Christians displaced by Kandhamal violence in 2008 sold for coerced labor or sex.
NEW DELHI, August 25 (CDN) — Nearly two years after large-scale anti-Christian violence broke out in India’s Kandhamal district, Orissa state, a team working against human trafficking on Aug. 9 rescued a 16-year-old Christian girl – one of at least 60 people sold into slavery after being displaced by the 2008 attacks.
The recovery in Delhi of the girl represented the cracking of a network that has trafficked Christian girls and women from Orissa to the national capital, sources said.
“Human trafficking agents operating in the tribal belt of Orissa have targeted the Christian girls who are displaced by the Kandhamal communal violence – we have been receiving complaints of missing girls from Kandhamal after the violence broke out in 2008,” said attorney Lansinglu Rongmei, one of the rescue team members. “Roughly 60 girls are estimated missing and have been trafficked to different states.”
The girl, whose name is withheld, is a tribal Christian who was sold into slavery along with her 19-year-old sister and two other girls, all victims of the 2008 violence; they were trafficked from the Daringbadi block of Kandhamal district to the capital in December 2009, according to the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN). Her sister and the other two girls remain missing.
The mother of the girl accompanied the rescue team the evening of Aug. 9 in the Rohini area of Delhi, said a source from the HRLN Anti-Human Trafficking department on condition of anonymity.
“It was only the joint efforts of the All India Christian Council [AICC], HRLN Anti-Human Trafficking and the area police that made this rescue possible,” the source said.
The rescue team took action after the minor’s mother approached the HRLN of Kandhamal for help, which in turn called the Delhi office. Team members said they were disappointed by the reaction of police, who were initially cooperative but later “just unwilling to help,” in the words of one member.
The girl was used only for labor, although she was sexually harassed, sources said.
Rongmei told Compass that police refused to file a First Information Report, telling rescue team members, “No rape of the victim took place as per the medical examination, and there was no need for a case registration against anyone.”
The rescue team was not given a copy of the report of a medical examination at Bhagwan Mahavir Hospital, Pitampura, in Delhi, but they were told it indicated no sign of rape.
“It is confirmed that she was not raped,” said Madhu Chandra, spokesperson of the AICC and part of the rescue team. “She was physically abused, with teeth bite marks and bruises on her body – her neck, leg and right hand.”
The girl stated that a well-known woman from their village in Kandhamal district gave her and her sister a false promise of safe and secure work in Delhi as gardeners.
Instead, operatives brought the sisters and the two other girls to a placement agency in Ratala village in Delhi, Sakhi Maid Bureau, which was run by a man identified only as Montu.
The HRLN source told Compass that the girl was with the placement agency for six days as the owner, Montu, attempted to rape her on several occasions. She was threatened, beaten, drugged with alcohol and sexually molested, the source said.
The girl said her sister and the other two girls were treated the same way.
She was placed in a home in Rohini, Sector 11, as domestic help beginning in January. Until July, she said, she was treated relatively well there, except for a few instances of being slapped by the lady of the house. Then the family’s 10-year-old son began to hit her and their 14-year-old son tried to assault her sexually, and she tried to flee earlier this month.
The girl told the rescue team that she informed the lady of the house about the elder son’s misbehavior, but that the woman stated that she could do nothing about it.
“She bears marks from being beaten on her right hand by the younger boy,” said Chandra.
He told Compass that the owner of the placement agency collected the girl’s wages from the family who employed her, promising to send the money to her mother in Kandhamal district, but that he failed to do so.
Compass was unable to meet with the girl as she was still traumatized and undergoing counseling sessions. The girl’s mother sobbed for her other daughter, grieved that no one knew what condition she was in.
Montu, the placement agency operator, has absconded, according to police.
Prasant Vihar Police Station House Officer Sudhir Kumar confirmed the rescue team’s accusation that he refused to register a complaint in the girl’s case.
“The victim is from Kandhamal, let her go back to Kandhamal and register her complaint there,” Kumar told Compass. “No rape of the victim took place as per the medical examination, and thus there is no need for registering a case against anyone.”
Assistant Commissioner of Police Sukhvir Singh told Compass he had no explanation why the girl’s complaint was not registered, but he insisted on having her and the rescue team return.
“We will file their complaint if they come back to us now,” he said.
Karuna Dayal, coordinator of Anti-Human Trafficking Initiatives at HRLN, led the rescue team, which also included AICC Legal Secretary Advocate Rongmei, Chandra and Ashis Kumar Subodh of the AICC, and three others from the HRLN – Afsar Ahmed, attorney Diviya Jyoti Jaipuria and one identified only as Sangram.
Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC, said large-scale human trafficking in Christian tribal and Dalit women of Kandhamal district is one of the worst problems in the aftermath of the Kandhamal violence.
“Police have made arrests in the nearby Andhra Pradesh and other states,” he said. “Because of the displacement due to the violence, they lost their future, and it is very easy for strangers to come and lure them. Community and family life has been disrupted; the children do not have the normal security that growing children must have. Trauma, unemployment and desperate measures have resulted in the loss of childhood, forcing many to grow up before their age.”
The AICC is calling on the National Commission for Women, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes to investigate, he added.
Report from Compass Direct News
Muslim landowner offers to remove chains from 11-year-old boy if he converts to Islam.
WAZIRABAD, Pakistan, June 21 (CDN) — An 11-year-old Christian boy here is growing weak and ill from malnutrition from working in slave-like conditions for a Muslim landowner who kidnapped him and is forcing him to work off his family’s debts, his mother told Compass.
Katherine Bibi said landowner Ashraf Cheema of Dhonikay village, Wazirabad, has offered her son better conditions and possibly cancellation of the debt if he will convert to Islam.
“He is frequently invited to convert to Islam by Ashraf Cheema, and in return he is promised that he will be freed from the iron chains and his work will be eased and he will be served better meals,” she said. “Cheema has said, ‘The debt of your father and brother might also be forgiven if you convert.’”
Young Danish Masih works without break from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m., often in iron chains, on half a loaf of bread per day, according to Dawood Masih of the National Commission of Justice and Peace (NCJP).
“Due to the lack of sleep and immense physical and mental pressure, he is becoming weaker and ill,” Dawood Masih said. “And he is doing this bonded labor without any kind of leave, including sick leave, for the last one-and-a-half years, in place of his father Riaz Masih and elder brother Adnan Kashif.”
The boy’s father and older brother had been working for Cheema to pay off a debt of 142,000 rupees (US$1,640), but their employer was neither paying their monthly wages nor deducting the amounts from their debt, said Emmanuel Berkat Gill of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA). Riaz Masih’s monthly wage was 3,000 rupees (US$35), and Adnan Kashif earned 2,500 rupees (US$29) per month.
Cheema also extorted land worth 35,000 rupees (US$404) from the boy’s older brother, again without deducting the amount from their debt, and ransacked the family’s house in Ali Naggar village, stealing Katherine Bibi’s dowry worth 200,000 rupees (US$2,308), she and Gill said.
“Being a rich, powerful and influential Muslim landowner, Cheema did all of this and also had the cruelty to not deduct the amount from the debt,” Gill said.
Suffering under Cheema in this way, the family decided to flee to Islamabad, 165 miles (102 miles) away, Katherine Bibi said. About 18 months ago, however, the peaceful life they had begun anew was shattered when Cheema abducted their youngest son, also known as Mithu, and took him to his farmhouse at Dhonikay village near Ali Naggar in Wazirabad.
“After all these cruelties, Ashraf Cheema owes us some amount, rather than us owing him,” an inconsolable Katherine Bibi told Compass by telephone.
She has gone to court to recover her son – both her husband and older son do not risk provoking Cheema by attaching their names to the case – and on June 10 District and Sessions Judge Chaudhary Muhammad Ilyas sent a bailiff to Cheema’s farm to secure the return of the 11-year-old.
“But the bailiff returned unsuccessfully without Mithu, as Ashraf Cheema, being an influential and rich landowner, was told beforehand about the raid by an anonymous insider, and he hid the child,” Katherine Bibi said.
She said that since the bailiff failed to recover her son, Cheema has hurled threats at her and her husband, saying, “After this raid by the bailiff, you will neither be able to get back your son, nor will you be granted a cancellation for your debt.”
After joint efforts by Gill of APMA and Dawood Masih of the NCJP, however, Cheema agreed that if Riaz Masih would work in place of his son, he would release the child, Gill said. When Gill, Dawood Masih and Riaz Masih went to Cheema’s farmhouse, however, the landowner went back on his word and refused to hand over the boy.
Contacted by Compass, Cheema said that no such boy works at his farm or fields, and that “someone must have misled you.”
Besides the court recognition of the abduction, however, Gill and other credible sources assert that Danish Masih works from dawn to dusk under a sizzling summer sun without any break or meal.
At press time local Christian leaders had petitioned the deputy superintendent police of Wazirabad to recover Danish Masih.
Death threats, ultimatum from powerful Muslims compel father of 12-year-old to move.
GUJRANWALA, Pakistan, May 25 (CDN) — A Christian who accused a Muslim of raping his 12-year-old daughter has fled his town in Punjab Province with his family following death threats and police pressure to drop the case.
Citing “continuous threats” to take his life, Zafar Masih left Gujranwala’s predominantly Muslim town of Nai Abadi Tatlay Aali within 10 days of accusing Ali Ahmed, a 28-year-old businessman, of beating and raping his daughter on May 12.
His daughter, whose name was withheld, told Compass that her employer, Ahmed, beat and raped her when she went to his home, where she worked as a house servant. When she arrived she was surprised to find him at home in his room, she said.
“He grabbed my hair and asked me to sleep with him,” she said, amid tears. “I refused to let him have sexual relations with me, which enraged him.”
Her body marred with bruises, she said he tore her clothes and she screamed, but no one else was in the home to hear her.
“Ali Ahmed overpowered me, and all my efforts were futile even though I strained with all my energy to stop him,” she said. “After getting stigmatized, I was threatened with dire consequences and the slaying of my whole family if I told about the rape.”
The oldest of four children, she fled the house and immediately sent her younger brother to call her father, who was working in a nearby field, she said.
Masih, her father, said he immediately went to Tatlay Aali police station and submitted an application to file a First Information Report against Ahmed. Station House Officer Inspector Iqbal Ojjhra refused, he said, and began to pressure him to withdraw the application.
A powerful local politician along with the area’s largest land owner, Imtiyaz Kharral, have since threatened to maim or kill him, Masih said.
“I declined to withdraw my application, though I was being immensely pressured by both the leading Muslim men,” Masih said. “And Inspector Ojjhra had a new alibi every day for not registering the case.”
Inspector Ojjhra denied all allegations against him. He told Compass that he declined to register a rape case because he did not want to harm the Christian girl’s dignity, so instead he had recommended trying to resolve the conflict in a public gathering or “punchayat.”
Arif Masih, a Nai Abadi Tatlay Aali representative for local Christians, told Compass that the next evening, May 13, Kharral called a meeting at his farmhouse with Inspector Ojjhra, local Muslims and a contingent of police officers. Also summoned were Zafar Masih and his children, Arif Masih and the other Christian families of the town.
“At Imtiyaz Kharral’s farmhouse gathering, none of the Christians were allowed to speak or express their opinion,” said Arif Masih, who said the wealthy land owner considered himself the head of the town. “Even I being representative of the Christians was not allowed to speak for [Zafar Masih’s daughter] or put forward the demands of the Christians.”
Only Kharral spoke, saying that there were only two options – Zafar Masih could withdraw his rape charge, or he and the other Christian families in Nai Abadi Tatlay Aali could relocate elsewhere.
“He ignored the fact that the girl would have to live her whole life with this irrecoverable loss and stigma,” Arif Masih said. “I was totally helpless in this showdown, because Imtiyaz Kharral and Ali Ahmed have the favor of the local police head, Iqbal Ojjhra.”
Khalid Gill, chairman of the Christian Lawyers Foundation (CLF), condemned the dismissive police attitude toward marginalized Christians. He suggested that the chief justice of the Lahore High Court take suo moto action against the suspect, his associates and police officers as responsible for mental anguish of the area Christians.
Tahir Naveed Chaudhary, a Christian member of Punjab’s legislative assembly, also denounced the alleged rape and pledged to extend legal and financial support to the family of Zafar Masih.
Most of the area Christians are construction laborers, sanitation workers and domestic servants working for daily wages. Zafar Masih said he could not afford to educate his children because he was living close to poverty level.
“My eldest daughter worked as a maidservant for a monthly salary of 500 rupees [less than US$6] to lend a hand,” he said. “We Christians in Pakistan have no life even dogs live better life than us.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Two brothers die, third in critical condition, after complaining they were not paid.
GUJRANWALA, Pakistan, December 15 (CDN) — Muslim employers of three Christian sanitation workers at a banquet/wedding hall here allegedly poisoned the three workers yesterday, killing two of them; at press time the third was struggling for life in intensive care.
The father of the three workers, Yousaf Masih, said the owner of the hall, along with the manager, poisoned his sons because they were Christians who had dared to ask for pay owed to them.
Imran Masih, 29, and Irfan Masih, 25, died at the Ferozewala Pul Banquet & Marriage Hall after being forced to drink something that was heavily poisoned, Yousaf Masih said. The third worker, 23-year-old Aakash Masih, was in critical condition at the Intensive Care Unit of Civil Hospital Gujranwala, in Punjab Province.
“It appears from the position they were in that they were forced to consume some kind of poisoned drink, or a drug, and they were left there to die,” Yousaf Masih said. “The administration of the banquet and wedding hall did not call a hospital or take them to a hospital – instead they called us after the death of two of our loved ones.”
The Peoples Colony police station has registered a murder and deception case against Imtiyas Warriach, owner of the Ferozewala Pul Banquet & Marriage Hall, and hall manager Abid Virk. At press time they remained at large.
The chief of the Peoples Colony police station was not available for comment, but an officer told Compass that the two suspects would be arrested soon.
The family learned of the deaths when another of Yousaf Masih’s sons, 21-year-old Javed Masih, received a telephone call at home from the owner, Warriach, saying that his older brother Imran Masih was lying dead on the floor of the wedding hall.
Because they had not been paid, the three brothers had left the hall to work elsewhere before returning this past weekend. Javed Masih said he spoke by telephone on Friday (Dec. 11) with Warriach, when the owner called asking for his three brothers to return to work.
“The owner and manager of the wedding hall called me in the early morning of Dec. 11 and pleaded for my three brothers to rejoin and start working,” Javed Masih said. “They promised to reimburse their previous outstanding wages, as well as pay them a Christmas bonus and overtime. At this my brothers agreed and went to work the next morning.”
When Yousaf and Javed Masih were summoned to the wedding hall yesterday, they found Imran Masih and Irfan Masih dead. Aakash Masih was alive but lying still on the floor, they said.
Yousaf Masih said his sons had long told him that owner Warriach and manager Virk refused to pay their daily wages, and that the managers and staff members at the hall spoke derogatorily to them for being Christians.
“On demand of their daily wages, the owner and manager had threatened them that they would continue to work without payment or face the dire consequences,” Yousaf Masih said. “After my sons rejoined as sanitation workers, both Warriach and Virk started to make fun of them for leaving the job previously. Both the Muslim men mocked my sons for being Christian and called them by pejorative names such as ‘Choohra.’”
Yousaf Masih, 47, told Compass at the Sargodha offices of human rights group Rays of Development Organization that his sons had worked at the same wedding hall since the day it opened in 2005. Sobbing, he said that the owner and manager had never paid them their full wages during that time, so they had begun looking for other work a few weeks before the Islamic festival of sacrifice, called Eid-ul-Azha.
Muslims refrain from marrying during the Islamic month of Muharram, so in the small window of time between the start of that month and the end of the Eid-ul-Azha festival, wedding halls thrive and require all available help, he said.
Javed Masih said the bodies of Imran Masih and Irfan Masih were moved to the morgue at Civil Hospital Gujranwala for autopsy.
Report from Compass Direct News
ISTANBUL, June 15 (Compass Direct News) – Since Iranian native Nasser Ghorbani fled to Turkey seven years ago, he has been unable to keep a job for more than a year – eventually his co-workers would ask why he didn’t come to the mosque on Fridays, and one way or another they’d learn that he was a convert to Christianity.
Soon thereafter he would be gone.
Never had anyone gotten violent with him, however, until three weeks ago, when someone at his workplace in Istanbul hit him on the temple so hard he knocked him out. When he came back to his senses, Ghorbani was covered in dirt, and his left eye was swollen shut. It hurt to breathe.
His whole body was in pain. He had no idea what had happened.
“I’ve always had problems at work in Turkey because I’m a Christian, but never anything like this,” Ghorbani told Compass.
A carpenter by trade, Ghorbani started working at an Istanbul furniture maker in November 2008. From the beginning, he said, the Turks he worked with noticed that he didn’t go to the mosque on Friday. Nor did he behave like everyone else.
“If someone swore, I would say, ‘Don’t swear,’ or if someone lied, I said, ‘That’s not honest,’” he said. “You know Turks are very curious, and they try to understand everything.”
Although he tried to conceal his faith from his co-workers, inevitably it became obvious.
Soon after he started his new job, Ghorbani and his family found a new apartment. On the planned move-in day, New Year’s Day, his boss sent the company truck along with a truck driver to help; members of the Christian group that often meets in his home also came.
“When the [truck driver] saw all these people at our house, he was surprised,” said Ghorbani’s wife, Leila, explaining that he seemed especially surprised to find foreigners among the group. “It was big news back at the factory.”
Ghorbani said that in the following months the questions persisted, as well as pressure to attend the mosque. He avoided these as best as he could, but he admitted that two mistakes confirmed their suspicions. Someone from work learned that he had a broken personal computer for sale and bought it, only to find Christian documents and photos on the hard drive. Secondly, a mutual friend later admitted to a co-worker that he went to the same church as Ghorbani.
“The attitude in the entire factory changed toward me,” said Ghorbani, chuckling. “It was like they had agreed to marginalize me. Even our cook started only serving me potatoes, even though she had cooked meat as well. I didn’t say anything.”
In May the truck driver who had helped the Ghorbanis move finally confronted him.
“Your country is a Muslim country,” he told him, “and you may have become a Christian, but you are coming to Friday prayers today.”
On May 22 during lunch, his co-workers told him they were taking him to the mosque that day. “You are going to do your prayers,” one said.
Ghorbani brushed it off and, to appease them, said he would come after lunch. But as they were about to leave for the mosque, he asked them why they only pray once a week – and told them that as a Christian he couldn’t accept it and wouldn’t join them.
After the day’s last delivery and pick-up, the truck driver returned to work. As everyone was getting ready to leave, from the corner of his eye Ghorbani saw the truck driver walking up to him, and felt the blow of his fist on his temple. When he regained consciousness, some co-workers were washing his face in the bathroom.
They told him a little about how he was beaten, put him in a cab with one of their colleagues and sent him home. That evening, his fellowship group was meeting at his home. They had just sat down for dinner when Ghorbani arrived later than usual.
“He walked in, and he was limping because his right side hurt,” said an Iranian friend who was at the meeting. “There was dirt all over his clothes, and there was blood in his left eye. When I saw him I got scared. I thought that maybe a car had hit him.”
Wanting to avoid a hospital visit and questions from police, Ghorbani went to a private doctor a few days later. The doctor instructed him to stay home for three weeks to recover from the injuries: badly bruised ribs, shoulder, shins and eye, and internal stomach bleeding.
When he took the medical report to his workplace the following day, co-workers told him that his boss had fired the truck driver, and that even though management was very happy with his work, it would be safer for him to look for employment elsewhere. They said the truck driver blamed Ghorbani for losing his job and had threatened to kill him if he ever saw him.
“I have a family and home and nothing to lose,” the truck driver said, according to co-workers. “If I kill him, the worst thing that could happen to me is that I do some jail time.”
Ghorbani’s friend said that even if other Iranian converts to Christianity don’t suffer violence as Nasser has, life for them is full of pressure and uncertainty at work.
“Maybe for Christians by birth there are no pressures or problems, but people like us who want to [leave Islam to] follow Jesus are fired,” said the friend.
He explained that following their faith means living righteously and not stealing or cheating their bosses out of time and wages.
“That’s when the marginalization starts, when you resist doing wrong,” he said. “But if you live the way they do, lying and stealing, they don’t notice you’re a Christian.”
The Iranian friend said that even before he converted to Christianity in Turkey, his colleagues would pressure him to come to the mosque for Friday prayers because he was a foreigner.
“After becoming a Christian, the pressure gets worse,” he said. “The way they look at you changes … and, honestly, they try to convince you, [saying] that you haven’t researched your decision well enough.”
Now running his business out of his own home, the friend said no one can disrupt his work because of his faith, but he is a rarity among Iranian refugees in Turkey.
Ghorbani’s wife said the New Testament is clear on how to respond to attacks.
“The Bible says don’t be surprised when things happen against you, but love more, because you suffer for Christ,” she said.
Hope for a Future
The Ghorbanis said they are thankful for their time in Turkey, though their future is unclear.
The family first fled to Turkey in 2002 after realizing that their families were becoming aware of Nasser’s newfound faith. Ghorbani had worked in the Iranian Armed Forces for 10 years before he was fired in 1995 because, as a secular Muslim, he refused to attend Quran classes, which were necessary for keeping his job or being promoted.
For the following eight years, the government kept close tabs on the couple, questioning them every six months. Ghorbani could not travel outside of Iran during this period.
In 2001 he became a Christian under the influence of a customer who ordered furniture from his shop. As soon as Ghorbani’s passport was issued, he fled to Turkey; his family followed a few months later. Soon his family also espoused Christianity after his wife had a dream of Jesus saving her from sinking sand.
“We have learned the truth, and it has set us free,” Leila Ghorbani said.
The family is in the process of applying to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to re-open their case; their first application was denied three years ago.
According to the UNHCR’s most recent Global Report, in Turkey there were 2,100 Iranian refugees and 2,300 asylum-seekers from Iran in 2008. Although there is no data on how many Christian Iranians are living in Turkey, it is estimated that there is an Iranian house church in each of 30 “satellite cities” where the government appoints refugees and asylum seekers to live.
The Ghorbanis have three daughters, ages 20, 17 and 2. Ghorbani said he and his family would be in danger if they were returned to Iran.
“As a Christian I can’t return to Iran, or I risk losing my life,” Ghorbani said. “If they catch me, because I was a lieutenant they will directly hang me.”
Report from Compass Direct News
If two draft Laws which began passage through Armenia’s Parliament on 5 February are adopted, spreading one’s faith would be banned, Forum 18 News Service has learnt.
Those who organise campaigns to spread their faith would face up to two years’ imprisonment, while those who engage in spreading their faith would face up to one year’s imprisonment or a fine of more than eight years’ minimum wages.
Gaining legal status would require 1,000 adult members, while Christian communities which do not accept the doctrine of the Trinity would be barred from registering. “These proposed Laws contain violations of all human rights.”
Russian Orthodox priest Fr David Abrahamyan told Forum 18. Religious affairs official Vardan Astsatryan told Forum 18 the government backs the draft Laws “in general”. He declined to explain why the government has not involved the OSCE in preparation of the draft Laws.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Draft ‘Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions’ enters final phase.
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, January 26 (Compass Direct News) – The Sri Lankan Parliament may soon enact laws designed to restrict religious conversions.
A standing committee assigned to consider a draft “Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions” presented its report to Parliament on Jan. 6, suggesting minor amendments that clear the way for a final vote in February. The provisions of the bill criminalize any act to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another religion by the use of force, fraud or allurement. Those found guilty of breaking the law could be imprisoned for up to seven years and/or fined up to 500,000 rupees (US$4,425).
The Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thero, a member of the Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya party (JHU or National Heritage Party), first proposed the draft in 2004. While the JHU claims the bill is designed to stop unethical conversions, civil rights groups and Christian churches say it will infringe on the constitutional rights of freedom of religion and legitimize harassment of religious minorities.
Buddhists form a 70 percent majority in Sri Lanka, with Roman Catholics constituting 7 percent and Protestant Christians only 1 percent of the population.
After the first reading of the bill in Parliament in August 2004, 22 petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the draft legislation.
The Supreme Court determined the draft bill to be valid except for clauses 3 and 4(b), which it deemed unconstitutional. These clauses required any person who converted or participated in a religious conversion ceremony to report to a government official and prescribed punishment for failure to report such conversions.
The draft was then referred to a parliamentary standing committee for further review. In its report, presented to the House on Jan. 6, the committee made a few amendments to the original draft in keeping with Supreme Court recommendations. The most notable amendment was the deletion of the need to report conversions and the punishment prescribed for not reporting them.
These amendments paved the way for the draft bill to be passed by a simple majority vote when it is presented for a final reading in Parliament this February.
Chief Opposition Whip Joseph Michael Perera, however, has requested a two-day debate on the draft bill on grounds that it would affect all religions.
Fulfilling Campaign Promises
The JHU, founded and led by Buddhist clergymen, made anti-conversion legislation a cornerstone of its debut election campaign in 2004, when it won nine seats in Parliament. With the possibility of an early general election this year, the bill has become a matter of political survival for the JHU.
At a press briefing on Jan. 7, Ven. Ellawela Medhananda Thero, a Buddhist monk and Member of Parliament representing the JHU, called on all political parties to vote in favor of the bill.
“People expected us to fulfill two goals,” he said. “One was to end unethical conversions and the other was to liberate the country from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. That is why we entered politics.”
Ven. Medhananda Thero added that the purpose of the bill was to protect all major religions in the country from fundamentalists and unethical conversions.
Sri Lanka’s Christian community and civil rights groups have strongly objected to the draft legislation. Far from stemming alleged forced conversions, they claim the bill will become a weapon of harassment through misapplication, limiting the fundamental rights of thought, conscience and religion. These rights include the right to adopt a religion and the right to practice, observe and teach religion.
The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) said in a recent press statement that, “It is our gravest concern that this bill will grant legal sanction for the harassment of religious communities or individuals, and offer convenient tools of harassment for settling personal disputes and grudges, totally unrelated to acts of alleged ‘forced’ conversion.”
According to Section 2 of the draft bill, the offer of any temptation such as a gift, cash or any other gratification to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another is punishable with up to seven years of prison and a maximum fine of 500,000 rupees (US$4,425) – equal to approximately three years’ wages for the average Sri Lankan citizen.
Sri Lankan Christians have repeatedly expressed concern that key sections of the draft bill are open to wide and subjective interpretation that could criminalize not only legitimate religious activity but also legitimate social action by faith-based organizations or individuals.
“A lady who heads a charitable trust caring for orphans asked if she could be charged under this law, since she is a Christian and some of the children she cares for are not,” a lawyer told Compass. “Many people will now think twice before helping the poor or needy, for fear of being accused of committing a criminal act.”
Ironically, on June 4, 2008, in his address to the new Sri Lankan ambassador to the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI had acknowledged the Sri Lankan government’s appreciation of the Catholic Church’s charity work in the country.
“Such action is a concrete example of the Church’s willing and prompt response to the mission she has received to serve those most in need,” he said. “I commend any future measures which will help guarantee that Catholic hospitals, schools and charitable agencies can continue to care for the sick, the young and the vulnerable regardless of ethnic or religious background.”
He went on to assure the government that “the Church will continue in her efforts to reach out with compassion to all.”
On Jan. 8, at his traditional New Year meeting with all ambassadors to the Holy See, the pope appeared to be addressing concerns over anti-conversion legislation.
“The Church does not demand privileges, but the full application of the principle of religious freedom,” he said. He also called on Asian governments to ensure that “legislation concerning religious communities guarantees the full exercise of this fundamental right, with respect for international norms.”
Since the first draft anti-conversion bill was presented to Parliament in 2004, the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, NCEASL and Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka have repeatedly called for an alternative solution based on inter-faith dialogue with fair representation of all religious communities.
“Enactment of laws to regulate something as intrinsically personal as spiritual beliefs will not contribute towards resolving disagreements and promoting religious harmony,” said Godfrey Yogarajah, executive director of the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission. “On the contrary, it will create mistrust and animosity.”
Report from Compass Direct News
As renewed violence in Mosul halts return, refugees wait in Turkish legal limbo.
ISTANBUL, November 14 (Compass Direct News) – In this Turkish city’s working-class neighborhood of Kurtulus, Arabic can be heard on the streets, signs are printed in the Arabic alphabet and Iraqis congregate in tea shops.
In 99-percent Muslim Turkey, most of these Iraqis are not Muslims. And they are not in Turkey by choice. They are Christian refugees who fled their homeland to escape the murderous violence that increasingly has been directed at them.
It is hard to tell how many of Mosul’s refugees from the recent wave of attacks have made their way to Istanbul, but finding these residents here is not hard. A middle-aged Iraqi refugee who fled Mosul five months ago now attends a Syrian Orthodox Church in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Tarlabasi, where gypsies, transvestites, and immigrants from Turkey’s east live in hopes of a better life in Istanbul.
Declining to give his name, the refugee said there is no future for Christians in Iraq and that nearly everyone he knew there wanted to leave the country. He said the only hope for Iraqi Christians is for Western countries to open their doors to Christian Iraqi refugees.
“We don’t have hope,” he said. “If these doors aren’t opened, we will be killed.”
Since October, violence in Mosul has pushed more than 12,000 Christians from their homes and left more than two dozen dead, according to U.N. and Christian organizations. In the face of Mosul violence, Iraqi Christians flee to Turkey before settling permanently in another country, usually in a place where their family has gone out before them.
Christian Sisters Killed
Weeks after the mass exodus of Mosul Christians to surrounding villages, Turkey and other nations, around one-third of families reportedly have returned due to the presence of 35,000 army and police and the Iraqi government offering cash grants of up to $800.
But those returning Christians were shaken again on Wednesday (Nov. 12), when Islamic militants stormed into the house of two Syrian Catholic sisters, Lamia’a Sabih and Wala’a Saloha, killing them and severely injuring their mother. They then bombed their house and detonated a second explosive when the police arrived, which killed three more.
The Christian family had recently returned after having fled Mosul. Many believe this attack will deter other Christians from returning to Mosul, and there are reports of Christians again leaving the area.
There has been a steady exodus of Christians from Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1991. The church in Iraq dates from the beginning of Christianity, but the population has plummeted by 50 percent in the last 20 years. The outflow of Iraqi Christians spiked in 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion.
Although Iraq as a whole has seen a dramatic decrease in violence due to last year’s surge in U.S. troops, the flight of Christians to Turkey has grown. One-third of the 18,000 refugees who registered in Turkey last year are from Iraq. In Syria, an estimated 40 percent of the 1.2 million Iraqis who have fled Iraq are Christians, though they make up only about 3 percent of Iraq’s population.
Monsignor Francois Yakan, the 50-year-old leader of the Chaldean Church in Turkey, said all Iraqi refugees are undergoing hardships regardless of religion, but that the situation is especially difficult for Christians since there is less support for them in Turkey.
“Muslims have the same difficulty as Christians, but there are more foundations to assist them,” he said. “The government notices Muslim immigrants, but nobody pays attention to us.”
Yakan travels to other countries to raise awareness of the plight of Iraqi Christians, trying to marshal the support of government and church leaders – last week he traveled to France, Romania and Germany. If Western governments don’t wake up to this crisis, he said, the results could be catastrophic.
“People don’t know the plight of Iraqi Christians. They have no government, no soldiers, and no power,” he said. “Christianity in Iraq is ending. Why aren’t they noticing this?”
Strangers in Strange Land
The unnamed Iraqi refugee in Tarlabasi said not even pleas from Iraqi priests can make them stay.
“The church in Iraq can’t stop the people from leaving because they can’t guarantee their security,” he said.
He came to Istanbul with his family but still has an adult son and daughter in the city. He hopes to join his brother in the United States soon.
A group of Iraqi refugees at a tea shop in the Kurtulus area of Istanbul interrupted their card game to talk to Compass of their troubled lives.
“We can’t find any work,” said Baghdad-born Iraqi Jalal Toma, who acted as the translator for the group. He pointed to a young man at the table and said, “He works moving boxes and carrying things, and they pay him half as much as a Turk for a day’s work.”
All of the men are Chaldean Christians, a Catholic Eastern-rite church whose historical homeland is in northern Iraq, and came from Mosul in recent months. They are chronically under-employed and rely on financial help from family members abroad to make ends meet.
They had to flee their homes at a moment’s notice, taking along their families but leaving behind their cars, houses and most of their possessions. The men hope to join family members who live in foreign countries, but they harbor few hopes that they can ever return to Iraq again.
Work is scarce for refugees and hard to come by legally in Turkey. To survive, most Iraqi Christians rely on money from families abroad or the handful of local church charities that struggle to keep up with the overwhelming volume of refugees, such as the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program, an ecumenical umbrella group that unites the city’s parishes to assist migrants and asylum seekers.
Another such charity is Kasdar, the Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriac Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Organization, run by Yakan, the Chaldean Church leader in Turkey.
He launched Kasdar two years ago to provide a safety net for Christian refugees who live in Turkey’s legal limbo. Kasdar assists all Christians regardless of denomination or faith tradition and has 16 volunteers from an equally diverse background.
Yakan sees thousands of refugees pass through Istanbul each year. Most of them are Chaldean, and he knows of 60-70 people who fled due to the recent October violence in Mosul. He travels constantly to visit Chaldean refugees scattered throughout the country.
When refugees first arrive in Turkey, they must register with the United Nations as asylum seekers. The Turkish police then assign them to one of 35 cities to live in as they wait to receive official refugee status. These Christians face the biggest hardships since they don’t have access to the same social resources as refugees in Istanbul, said Metin Corabatir, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman in Turkey.
“The Chaldean population faces problems in Turkey, especially due to the policy of resettling them to satellite cities,” said Corabatir. “The Chaldeans in Istanbul have NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] and churches to help them, but in satellite cities there is no church or community to help them.”
Most refugees send their children to school at a local center run by Caritas, a Catholic confederation of relief, development and social service organizations. Here, Iraq children receive education and lessons in basic vocational skills.
The wait for legal status can be as short as a few months or a couple of years. But complicated circumstances can push back the wait to five years, 10 years, or even 17 years – as it is now for a man who fled during the first Gulf War, Yakan of the Chaldean Church said.
Another church leader who has helped Christian refugees is 70-year-old Monsignor Yusuf Sag, vicar general of the Syrian Catholic Church in Turkey. His 350-person congregation assembles packets of clothes and food for the refugees.
Many who come to Sag also seek medical help. He has connections with doctors throughout the city, both Muslim and Christian, who offer basic treatment to refugees free of charge. Sag said he tries to help all who come to him, without asking them of their denomination or even their religion.
“Their situation is not a Christian problem, but a human problem,” he said.
Often Iraqi Christians work illegally, where they are vulnerable to extortion. Refugee workers in Istanbul said registered asylum seekers can work legally, but it is not uncommon for employers to garnish their wages or withhold them completely, with the foreigners getting little protection from police.
The Turkish government charges a refugee a residence tax of US$460 a year and will not allow them to leave the country until it is paid, making them remain in the country even longer. With all these hurdles to finding stable employment, many Iraqi refugees are never too far from homelessness.
“There was a family we found living on the streets – a husband, wife and two children,” Yakan said. “They have lived in Istanbul for six months and couldn’t even afford to pay rent.”
His foundation found the family an apartment and assisted them with rent, but they only have enough resources to help for two months.
Kasdar gave similar assistance to 54 families in October. But the organization can only help for a few months at a time and assist the most vulnerable refugees.
Report from Compass Direct News