring this order. In September, six members of a house fellowship were handcuffed after the meeting and held in custody overnight. Their gathering “disturbed the faith of Muslims,” and the believers were ridiculed, pressured and accused of becoming Christians for the money and visas. “The only visa we have received is that to heaven,” the believers replied.

Among the Christians that visited the court in Tiaret to learn about trial results were local newspapers and internationals. Some of the cases included six believers who were sentenced to two years in prison and two believers that were going through trial again. In the first case, believers were accused of “shaking the faith of Muslims” and “holding religious meetings without permission,” On top of the two-year prison sentence, the Christians were fined $5,000 euros apiece. In a separate case, two believers have to face the judge in Tiaret for a second time. Previously held for three days after being found not guilty for carrying Christian literature, the believers are facing trial again.

Report from the Christian Telegraph