Despite Democracy, Christians in Bhutan Remain Underground


Open practice of faith could lead to more persecution, they fear.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, January 25 (CDN) — In this distant and isolated nation in the eastern Himalayas, known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” almost everything looks uniformly Buddhist.

Most men and women in the landlocked country between India and China wear their national dress, and all the buildings – with their sloping walls, trefoil-shaped windows and pitched roofs – look alike, as if they were Buddhist monasteries.

There are no visible signs of Christians’ tiny presence, but they do exist. Christians, whose only official identity falls in the “others” category in the census, are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. And they live out their Christian lives underground – no church buildings, Christian cemeteries or Christian bookstores are yet allowed.

Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, 75 percent of them practice Buddhism, according to the 2005 census. Around 22 percent are Hindu, mostly of Nepali origin.

An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, as per the wish of the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. It has been nearly two years since democracy arrived in Druk Yul, as the country is known in its national language, Dzongkha. But little has changed for Christians.

If there is anything open about Christianity, it is the acknowledgement of Christians’ presence in the national press, which was born after the advent of democracy.

“A journalist telephoned and asked me if I was converting local people,” said a middle-aged pastor clad in Gho, the men’s national uniform, a knee-length gown woven with colorful wool. “I wondered how she got my phone number. Maybe a Christian friend of mine passed it on.”

The pastor requested anonymity – the same request that high government officials made, no matter how trivial the matters they divulged.

The pastor said he told the journalist he did not pay people to convert. “People choose to become Christians out of their own free will,” he said. “I am working within the constitution of the country.”

Still a Monarchy

Asked why the church remained underground in spite of a provision for religious freedom in the new constitution, the pastor replied, “Virtually, Bhutan is still a monarchy. The time is yet to come when we have the assurance of protection.”

His wife, wearing the ankle-length woollen skirt or Kira that is the national dress for women, smiled at what was perhaps a naïve question – the power of the monarchy is beyond question. By law all Bhutanese citizens wear the national dress in schools and certain public, government and religious places. Non-compliance can result in fines or imprisonment.

Asked what would happen if authorities found out about their underground church, the pastor said that before 2008 they would have been arrested because Christianity was banned.

“Even now, there will be serious repercussions,” he said. “What exactly will happen, I do not know. But no Christian worker will take the risk to find it out the hard way.”

To construct any building, Bhutanese citizens require a licence from the government.

“As far as the governance is concerned, the Royal Government of Bhutan is very caring,” he said. “We get free education and free medicine and hospitalization, and there is a sense of security because the crime rate is very low. But asking for a licence for a church is beyond our imagination as of now.”

The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008) rules absolutely, said local Buddhists, though not with any regret.

“It’s democracy, but still not a democracy,” said a civil government employee requesting anonymity. “It’s the king who makes all important decisions.”

Asked about the Christian presence, he said Christianity grew even at a time when it was banned. “There are many secret Christians. They meet in secret locations for prayer.”

The clean-shaven, medium-built 31-year-old king, an avid soccer fan who studied at Phillips Academy and Wheaton College in Massachusetts in the United States and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, is seen as a progressive person but conservative in matters of religion and culture.

According to the new constitution, the king is the head of state, though the parliament has the power to impeach him by a two-thirds majority vote – a provision not likely to be used anytime in the future, according to popular sentiment.

Banned

Suggesting that Christian fears are warranted, a pastor from Pheuntsholing town near the India border explained that memories of a period of severe crackdown on underground churches were still fresh in the minds of local Christians.

“I was picked up from a house where I was conducting Sunday worship in Tsirang district in September 1995 and put in a prison,” said the pastor. “I was asked to leave the district with immediate effect, and I had to move to another location.”

His voice trembling as he spoke by telephone, he said, “Once the government discovers that you are a Christian, nothing will be free for you.”

The pastor said that although there are no violent attacks on Christians, they do face discrimination by the government and society.

According to the government-run weekly Kuensel of Nov. 4, 1992, the National Assembly banned Christianity in 1969 and in 1979. The edicts against Christians were said to have passed due to reports of conversions to Christianity in south Bhutan, inhabited mostly by people of Nepali origin.

In the early 1990s the government of Bhutan began a massive crackdown on Christians, mainly in southern parts, and intensified it towards the end of the decade.

The authorities identified Christians in government or business and took their signatures on a form pledging compliance with rules and regulations governing practice of religion. There were several reports, though unconfirmed, of violence against Christians by police and village heads during the period.

In April 2001, international media reported on persecution of Christians in Bhutan when police stormed churches on Palm Sunday to register Christians, many of who were detained and threatened.

Almost a decade later, the legal standing of the Christian minority under the new constitution remains unclear.

Ambiguous Laws

In May 2009, the national daily Bhutan Times quoted Interior Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji as saying, “It was absolutely okay if people were born Christian … The constitution supports them. But it is unlawful to convert. If we get proof of proselytization in the country, we shall definitely take action.”

The newspaper noted that there are no official churches in Bhutan. “And most of the Sunday masses and gatherings are held in the homes of pastors and converts,” noted the daily, which occasionally criticizes government policies, though mildly and without taking aim at any particular official.

The new Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, drafted in 2005 and officially adopted in 2008, gives religious freedom to all the citizens of the country but also contains a virtual “anti-conversion law” as found in neighboring India.

The exotic, official website of the constitution – which displays the national emblem of two dragons and a lotus surmounted by a jewel symbolizing harmony between secular and religious powers and sovereignty of the nation – states that all Bhutanese citizens “shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in Article 7.

But Article 7 adds: “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

What the terms “coercion” and “inducement” mean is not clear. Whether “proselytization,” which the home minister recently suggested was illegal, means propagation of Christianity or conversion by “coercion or inducement,” is also left unclear.

The Supreme Court of Bhutan, whose judge appointments have yet to be completed and are not yet functional, is likely to have the prerogative to interpret the constitution.

What is unambiguous, however, is that the government of Bhutan will continue to preserve the uniform culture of the country, which, it maintains, is based on Buddhist values. Article 3 of the constitution says that “Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan, which promotes among others the principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassion and tolerance,” and “it is the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan.”

Article 4 mandates the government to “endeavour to preserve, protect and promote the cultural heritage of the country,” adding that “parliament may enact such legislation as may be necessary to advance the cause of the cultural enrichment of Bhutanese society.”

According to Article 8, it is a fundamental duty of all citizens to “preserve, protect and respect the culture and heritage of the nation.”

“Apart from religious restrictions, we are happy to be in Bhutan,” said a pastor from Thimphu. “Look at the unrest India, China and Nepal have from time to time. We are happy and thankful to God for this nation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christian in Somalia Who Refused to Wear Veil is Killed


‘Moderate’ Islamist group had long suspected woman in Puntland was Christian.

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 27 (CDN) — Three masked members of a militant Islamist group in Somalia last week shot and killed a Somali Christian who declined to wear a veil as prescribed by Muslim custom, according to a Christian source in Somalia.

Members of the comparatively “moderate” Suna Waljameca group killed Amina Muse Ali, 45, on Oct. 19 at 9:30 p.m. in her home in Galkayo, in Somalia’s autonomous Puntland region, said the source who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Ali had told Christian leaders that she had received several threats from members of Suna Waljameca for not wearing a veil, symbolic of adherence to Islam. She had said members of the group had long monitored her movements because they suspected she was a Christian.

The source said Ali had called him on Oct. 4 saying, “My life is in danger. I am warned of dire consequences if I continue to live without putting on the veil. I need prayers from the fellowship.”

“I was shocked beyond words when I received the news that she had been shot dead,” the source in Somalia told Compass by telephone. “I wished I could have recalled her to my location. We have lost a long-serving Christian.”

Ali had come to Galkayo from Jilib, 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Kismayo, in 2007. She arrived in Puntland at the invitation of a close friend, Saynab Warsame of the Darod clan, when the Islamic extremist group al Shabaab invaded Kismayo, the source said. Warsame was born in Kismayo and had lived in Jilib but moved to Puntland when war broke out in 1991.

The source said it is not known if even Warsame knew of Ali’s conversion from Islam to Christianity.

“She might not have known, because Warsame is not a Christian,” he said.

In 1997 Ali, an orphan and unmarried, joined the Somali Christian Brothers’ Organization, a movement commonly known as the Somali Community-Based Organization. As such she had been an active member of the underground church in the Lower Juba region.

Muslim extremists have targeted the movement, killing some of its leaders after finding them in possession of Bibles. The organization was started in 1996 by Bishop Abdi Gure Hayo.

Suna Waljameca is considered “moderate” in comparison with al Shabaab, which it has fought against for control over areas of Somalia; it is one of several Islamic groups in the country championing adoption of a strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). Along with al Shabaab, said to have links with al Qaeda, another group vying for power is the Hisbul Islam political party. While al Shabaab militia have recently threatened forces of Hisbul Islam in Kismayo, Suna Waljameca has declared war on al Shabaab.

Among Islamic militant groups, Suna Waljameca is said to be the predominant force in Puntland.

It is unknown how many secret Christians there are in Somalia – Compass sources indicate there are no more than 75, while The Economist magazine hedges its estimate at “no more than” 1,000 – but what is certain is that they are in danger from both extremist groups and Somali law. While proclaiming himself a moderate, President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has embraced a version of sharia that mandates the death penalty for those who leave Islam.

Christian Servants

In 1994 Ali worked with the Belgium contingent of United Nations Operations in Somalia as a translator. The same year she was a translator during a peace conference aimed at bringing together warring clans in the lower Juba region.

Her death follows the murders of several other Christians by Islamic extremists in the past year. Sources told Compass that a leader of Islamic extremist al Shabaab militia in Lower Juba identified only as Sheikh Arbow shot to death 46-year-old Mariam Muhina Hussein on Sept. 28 in Marerey village after discovering she had six Bibles. Marerey is eight kilometers (five miles) from Jilib, part of the neighboring Middle Juba region.

On Sept. 15, al Shabaab militants shot 69-year-old Omar Khalafe at a checkpoint they controlled 10 kilometers (six miles) from Merca, a Christian source told Compass. Al Shabaab controls much of southern Somalia, as well as other areas of the nation. Besides striving to topple President Ahmed’s Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu, the militants also seek to impose a strict version of sharia.

In August al Shabaab extremists seeking evidence that a Somali man had converted from Islam to Christianity shot him dead near the Somali border with Kenya, sources said. The rebels killed 41-year-old Ahmed Matan in Bulahawa, Somalia on Aug. 18.

In Mahadday Weyne, 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, al Shabaab Islamists on July 20 shot to death another convert from Islam, Mohammed Sheikh Abdiraman, at 7 a.m., eyewitnesses told Compass. The militants also reportedly beheaded seven Christians on July 10. Reuters reported that they were killed in Baidoa for being Christians and “spies.”

On Feb. 21 al Shabaab militants beheaded two young boys in Somalia because their Christian father refused to divulge information about a church leader, according to Musa Mohammed Yusuf, the 55-year-old father who was living in a Kenya refugee camp when he spoke with Compass.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christian Official’s Death in India Called Divine Punishment


Hindu nationalists say Andhra Pradesh chief’s ‘conversion agenda’ led to copter crash.

NEW DELHI, September 14 (CDN) — Hindu nationalists are calling the helicopter-crash death of Andhra Pradesh state’s chief minister, a Christian, divine punishment for his so-called conversion agenda. The same allegation of a “conversion agenda” fueled persecution in the state for more than five years.

Yeduguri Sandinti Rajasekhara Reddy, a second-generation Christian in the Church of South India, and four officials were confirmed dead when their helicopter was found on Sept. 3 in the state’s dense forest area of Nallamalla.

Since Reddy, an official with the left-of-center Congress Party, became chief minister of the southern state in 2004, right-wing Hindu groups had been accusing him of helping Western missionaries to convert economically poor Hindus in the state. Hindu nationalists have been flooding the Internet with extremist comments saying the death of the 60-year-old Reddy, popularly known as YSR, was divine retribution.

“This is divine justice by Lord Srinivasa [One of the names of Hindu god Venkateshwara, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu],” commented Jayakumar on the Express Buzz news website. “It is good that it happened so swiftly. Obviously, [Congress Party President] Sonia Gandhi is worried that her plans of completely converting India into a Christian country have received a setback. Let all Hindu-baiters of this country perish like this. Very, very soon.”

A person who identified himself only as Prakash on the website of The Indian Express daily wrote, “Anti-god demons like YSR need to be punished like this.” Another writer identified as Kumar chimed in, “YSR is the ringleader for Christian conversions in Andhra Pradesh.” Enthused a writer identified only as Ravi, “It’s the best thing that happened to Andhra Pradesh in a long time, and Andhra Pradesh people must celebrate,” and Suman Malu exclaimed, “Thankfully our country has been spared of one anti-national, anti-Hindu chief minister. Thank God for that!”

Right-wing groups also have accused Sonia Gandhi, a Catholic born in Italy, of having a “conversion agenda” since she became president of the Congress Party in 1998. The rise of Christian persecution in India coincided with her appointment as party chief.

Dr. Sam Paul, national secretary for public affairs of the All India Christian Council, said two years ago that Hindu nationalists launched a massive campaign in 2004 to raise fears that Christian conversions would skyrocket in Andhra Pradesh due to the appointment of a Christian chief minister.

“Six years later, it is fully proven that those allegations were part of a political agenda to belittle the chief minister and his party,” Paul told Compass, adding that Reddy never preached his faith, “not even once.”

He pointed out, though, that the Indian Constitution permits all people to practice and propagate their faith.

Calling the extreme comments “very unfortunate,” Paul recalled that Reddy attended Muslim and Hindu functions and participated in ceremonial traditions such as offering Pattu Vastrams (silk dresses) to Lord Venkateshwara in Tirupati every year, a long-time tradition in the state.

In addition, in June 2007, the Reddy administration enacted a law prohibiting the propagation of any non-Hindu religion in the temple town of Tirupati-Tirumala, believed to be the abode of Lord Venkateshwara. At the same time, however, he had faced criticism for tightening government controls on the state’s numerous temples.

Official Condolences

Reddy had led his party to a second successive victory in Andhra Pradesh in May 2009. He was seen as a leader catering to the masses thanks to populist measures such as financial and power programs for farmers.

In stark contrast to the hostile sentiment voiced in the cyber-world, more than 60 admirers died of shock or committed suicide following news of his death. Indo-Asian News Service reported that the deaths of Reddy’s supporters occurred in 19 of the state’s 23 districts. While most of them suffered cardiac arrest after watching the news of his death on television, others committed suicide.

“Reddy dedicated his life to people, I am dedicating my life to him,” a young man wrote in his suicide note before consuming poison, reported the news service. A physically handicapped couple, pensioners under a welfare scheme, jumped into a river to try to end their lives, but fishermen saved them.

Officially, even Hindu nationalist groups offered their condolences, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s largest conglomerate of right-wing groups, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seen as the political arm of the RSS.

“We all share this unbearable pain with his family members, people of Andhra Pradesh and workers of the Congress Party,” the RSS announced in its weekly mouthpiece, the Organiser. “All the BJP-ruled state governments declared a two-day state mourning as a mark of respect to the departed soul.”

Reddy, along with his special secretary P. Subramanyam, the chief secretary ASC Wesley and Indian Air Force pilots S.K. Bhatia and M.S. Reddy, died in the crash as they flew from the state capital of Hyderabad to Chittoor district for a political function.

Hot-bed

Anti-Christian sentiment has fueled persecution in Andhra Pradesh for the last five years.

Most recently, suspected Hindu extremists burned down a newly built church building of the Best Friends Church in Mahasamudram area in Chittoor district on Aug. 20. On Aug. 1, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) attacked Christians in Mahabubnagar district, accusing them of forceful conversion; they forced the Christians to wear tilak, a Hindu symbol on the forehead, and threatened to kill them if they went ahead with church construction.

Andhra Pradesh has witnessed three brutal murders of Christian workers since 2005. The body of a 29-year old pastor, Goda Israel, was found with stab wounds on Feb. 20, 2007 in a canal near his house in Pedapallparru village in Krishna district. In May 2005, two pastors, K. Daniel and K. Isaac Raju, were killed near Hyderabad, the state capital. Daniel went missing on May 21 and Raju on May 24. Their bodies were found on June 2 of that year.

The New Indian Express on June 27, 2005 quoted a man identified only as Goverdhan claiming that he and two friends had murdered the two preachers.

“I am not against Christianity, but Raju and Daniel converted hundreds of Hindu families,” Goverdhan said. “They enticed them with money. We have done this to prevent further conversions. This act should be a lesson for others.”

According to the Census of India 2001, Andhra Pradesh has a population of more than 76.2 million, of which only 1.18 million are Christian.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Gaza ‘islamization’ continues, schoolgirls told ‘cover up’


Gaza took another step towards strict Islamic law this week with the imposition of new dress codes on schoolgirls. Girls and young women returning to school on Sunday were told that they must wear jilbab, traditional Islamic sleeved robes, and cover their hair, or they would not be allowed to return to class, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

This was revealed in a story by Maayana Miskin and posted on the website.

“Posters hung in Gaza City schools announced that all girls would be required to wear navy blue jilbab, a white headscarf, and white or black shoes. Dozens of students reported being sent home after appearing in school in jeans,” said Miskin.

“In addition, public high school classes have been separated, with boys and girls learning in different buildings.”

The story went on to say that according to some Gaza residents, the new rules are being enforced on members the region’s small Christian minority as well, despite the fact that Christians are generally considered exempt from following Islamic law. However, the laws have not been enforced within private Christian schools.

Hamas officials denied Monday that they were connected to the new school dress codes. The decision to enforce strict standards of dress was made at the local level, by individual principals, Hamas claimed.

Most girls and their families were in favor of the new dress codes, they added.

“Reports of a new school dress code caused anger in Judea and Samaria, where Palestinian Authority loyalists accused Hamas of violating the PA charter, which forbids the enforcement of a public dress code,” wrote Miskin.

“Earlier this month, a Gaza judge ordered that all female lawyers cover their hair in court. The decision caused a wave of protest from lawyers and human rights groups in Gaza, Judea and Samaria. Hamas distanced itself from that decision as well, saying the matter was a private issue for the courts to deal with.

“Several weeks ago, Hamas was accused of enforcing an informal dress code on women living in Gaza, and of allowing local militias to enforce strict standards of modest dress and behavior.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

INDIA: NEWS BRIEFS


Recent Incidents of Persecution

West Bengal, August 31 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu hardliners have again attacked the Christian community in Bishnupur and threatened to kill them if they continue to practice their faith. About 15 Hindu extremists armed with knives and heavy rods of bamboo and iron shouted anti-Christian slogans as they attacked Khagen Majhi on Aug. 20. Threatening the Christian with violent “incidents like Orissa’s Kandhamal situation,” they commanded that he recant his Christian faith, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India. Running from one Christian house to another, the enraged Hindu extremists also beat Manik Jana and verbally abused and manhandled Jharna Pradhan. Similar violence took place in the same area on July 29, as well as on Christmas Day of 2006. Area Christians filed a police complaint at Bishnupur police station, but no arrests had been made at press time.

Andhra Pradesh – Suspected Hindu extremists set aflame a newly built church building in Mahasamudram, destroying it on Aug. 20. Best Friends Church was built with the permission of local authorities and was scheduled to be inaugurated on Aug. 30, reported the All Indian Christian Council. The next morning local Christians went to the site to find the church building in ashes. Pastor A. John filed a complaint at Bangarupalem police station. A police investigation is underway.

West Bengal – Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Aug. 20 attacked two Christians in Amtala, Kolkatta. The All India Christian Council reported that eight extremists accused two unidentified Christians of forceful conversion and filed a police complaint against them after forcing villagers to sign a letter of complaint. Christian leaders have taken the matter to authorities, and a police investigation is underway.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists attacked the Mayer Memorial Church building and set fire to three vehicles belonging to Christians on Aug. 17 in Hubli. A Compass contact said the extremists were opposing a Christian rally organized by the church. Area Christians said they believe the attack was planned well in advance as the extremists arrived with media. The church cancelled the rally, and police provided protection to the Christian community.

Karnataka – Members of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) on Aug. 16 disrupted a Christian prayer meeting in Karwar, accused the pastor of forceful conversion and threatened him with violence if he continued Christian activities. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that at 7 p.m. a church leader of New Life Fellowship identified only as Pastor Quadros was conducting a prayer meeting in a church member’s house when the extremists barged in. The intolerant Hindus accused the pastor of forceful conversion, searched the house and took Christian literature. The VHP filed a complaint against the pastor, and police ordered him to inform them about any future Christian activities.

Kerala – Police on Aug. 12 arrested Christians based on false allegations of destroying Hindu holy books in Vythiri, Wayanad district. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Hindu extremists of the local Hindu Ikkaya Vedhy group surrounded the house of Karthyani Amma, a Hindu in Laksham colony, near Vythiri police station, as her son – a convert to Christianity identified only as Manikandan – was cleaning her home along with evangelist Sunny Joseph. The extremists created a disturbance, and Christians became embroiled in the subsequent uproar. Amma filed a complaint against the Christians for destroying Hindu holy books and articles used in rituals. The Christians were charged with promoting communal disharmony, house trespass, and damaging property.

Karnataka – Hindu hardliners on Aug. 9 disrupted the worship of Indian Missionary Service and beat Pastor V. James in Gulbarga. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that at around 10 a.m., about 20 Hindu extremists shouting anti-Christian slogans stormed into the worship service and accused the pastor of forceful conversion. They dragged the pastor out to the street, kicking, punching and beating him. The pastor fled to Ganigapura police station and filed a complaint against the extremists, reported EFI. Later in the evening, the intolerant Hindus went to the pastor’s house and assaulted him again, chasing him, his wife and four children away from the village. The pastor has relocated to another area. No arrests had been made at press time.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Aug. 9 ordered 20 Christians to leave their home village of Gulbarga because they had put their trust in Christ. The All Indian Christian Council (AICC) reported that village leaders in alliance with the Hindu extremists were reacting against a recent baptism service conducted by Pastor Sukruuth Raj. AICC reported Pastor Raj, who was instrumental in the baptized person coming to faith in Christ, as saying “all the believers are from the same village, and they are going to stay there.”

Maharashtra – About 45 Hindu extremists attacked two Gospel for Asia Christian workers, accused them of luring people to convert to Christianity and took their equipment on Aug. 8 in an undisclosed area in Maharashtra, according to a Christian source. Two Christian workers identified as Jayant Mehta and Dayanand Tambe were screening a film about Jesus that was attended by many villagers, reported the source. As the Christians were getting ready to go home, the Hindu extremists rushed at them and snatched their film equipment, then began beating them. They took the Christians to a police station and charged them with bribing people to convert to Christianity, giving fake names of people who would supposedly testify against them. After local Christian leaders intervened, the two Christian workers were released the next morning. The film equipment was returned to the Christians on Aug. 10 after police confirmed that the allegations were false.

Kerala – Hindu extremists armed with swords on Aug. 7 barged into the prayer hall of the Full Gospel Church for God, attacked two Christians and vandalized the facility in Pullad. Hindu newspapers reported that about 25 extremists, two armed with swords, attacked Pastor Joe Kaithavana and a church member identified only as Deepu at around 10:30 p.m. and vandalized the prayer hall. The Christians sustained injuries and received hospital treatment. Koipram police have registered a case against the assailants. Member of Legislative Assembly K. Sivadasan Nair visited the site, condemned the attack and called for the immediate arrest of the extremists.

Karnataka – On Aug. 7 in Haveri, a group of Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal accused a pastor from Every Home Crusade church of forceful conversion and threatened to beat him if he continued his ministry in the area. A church representative told Compass that about 25 extremists went to Pastor Ajit Kumar’s house at around 11 a.m., spoke derogatorily about his faith, and warned him not to conduct a worship meeting on Aug. 10 or face serious consequences. The pastor registered a case against the extremists, and the Sunday church service took place on Aug. 10 under police protection. No arrests had been made at press time.

Karnataka – Police arrested two Christians for distributing pamphlets and conducting a medical camp on Aug. 4 in Mosarukunte village, Tumkur district. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that Pastor M. Shivanna, Vijay Kumar and some doctors were conducting a medical camp when the Hindu hardliners along with the village head objected to their activity, claiming that they had not obtained prior permission. The extremists later filed a police complaint, accusing the Christians of distributing gospel pamphlets to forcefully convert people to Christianity. Police arrested the two Christians under section 109 of the Criminal Procedure Code to ensure “good behavior from suspected persons,” and later they were released on bail.

Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists in Rewa, including a woman said to practice sorcery and witchcraft, burned down the home of a Christian on Aug. 2. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that when Raj Bahor accepted Christ and began attending the church of Pastor Heeralal Kushwaha, the Hindu woman in the neighborhood found the spells she cast on Bahor prior to his conversion had become ineffective. She and other Hindu extremists opposed to Bahor’s new faith burned down his house, and local Christians filed a police complaint. An investigation is underway.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) on Aug. 1 attacked Christians charging large-scale, forceful conversion; they forced the Christians to wear tilak, a Hindu symbol on the forehead, and threatened to kill them if they went ahead with church construction in Mahabubnagar. The All Indian Christian Council reported that Pastor B.Y. Dass of the Smarna Prayer Home Church had obtained land to build a church with permission from the village head. Upon hearing of the Christians’ plan to build a church building, the VHP came to the site with the threats and accusations. At press time local Christian leaders were taking the matter to authorities.

Orissa – The Rev. S.P. Lima of Cross International Ministries, operator of Agape Manor International Residential School, has been arrested and imprisoned since January 2008 in Baragarh and Sambalpur after Hindu extremists falsely accused him of raping a schoolgirl and feeding schoolchildren beef while claiming that it was mutton, according to his brother. Lima’s brother, Dayanidhi Lima, told Compass that Hindu extremists filed a false complaint against his brother because Rev. Lima had refused to meet their demand that they give them 50,000 rupees (US$1,035) to build a Hindu temple. A medical and DNA examination of the girl at Burla Medical College showed no evidence of rape. The girl had left the school on Jan. 5, 2008, and the First Information Report naming the pastor was filed on Jan. 12 of that year. Nevertheless he was arrested on Jan. 28, 2008. Area Christians maintained that the extremists pressured the parents of the girl to falsely accuse the pastor. The Additional District Session Court on June 12 of this year imposed a fine of 10,000 rupees (US$207) and sentenced Rev. Lima to 10 years in prison; he was transferred to Sambalpur Prison, where he is subject to various kinds of punishment.

Report from Compass Direct News 

IRAN: MANDATORY DEATH PENALTY FOR ‘APOSTATES’ SCRAPPED


Proposed amendment reportedly shot down after international outcry.

LOS ANGELES, June 29 (Compass Direct News) – A member of Iran’s Parliament reportedly revealed last week that the country’s Parliamentary Committee has stricken the mandatory death penalty for those who leave Islam from proposals for an amended penal code.

Citing a BBC Persian news service report on Tuesday (June 23), United Kingdom-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) announced on Friday (June 26) that a member of Iran’s Legal and Judicial Committee of Parliament, Ali Shahrokhi, had told the Iranian state news agency (IRNA) of the decision to eliminate the mandatory death penalty amendment, which had drawn international protests.

The Parliamentary Committee had come under intense international pressure to drop clauses from the Islamic Penal Code Bill that allowed stoning and made death the mandatory punishment for apostates.

The new penal code was originally approved in September 2008 by a preliminary parliamentary vote of 196-7.

In Friday’s statement, CSW said that the bill must now pass through a final parliamentary vote before being sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which will rule on it.

The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. This body has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

The Christian and Baha’i communities of Iran are most likely to be affected by this decision. Iran has been criticized for its treatment of Baha’is, Zoroastrians and Christians, who have all suffered under the current regime.

Joseph Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said the timing of the announcement of the decision during protests over contested elections might not be coincidental.

“Were the regime to maintain [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s presidency then pass and enforce a restrictive penal code, the international pressure on Iran would be unbearable for the regime,” said Grieboski. “I do not consider it a sign of opening up. Instead, I see it as a sign of self-preservation.”

Security Backlash

Huge protests over the election results demonstrated considerable opposition to the Iranian government’s heavy-handed tactics, and although the official churches have taken no official stance, many Christians have supported the opposition, according to sources connected to social networking sites.

In the face of the massive protests, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, Hassan Qashqavi, released a statement condemning Western involvement in Iranian affairs and accusing the BBC and Voice of America networks of spreading “anarchy and vandalism.”

This passing of blame bodes ill for minorities in the country, including Christians, whom the Iranian government sees as pawns of the West; they could expect even harsher treatment in a feared post-election clamp-down.

“Since minorities, especially Baha’is and Christians, are often seen as fronts for the West, we can expect that they will feel the greatest backlash by the regime during the protests, and I would argue an even worse crackdown on them if Ahmadinejad and [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei come out of this,” said Grieboski.

An Iranian Christian who requested anonymity told Compass that both Christians and Iranians as a whole were tired of the dictatorial regime and asked for prayers for relief.

“The people are really tired, they have no hope, mentally, financially, spiritually, it is really difficult to live in Iran,” the source said. “You can’t have a private life, you can’t make a decision about what you believe, women can’t even decide what to wear. We just pray for the whole nation.”

The Iranian source was reticent to predict how the government might react to Christians following the elections but said that if there were a reaction, they could be among the first victims.

“So what the reaction of the government will be we can’t be 100 percent sure,” the source said, “but they could have a very radical reaction.”

Iranian Christians Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, who were arrested on March 5 for their Christian activities, are still held in the notorious Evin Prison. The facility has drawn criticism for its human rights violations and executions in recent years.

Compass has learned that the women have been placed in solitary confinement.

Report from Compass Direct News

INDONESIA: SHARIA-BASED LAWS CREEP INTO HALF OF PROVINCES


Islamic-based legislation may be a key issue in this year’s elections.

DUBLIN, February 2 (Compass Direct News) – As candidates hit the campaign trail in preparation for Indonesia’s presidential election in July, rights groups have voiced strong opposition to an increasing number of sharia-inspired laws introduced by local governments. They say the laws discriminate against religious minorities and violate Indonesia’s policy of Pancasila, or “unity in diversity.”

With legislative elections coming in April and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono likely to form a coalition with several Islamic parties for the July presidential election, such laws could become a key campaign issue.

Although Aceh is the only province completely governed by sharia (Islamic law), more than 50 regencies in 16 of 32 provinces throughout Indonesia have passed laws influenced by sharia. These laws became possible following the enactment of the Regional Autonomy Law in 2000.

The form of these laws varies widely. Legislation in Padang, West Sumatra, requires both Muslim and non-Muslim women to wear headscarves, while a law in Tangerang allows women found “loitering” alone on the street after 10 p.m. to be arrested and charged with prostitution. Other laws include stipulations for Quran literacy among schoolchildren and severe punishment for adultery, alcoholism and gambling.

“Generally the legal system regulates and guarantees religious freedom of Indonesian citizens … but in reality, discrimination prevails,” a lawyer from the legal firm Eleonora and Partners told Compass.

Some regencies have adopted sharia in a way that further marginalizes minority groups, according to Syafi’I Anwar, executive director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism.

“For instance, the Padang administration issued a law requiring all schoolgirls, regardless of their religion, to wear the headscarf,” he told the International Herald Tribune. This is unacceptable because it is not in line with the pluralism that the constitution recognizes.”

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 29 of the country’s constitution, he added. “Therefore the government must assist all religious communities to practice their beliefs as freely as possible and take actions against those who violate that right.”

While Indonesia’s largest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has publicly denounced the implementation of such laws, other groups actively support them. The Committee for the Implementation and Maintenance of Islamic Law (KPPSI) has held several congresses in Makassar, South Sulawesi with the goal of passing sharia-inspired legislation and obtaining special autonomy for the province, similar to that in Aceh.

KPPSI has also encouraged members to vote for politicians who share their goals, according to local news agency Komintra.

 

‘Threatening’ Decision

In February of last year, Home Affairs Minister Mardiyanto declared that the government saw no need to nullify some 600 sharia-inspired laws passed by local governments. His announcement came after a group of lawyers in June 2007 urged the government to address laws that discriminated against non-Muslims.

Moderates were alarmed at Mardiyanto’s decision, fearing it would encourage other jurisdictions to pass similar laws. Last August, Dr. Mohammad Mahfud, newly re-elected as head of the Constitutional Court, slammed regional administrations for enacting sharia-inspired laws.

“[These] laws are not constitutionally or legally correct because, territorially and ideologically, they threaten our national integrity,” he told top military officers attending a training program on human rights, according to The Jakarta Post.

Mahfud contended that if Indonesia allowed sharia-based laws, “then Bali can pass a Hindu bylaw, or North Sulawesi can have a Christian ordinance. If each area fights for a religious-based ordinance, then we face a national integration problem.” According to Mahfud, sharia-based laws would promote religious intolerance and leave minority religious groups without adequate legal protection.

Under the 2000 Regional Autonomy Law, the central government has the power to block provincial laws but showed little willingness to do so until recently when, bowing to pressure from advocacy groups, it pledged to review 37 sharia-based ordinances deemed discriminatory and at odds with the constitution.

Such reviews are politically sensitive and must be done on sound legal grounds, according to Ridarson Galingging, a law lecturer in Jakarta.

“Advocates of sharia-based laws will stress the divine origin of sharia and resist challenges [that are] based on constitutional or human rights limits,” he told The Jakarta Post. “They maintain that sharia is authorized directly by God, and political opposition is viewed as apostasy or blasphemy.”

 

Empowering Vigilantes

A national, sharia-inspired bill regulating images or actions deemed pornographic sparked outrage when presented for a final vote in October last year. One fifth of the parliamentarians present walked out in protest, leaving the remainder to vote in favor of the legislation.

The bill provided for up to 15 years of prison and a maximum fine of US$1.5 million for offenders.

“This law will only empower vigilante groups like the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI),” Eva Sundari, a member of the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) told reporters. FPI is widely-regarded as a self-appointed moral vigilante group, often raiding bars and nightclubs, but also responsible for multiple attacks on churches.

“Many of the members are preparing for elections and looking for support among the Islamic community,” she added. “Now they can point to this law as evidence that they support Islamic values.”

Although several Golkar Party politicians support sharia-based laws, senior Golkar Party member Theo Sambuaga has criticized politicians for endorsing such legislation to win support from Muslim voters. Several major parties openly back sharia laws, including the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the United Development Party, and the Crescent Star party.

 

Key Election Issue

Sharia-based laws may become an even hotter election issue this year as a change to the voting system means more weight will be given to provincial candidates.

Political analysts believe Yudhoyono must form a coalition with most if not all of the country’s Islamic parties in order to win a majority vote against the Golkar party, allied for this election with former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDIP.

The coalition Yudhoyono could form, however, likely would come with strings attached. As Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance wrote in September 2008, “The more the president needs the Islamists, the more they can demand of him.”

In 2004, Yudhoyono partnered with the NU-sponsored National Awakening Party, the National Mandate Party (founded by the Islamic purist organization Muhammadiyah) and the PKS to achieve his majority vote. Analysts predict PKS will again be a key player in this election.

Few realize, however, that PKS draws its ideology from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group formed in Egypt in 1928 with a firm belief in Islamic world dominance. Crushed by the Egyptian government in the 1960s, members of the Brotherhood fled to Saudi Arabia, where they taught in the nation’s universities – influencing the future founders of Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Sudan’s National Islamic Front.

The Brotherhood took root at a university in Bandung, West Java in the 1970s in the form of Tarbiyah, a secretive student movement that eventually morphed into the Justice Party (JP) in 1998. Winning few votes, JP allied itself with a second party to form the PKS prior to the 2004 elections.

Since then, PKS has gained widespread support and a solid reputation for integrity and commitment to Islamic values. Simultaneously, however, PKS leaders are vocal supporters of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, leader of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Sadanand Dhume, writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review, says the two organizations have much in common. In its founding manifesto, PKS calls for the creation of an Islamic caliphate. Unlike JI, however, “the party can use its position in Parliament and its … network of cadres to advance the same goals incrementally, one victory at a time.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

SAUDI ARABIA: PASTOR FLEES DEATH THREATS


Religious police, others warn key figure in expatriate church to leave.

LOS ANGELES, January 30 (Compass Direct News) – A prominent foreign pastor in Saudi Arabia has fled Riyadh after a member of the mutawwa’in, or religious police, and others threatened him three times in one week.

Two of the incidents included threats to kill house church pastor Yemane Gebriel of Eritrea. On Wednesday (Jan. 28), Gebriel escaped to an undisclosed city in Saudi Arabia.

A father of eight who has lived and worked as a private driver in Saudi Arabia for 25 years, Gebriel told Compass that on Jan. 10 he found an unsigned note on his vehicle threatening to kill him if he did not leave the country. On Jan. 13, he said, mutawwa’in member Abdul Aziz and others forced him from his van and told him to leave the country.

“There was a note on my van saying, ‘If you do not leave the country, we will kill you,” Gebriel told Compass by telephone. “Three days after that, [Aziz] said, ‘You’re still working here, why don’t you go out of the country?”

Aziz, another member of the mutawwa’in and a policeman had waited for Gebriel shortly after 9 p.m. A sheikh at a Riyadh mosque, Aziz raged at Gebriel for about five minutes, accusing him of being a Christian and trying to change the religion of others, said a Christian source in Saudi Arabia.

“He finished by telling Yemane to get out of the country or ‘measures’ would be taken,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons. He said Gebriel was in genuine danger of losing his life. “In meeting with me on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 15, Yemane himself was clearly very frightened,” said the source.

That night (Jan. 15), Gebriel told Compass, four masked men – apparently Saudis – in a small car cut off the van he was driving. “They said, ‘We will kill you if you don’t go away from this place – you must leave here or we will kill you,’” he said.

Gebriel subsequently took temporary refuge in a safe house in Riyadh, and after consulting with consular officials from four embassies on Tuesday (Jan. 27), the pastor was whisked away to another city the following day.

In 2005, the religious police’s Aziz had directed that Gebriel be arrested along with 16 other foreign Christian leaders, though diplomatic pressure resulted in their release within weeks.

“No doubt Sheikh Abdul Aziz is still burning,” said the local Christian source. “Nor may such type of death threat be possibly idle words. The current situation and circumstance remind me very much of the machine-gun murder of Irish Roman Catholic layman Tony Higgins right here in Riyadh in August 2004.”

 

Raids Feared

Gebriel, 42, led a church of more than 300 foreign-born Christians, though because of work obligations only a little over 150 are able to meet regularly in his villa for Friday worship. He fled without his family, as his wife and children had managed to relocate in Egypt in August 2007.

Gebriel and three others started the house church in Riyadh 10 years ago, the local source said, and only a few months ago the pastor handed leadership over to others in the church.

“But right now the entire church is very frightened,” the source said. “They are expecting a raid one Friday shortly – just like in 2005. The congregation doesn’t even know yet that we have whisked Yemane away from them as well as from the religious police.”

In April and May of 2005, the mutawwa’in arrested 17 pastors – two Pakistanis, two Eritreans (including Gebriel), three Ethiopians and 10 Indians. None were deported after their release.

“Are there signs that 2009 might prove to be such a year again? I think so,” the source said. “Every three or four years, there is a clamp-down in Riyadh. It seems that we should expect 2009 to be a year of repression. However, the underground church here is far better placed than heretofore to manage any such persecution.”

The Saudi regime has reportedly begun to restrain the mutawwa’in, which historically has acted as a virtual vigilante force enforcing the kingdom’s Sunni Islamic social codes as volunteer agents of the semi-autonomous Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice. The U.S. Department of State’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report noted that abuses by mutawwa’in have continued.

“Mutawwa’in (religious police) continued to conduct raids of private non-Muslim religious gatherings,” the report states. “There were also charges of harassment, abuse, and killings at the hands of the mutawwa’in, or religious police. These incidents caused many non-Muslims to worship in fear of, and in such a manner as to avoid discovery by, the police and mutawwa’in.”

In the past year, mutawwa’in sometimes have not respected the Saudi policy of allowing private worship for all, including non-Muslims, according to the report. Religious police are not allowed to mete out punishment, but in the past year the Saudi government has investigated several incidents in which the mutawwa’in were accused of violating restrictions on that and other activities, according to the state department report.

The mutawwa’in still wear no uniforms, but the report notes that they are now required to wear identification badges and can act only when accompanied by police. They are authorized to monitor the practice of non-Muslim faiths, display or sale of pornography, alcohol production, distribution or consumption, and adultery, homosexuality and gambling, among other violations.

While Saudi law forbids public practice of any religion besides Islam, foreigners are generally allowed to worship privately if their congregations do not grow too large.

With the Quran and sayings of Muhammad (Sunna) as its constitution, Saudi Arabia enforces a form of sharia (Islamic law) derived from 18th-century Sunni scholar Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab that calls for the death penalty for “apostasy,” or conversion from Islam to another faith, although the state department’s report notes that there have been no confirmed reports of executions for apostasy in recent years.

Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy restricts media and other forms of public expression, though recently authorities have tolerated criticism of the mutawwa’in and the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice.

“The government-controlled press frequently criticized mutawwa’in activity,” the report adds.  

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: TALIBAN BOMBS CATHOLIC GIRLS’ HIGH SCHOOL


Blast claims no victims but reflects radical Islam’s tightened grip.

ISTANBUL, October 14 (Compass Direct News) – Taliban militants bombed a Catholic-run girls’ school in Pakistan’s war-torn Swat Valley as part of a larger effort to subvert women’s status in society through Islamic law, locals say.

On Wednesday (Oct. 8) the Islamic terrorist group bombed the Convent Girls’ School in Sangota, run by the Presentation Sisters, a Catholic religious order that has opened girls’ schools around the world. Militants have threatened the school frequently for offering education to females.

No one was injured in the attack. The school had closed a few months earlier due to deteriorating security in Swat, a source told Compass. Students and faculty left in July following threats.

“The Taliban said, ‘We have asked you so many times to close down the school but you are not listening. We are going to set it on fire,’” said Yousef Benjamin, a Lahore-based peace activist.

Militants had already attacked or blown up and forced the closure of many girls’ schools in Swat, said Cecil Chaudhry, executive secretary of All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. They told the nuns they would destroy their school if it weren’t closed. Following the bombing the militants ransacked the school’s adjoining convent.

The high school enrolled approximately 1,000 female students, nearly 95 percent of them Muslim.

The Santoga school has faced threats from Islamic extremists before. It closed its doors in September 2007 after received a threatening letter from extremists that demanded all teachers and female students wear the burqa. The letter claimed the faculty was working to convert Muslim students to Christianity.

The Taliban has not singled out the school for its Christian ties but instead wants to clamp down on all girls’ schools, which they believe encourage female participation in society, government officials claim.

In the last two years it has indiscriminately targeted more than 150 public and private girls’ schools in northwest Pakistan.

“For them it doesn’t matter if it’s a Christian school, government school or a private school,” Benjamin said. “Last week I was in [the northern city of] Peshawer and the Taliban told women to not even go to the market.”

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1994 to 2001. They severely curtailed women’s rights, barring females from education, employment or traveling outside of their homes without a male relative.

“A few years ago the Taliban government in Afghanistan did not even allow women to be seen outside their houses, and that’s the version of Islam the Taliban promotes,” Chaudhry said.

Located near the Afghanistan border, Swat has been a flash point between the country’s security forces and Islamic militants. The area used to be a thriving tourist haven with hotels and a ski resort but came under complete control of Taliban militants in September 2007.

Government security forces cleared out the Taliban from the valley in recent months, but the area came under their control once again three weeks ago.

With their re-asserted control, the Taliban has forced all Swat residents to live according to their strict lifestyle guidelines, whether Muslim or Christian.

Men have grown beards and adopted Islamic dress. Women are required to wear burqas and sit in the back seat of their own vehicles. Advertisements cannot feature pictures of women.

“The Taliban wants to create a culture of terror, insecurity and they want to impose a self-created system of sharia [Islamic law] inspired by the system in Afghanistan,” said Shabhaz Bhatti, a National Assembly member from the Punjab province and chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance.

The 70 or so Christian families scattered in the valley occupy the lower class, working as laborers and street sweepers.

Since July 2007, militants and followers of Muslim cleric Maulana Fazlullah have pressured the tiny community of Christians to accept Islamic law.

 

Political Motives

Islamic militants have stepped up attacks across Pakistan in recent weeks. Last Thursday (Oct. 9) a suicide bomber injured eight people in an attack on an Islamabad police station. In September another suicide bomber killed 50 people at the Marriott Hotel.

Motivations for the surge in attacks could be political as well as religious. Pakistani forces have been cracking down on militants in the nation’s tribal areas as the government has resolved to fight domestic terrorism.

The Pakistani military launched a three-week-long air strike operation in Afghanistan in August and killed more than 400 Taliban militants. Pakistan declared a cease-fire in September during Ramadan.

The militant attacks could also be in retaliation to recent U.S. bombings against Taliban targets within Pakistan, a source told Compass.

Inter-Services Intelligence Director Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha told Pakistan’s parliament on Wednesday (Oct. 8) that the Taliban had gained complete control over certain districts of the country. The military has attempted to regain control in a bitter struggle that has claimed the lives of 1,368 troops since 2001, according to the Pakistani Daily Times.

While Christians are worried about their safety, they stress that the Taliban is a threat to all Pakistanis, regardless of religion.

They urged fellow Christians to pray for the surging violence within the country to ebb.

“We ask a special prayer for peace in our country and that the terrorist elements who believe in violence would not succeed in killing innocent people,” Bhatti said. “Pray for Pakistani Christians – may God protect them and give them courage to remain strong in their faith and witness.”

Report from Compass Direct News