Two Indian Christians Languish in Saudi Prison

‘Religious police’ raid apartment; no official charges.

LOS ANGELES, March 28 (CDN) — Friends and family of two Indian Christians arrested after a prayer meeting in Saudi Arabia in January have tried in vain to secure their release.

The two Christians were incarcerated for attending the prayer meeting with other Indian nationals and accused of converting Muslims to Christianity, though the government has not produced formal charges, sources said.

Yohan Nese, 31 and Vasantha Sekhar Vara, 28, were arrested on Jan. 21 when mutaween (religious police) raided an apartment where the two had lingered after attending the prayer meeting. Religious police interrogated and beat them to the point that they suffered injuries, according to sources. During this time, religious police who were cursing at them allegedly tore up and trampled on Bibles and Christian material they had confiscated, said a source who spoke to the men.

Authorities asked them how many Christian groups and pastors there are in Saudi Arabia and Riyadh and asked their nationalities. The religious police also put pressure on the two to convert to Islam, according to sources.

The next morning, Jan. 22, authorities took the two Christians to the Religious Court in Riyadh. The court sentenced them to 45 days in prison. At 2 p.m., police filed a case at the local civil police station, according to a source who requested anonymity.

To date the Christian Indians have been in prison for 67 days. Their family and friends say they still have not been able to obtain a document with official charges but know from the prisoners that the charges are religious in nature, according to the source. At the time of their detention, the Christians were not engaging in religious activities.

On Jan. 22, 15 mutaween in civilian clothes came back to the apartment they had raided the previous day, destroyed valuable items and wrote Islamic slogans on the walls with spray paint, the source said.

Nese and Vara’s situation in prison is “horrible,” said the source. The two men are cramped in a prison cell with only enough room to stand.

“There is no place to even sit,” said the source. “Only two hours a day they are sleeping in shifts. When brother Yohan is sleeping, brother Sekhar needs to stand, and when brother Sekhar wants to sleep, brother Yohan needs to stand. They have been doing this for more than a month. I don’t know how many more days they have to continue this.”

Since the arrest, other Christians have been too frightened to meet for prayer.

One week after his arrest, Vara was able to use a phone to call his family and pastor in India. His wife, Sandhya Vara, who is expecting their first child in three months, said she has not heard from him since.

“There were no Muslims in their prayer meeting, but they are accusing them of converting Muslims into Christians,” she told Compass by phone. “We got married eight months ago, but he’s very far from me now and he’s in very much trouble, and I’m six months pregnant.”

She and his pastor in India have communicated numerous times with the Indian embassy but have received no response.

“I have been complaining to the Indian embassy,” she said. “They cannot call me or give me any information. There is no help. So many times I informed them and they cannot give any reply and cannot take any action.”

Vara had worked in Saudi Arabia for more than seven years. Last summer he came to India and got married, returning on Jan. 9 to his post in Riyadh, where he worked as a supervisor for a catering company.

“Vasantha is from my church,” said his pastor in India, Ajay Kumar Jeldi. “He is very God-fearing, good, prayerful, supporting the pastor and working for the youth.”

The morning of his arrest, Vara called Pastor Jeldi and told him he planned to go to the evening prayer meeting in Riyadh. After the meeting, Vara, Nese and four other unidentified Christians lingered at the flat where the gathering had taken place. At around 7:30 p.m. two mutaween in plainclothes and one policeman in uniform raided the apartment.

On the phone with his pastor back in India, Vara said he was in prison for religious reasons and that he had been pressured to convert to Islam, but that he had refused.

“If I have to die for my God, I will die for him here,” he told Pastor Jeldi. “God will help me.”

The pastor said that in his sole conversation with him a week after his detention, Vara requested prayers for his release.

Typically in Saudi Arabia, a foreign worker’s documents remain with the employers who sponsor them in order for them to work in the country. Saudi employers are typically the only ones who can secure their employees’ release on bail.

“Only their sponsors can bring them out,” Pastor Jeldi said. “He has the right to bring him out, and no one else has the right to go and pay the bail or anything. Only the sponsor can have that responsibility.”

Since his arrest, Vara’s employer has handed his passport to local authorities and told them he is no longer responsible for him, according to the anonymous source.

“He doesn’t want him to work in his company anymore,” said the source.

The Saudi “religious police” or Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice (CPVPV) is a government entity that includes 5,000 field officers and 10,000 employees, along with hundreds of “unofficial” volunteers who take it upon themselves to carry out the CPVPV’s mandate, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“Despite the fact that the CPVPV is not allowed to engage in surveillance, detain individuals for more than 24 hours, arrest individuals without police accompaniment, or carry out any kind of punishment, its members have been accused in recent years of killing, beating, whipping, detaining, and otherwise harassing individuals,” the commission stated.

In the raid, authorities confiscated anything of value in the apartment, including two musical keyboards, a guitar, two sound boxes, a sound mixer, four microphones, music stands, power extension boxes, a laptop, mobile phone chargers and a whiteboard. They also confiscated 25 Bibles and other Christian materials, the source said.

The other Indian Christians at the apartment escaped.

The anonymous source said he has informed the Embassy of India in Riyadh of their arrest numerous times.

“I have lost hope in them,” he said, “because the only thing they are always saying is that this is a religious case, so we can’t do anything.”

Pastor Jeldi said he thought someone must have complained about the group of Christian Indians who were meeting regularly, causing authorities to act.

Nearly 7 million foreigners live and work in Saudi Arabia, of which an estimated 1.5 million are Indian nationals.

Human Rights Watch has reported that Saudi Arabia systematically discriminates against migrant workers and has called for the government to “abolish the sponsorship system for migrant workers, in particular the requirement for employer consent to transfer employment and to obtain an exit visa.”

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom, with rare exception, expatriate workers fear government interference with their private worship. The reasons for this interference can range from the worship service being too loud, having too many people in attendance or that it occurs too often in the same place, according to the report.

Riyadh was the stage for another raid and mass arrest of Christians in early October 2010. Arab News and other press reported the arrest of 12 Filipino Christians and a French Catholic priest celebrating mass in a private apartment. There were 150 Filipinos in attendance. The employers of the 12 Christian foreign workers secured their release, and the Philippine embassy negotiated their repatriation. The Catholic priest was also released within days.

“Saudi officials do not accept that for members of some religious groups, the practice of religion requires more than an individual or a small group worshipping in private, but includes the need for religious leaders to conduct services in community with others,” stated the State Department’s religious freedom report. “Foreign religious leaders continue to be prohibited from seeking and obtaining visas to enter Saudi Arabia and minister to local religious communities.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Signs of Witness Intimidation Mount in Orissa, India

Fear factor results in transfer of rape case; meantime, 6-year-old girl says politician is killer.

NEW DELHI, April 2 (CDN) — Due in part to intimidation of witnesses in Kandhamal district, a judge this week granted a change of venue for the trial of men accused of gang-raping a nun during anti-Christian attacks in Orissa in 2008.

The trial will be transferred from Baliguda, Kandhamal to Cuttack, near the Orissa state capital of Bhubaneswar. Justice Indrajit Mohanty of the Orissa High Court on Tuesday (March 30) ordered the inter-district transfer of the trial. The nun, Meena Lilita Barwa, had argued that witnesses would be intimidated into refraining from testifying if the trial were held in Kandhamal district.

She also argued that Kandhamal’s intimidating atmosphere made it too dangerous for her appear in court there. Christians were hopeful that the transfer would lead the administration to review police and court processes in Kandhamal district.

Police have arrested 19 people for allegedly assaulting the nun on Aug. 25, 2008 and parading her half-naked through the streets.

Hindu Politician Identified as Killer

After a series of trials in which murder suspects in the 2008 Kandhamal district violence have gone free as Hindu extremist threats have kept witnesses from testifying, a 6-year-old girl has identified a powerful local politician as the man who killed her father.

In testimony at Fast Track Court No. 1 on March 14, Lipsa Nayak of Kandhamal identified Manoj Pradhan, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Orissa, as the man who cut and burned her father to death when Hindu extremists attacked Christians following the Aug. 23, 2008 death of a local Hindu leader.

Pradhan has been accused in nine cases of murder and in 14 cases of arson. So far he has been exonerated on the murder charges against him for “lack of witnesses.” Christian leaders say that Pradhan has been intimidating witnesses because of his position as a member of Legislative Assembly. Lipsa’s mother, 32-year-old Kanak Rekha Nayak, has said that Pradhan and his associates have threatened to harm her family if they identified him as the killer.

The Nayak family lived in Tiangia, Budedipada, in Raikia block of Kandhamal district. During the anti-Christian attacks that followed the death of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, Lipsa’s parents and her sister had taken refuge in the forest to escape the fury of the Hindu extremists, but the rampaging mob tracked them down.

Lipsa, then 4 years old, along with her mother and 2-year-old sister, watched in horror as the crowd allegedly beat her father, Parikhita Nayak, for two hours and then killed him by cutting him into pieces and burning him.

Prosecution and defense lawyers questioned Lipsa for more than 90 minutes, and she reportedly answered all questions without wavering. Asked by the judge if she could identify the killer of her father, she pointed to Pradhan, the MLA from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from G. Udayagiri, Kandhamal.

Her mother later told media, “They played with him for a few hours before cutting him into pieces and dousing him with kerosene.”

Accused as a primary suspect in the murder along with Pradhan is Kali Pradhan. The government of Orissa has set up two Fast Track courts to try cases related to the violence that spread to more than a dozen districts of Orissa. Maoists have taken responsibility for the killing, though Hindu extremists accused Christians in an effort to spark anti-Christian violence. The attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

Christian leaders have denounced the legal process in the Kandhamal violence, saying not only that witnesses have been threatened and the intimidated but that police investigations have been negligent or corrupt.

“There has been no conviction in any case of murder,” said Dr. John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council. “More than 70 people were killed, and trial is being held only for 38 or so of those deaths. Eleven murder cases have been tried with no one being indicted or sentenced for murder so far – because of terrible investigation by the police, a poor show by the prosecuting lawyers and shoddy judicial process.”

The 123 cases tried in the Fast track courts have resulted in 97 convictions and 323 acquittals, including several cases decided on Wednesday (March 31). Seven people in two separate cases were convicted of arson and rioting cases. Nata Pradhan, Jahala Pradhan, Ashok Mallick, Bapa Pradhan, and Udayanath Pradhan from Raikhala-Gadiapada village were sentenced for two years imprisonment for destroying the house of Birendra Nayak of the same village. They were also fined 2,500 rupees (US$55). In the other case, Ratnakar Pradhan and Parsuram Pradhan from village Tatamaha, Raikia block were convicted of riot and arson.

At the same time, Fast Track Court I Judge S.K. Das acquitted 20 people persons in three separate cases for lack of evidence.

“Witnesses are being coerced, threatened, cajoled and sought to be bribed by murderers and arsonists facing trial,” said Archbishop of Orissa Raphael Cheenath in a statement. Previously he had demanded that the cases of politically powerful persons such as Manoj Pradhan be transferred out of Kandhamal to ensure proper justice.

“We are deeply concerned about the high rate of acquittals in the Fast Track Courts,” Cheenath said. “Victims filed 3,232 complaints in the various police stations of Kandhamal. Of these, the police registered cases in only 832 instances.”

Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik filed a written admission in the Orissa Assembly in November 2009 in which he said 85 members of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), 321 persons of Hindu nationalist umbrella group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and 118 persons of Hindu extremist youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, had been arrested for their involvement in the Kandhamal riots.

While the government says that situation is normalizing in Kandhamal, Christian leader like Dr. John Dayal give a different story.

“While it is possible to visit one half of the district of Kandhamal and discover only peace, it is the other half of the district which speaks of the continuing tyranny,” he said. “The bloodshed has stopped because of belated police action, but the miscarriage of justice and the lost peace continue to haunt thousands of people who have not been able to go back to their homes for fear of their lives. Thousands of children cannot go to school, especially the girls. What is worse is that many girls have been trafficked.”

The district collector banned all Christian organizations from coming to the district to bring aid to victims after the 2008 violence, he added, “and it took an appeal to the Supreme Court of India by the archbishop of Bhubaneswar for much needed relief to be given to the people in the then refugee camps.”

He expressed doubts about the government portrait of normalcy in Kandhamal.

“Even if the church does its best, only half of the 5,600 or so houses burned to the ground will ever be rebuilt,” he said. “The district collector and other officers of the civil and police system who are guilty of gross dereliction of duty continue to be in control. Thousands of men continue to be without jobs. Is this normalcy?”

Firebrand Arrested

On March 20, a controversial leader of the VHP, Praveen Togadia, was arrested as he tried to defy orders prohibiting him from entering Kandhamal. Togadia had played a major role in whipping up passions among the Hindus of Kandhamal after the killing of Saraswati.

Togadia had led a procession with the body of Saraswati through different areas of the district for more than 100 kilometers, sparking off or intensifying violence against Christians.

The government of Orissa came under heavy fire from civil society for allowing the procession, and on the latest occasion the local administration was careful to detain Togadia under the Section 151 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which provides for authorities to make arrests to prevent potential offenses. Togadia was later released on bail.

Togadia termed the prohibition on his visit a “ban” that was “illegal and undemocratic.” In response to the “ban” on Togadia, the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar and the BJP protested with a 12-hour bandh (shut down) in Kandhamal on March 20, while the VHP held demonstrations in Bhubaneswar, Berhampur, Bolangir, Sambalpur and Cuttack. VHP also blocked National Highway 217 for one hour and burned an effigy of Chief Minister Patnaik.

“The state government didn’t stop foreign missionaries from going to tribal areas of Kandhamal and other parts of Orissa,” VHP leader Swadesh Pal Gupta said. “They were being provided with full support and freedom. But when a leader who is an International Secretary General of VHP tries to go to Kandhamal, the government stopped him. We are staging a nationwide protest against this.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Iran’s revolution celebration brings rejection of Islam

Iranian authorities clashed with opposition supporters Thursday as thousands rallied in Tehran to mark the 31st anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic. Arrests and tear gas marred the celebration, reports MNN.

Evangelist Sammy Tippit broadcasts television programming into Iran via satellite, and he says what’s happening is ironic. "There was a revolution that took place that brought the people back to Islam and made this an Islamic republic. As a result of that, the people have now seen Islam for what it is, and they are rejecting that."

One Iranian leader says the most effective evangelist in Iran is the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. "When he came in, it exposed what real Islam is all about." Iranians have lived under the oppression he imposed and are rejecting it.

Tippit says Iranians are looking for freedom. "The greatest freedom in the world is in Christ, so that’s why so many people are turning to Christ," says Tippit.

He adds, "Christians have had a wonderful opportunity during this time [to share the Gospel], but it’s also been a very difficult time for them." He continues, "The government has used the Christians as kind of a ‘whipping boy’. They say, ‘Okay, we have to take this out on someone,’ so they’ve really cracked down on Christians."

Tippit, who is considered an enemy of the state, says there is a huge need right now. The "many people coming to Christ [need training] to help build up the church during this time of great stress that’s going on."

That training is done outside Iran. Tippit says, "We have our Web site that’s in the Farsi language. And, we have our conference in what I call ‘safe places’ where we bring leaders from outside the country and inside the country to train them and help them to grow in Christ."

Report from the Christian Telegraph