PAKISTAN: TALIBAN-INSPIRED ATTACKS HIT CHRISTIANS


Armed militants fire into crowd, seriously injuring three; jizye tax imposed in Orakzai.

ISTANBUL, April 27 (Compass Direct News) – As Taliban control hits pockets of Pakistan and threatens the nation’s stability, Christians worry their province could be the next to fall under Islamic law.

Violence on Tuesday night and Wednesday (April 21-22) near the port city of Karachi – some 1,000 kilometers (nearly 700 miles) from the Swat Valley, where the government officially allowed the Taliban to establish Islamic law this month – heightened fears. Christians in Taiser town, near Karachi, noticed on the walls of their church graffiti that read, “Long Live the Taliban” and calls for Christians to either convert to Islam or pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia (Islamic law) paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert.

As members of the congregation erased the graffiti, armed men intervened to stop them. Soon 30-40 others arrived as support and began to fire indiscriminately at the crowd, leaving several injured. Among those seriously injured were three Christians, including a child, according to a report by advocacy group Minorities Concern of Pakistan: Emrah Masih, 35, Qudoos Masih, 30, and Irfan Masih, 11. A Pashtun named Rozi Khan was also among the injured.

Policemen and military forces arrested seven suspects at the scene and recovered an arms cache of semi-automatic pistols and a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

The Taliban is an insurgent movement of primarily Pashtun Islamists ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001. Pakistani media portrayed the Karachi violence as a sectarian clash between Christians and Pashtuns that escalated into a gunfire exchange and that Christians committed arson attacks. The Daily Times claimed that the Christians protested the graffiti by setting ablaze some shops, including roadside stalls and pushcarts.

But a legal advocacy worker told Compass that police scattered the Christians when they began their protests and stood by as a Taliban-assembled mob attacked them.

“The Christians do not have guns, they do not have weapons, but only a little bit of property and the few things in their houses,” said Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan. “They are poor and have no courage to fight them. How can Christians, who lived like animals here, stand against them?”

Johnson said that local Christians, terrified over recent Talibanization campaigns, may not pursue legal action against the arrested men, although Asia News reported that Qudoos Masih filed an initial report at the Sarjani town police station. The Christians fear inciting violence by taking a stand against elements connected with the Taliban, Johnson said.

Eyewitnesses to the attacks against Christians in Karachi said they were religiously motivated. A representative of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) regional party told Compass that after firing on the crowd, the Taliban went through Christian houses, ransacked them and burned one down. He said they also burned Bibles and beat women on the street. Reports of two execution-style killings of Christians could not be verified.

Karachi police and administration reportedly claimed that the Karachi attack came not from the Taliban but from Pashtuns who resettled in the area from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The MQM, however, has long suspected Taliban presence in Karachi.

 

Expanded Campaign of Violence

Local officials are worried that the Taliban is making inroads into Karachi, the financial center of Pakistan, in the same way it did within the Swat Valley in the NWFP.

In mid-February Pakistan’s fertile Swat Valley turned into a Taliban stronghold ruled by sharia under a “peace agreement,” but instead of honoring the accord with an end to bombings and other violence, the Islamic militants have expanded their campaign to outlying areas and other parts of the country. Of the 500 Christians remaining in Swat Valley when sharia was initially established in February, many have migrated to other provinces while those who stayed live in fear of a rise in violence against non-Muslims.

In the Federally Administered Tribal Area adjacent to the NWFP, the Taliban this month demanded a jizye payment of 50 million rupees (US$625,000) from Sikhs living in Orakzai Agency. Those who did not flee paid a combined total of 2 million rupees (US$25,000), and Christians worry they could be next. Relegating non-Muslims to dhimmi status – the second-class state of those subject to an Islamic administration and its jizye tax in exchange for protection – is part of the writings of the founder of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Assembly of Islamic Clergy), one of Pakistan’s main Islamic parties with ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan and similar parties in Bangladesh and Egypt.

Last week the Taliban effectively took control of Buner district, just 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad, and it has begun battling government soldiers in Malakland Agency.

Non-Muslims make up 3 percent of the population in the Muslim-majority nation of 176 million. They are frequently marginalized, particularly in the sharia-influenced justice system that gives precedence to Muslims. But they fear Taliban infiltration will accelerate their marginalization in a stealth manner, as they cannot tell the difference between a Taliban fighter and a community member.

“We cannot identify who is a Taliban fighter because there are an uncountable number of people who have a beard and wear a turban,” Johnson said. “We cannot recognize who belongs to the Taliban because they penetrate every corner of Pakistan.”

The MQM official in Karachi said many of the Christians in the area are poor and illiterate. They are on the lower rungs of the social ladder and have nobody to protect their interests except for the church.

“Nobody is going to help them,” he said. “The church can help them get education, but they are not also able to give them [security] help.”

His statements were backed by MQM leader Altaf Hussein, who called on Pakistan’s Interior Ministry to take emergency preventative measures to ensure the safety of minorities against the “rising activities of armed lawless elements,” according to The News International.

A local teacher said that during the looting police only stood by, making no effort to stop the Taliban as they ransacked Christian houses.

“Rather than stopping them, they allowed them to burn the houses, [harass] the Christian women and burn Bibles,” he said.

Although Pakistani politicians and security forces have said openly in recent weeks that the Taliban was closing in on Islamabad and could trigger a government collapse, they claimed the pro-Taliban slogans in Karachi were scrawled not by the Taliban but conspirators wanting to incite violence.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, an Islamist party leader, said talk of the Talibanization of Karachi was merely a ruse to allow the United States to invade Pakistan as it had done to Afghanistan.

“Those raising this slogan are trying to create another Osama for America in this part of the world,” he said, according to The News International.

The Karachi attacks were part of escalating violence throughout the country. The government informed the National Assembly on April 20 that 1,400 people had been killed in terrorist attacks in the last 15 months.

Report from Compass Direct News

NORTH KOREA: CHRISTIAN REFUGEES QUESTION REGIME’S CLAIMS


Defectors’ descriptions add to evidence of strong but severely persecuted church.

DUBLIN, April 24 (Compass Direct News) – Eom Myong-Heui of North Korea was a loyal communist in the Workers’ Party of Korea before she became a Christian under the influence of her business partner – a missionary who was later arrested and tortured into revealing that Eom was a believer.

Authorities placed Eom into a detention center in her hometown of Moosan and tortured her into denying her faith – but her incarceration continued under appalling conditions. Officials eventually released her due to her previous national loyalty. Now an assistant pastor at a church in Seoul, South Korea after a harrowing escape from her home country, Eom relates a journey that is part of a growing body of evidence of a strong – and severely persecuted – church in North Korea.

“A lot of people ask me if there really are people in North Korea who believe in Christ,” she said. “Do you really think that the missionaries who were there and all the believers who meet underground are all dead?”

Even as the North Korean government this month allowed two high-profile, U.S. Christian bands to perform at a music festival in Pyongyang, the fear of punishment authorities have instilled in North Korean Christians keeps most of them from publicly revealing their faith. As many as 400,000 Christians are estimated to worship secretly in the country, and Suzanne Scholte, head of an association of some 60 groups campaigning for change in the country called the North Korean Freedom Coalition (NKFC), estimates that more than 200,000 North Koreans are held in political prison camps for various perceived “disloyalties” to the regime, including adherence to Christianity.

Christian support group Open Doors estimates that of the 200,000 people incarcerated in political prison camps, at least 40,000 are Christians. Under North Korea’s policy of juche, or self-reliance, citizens may worship only President Kim Jong Il and his late father, former ruler Kim Il Sung.

Jung Eun Hye, one of several North Korean refugees expected to speak about conditions in the country at events in Washington, D.C. next week, said that freedom of religion is stipulated in North Korea’s constitution, but that “Christians have to risk their lives to have a secret service away from the oppression of the government.”

Jung, who faced severe persecution after authorities caught his father and aunt with Bibles in their possession, said he did not know that any churches existed in Pyongyang until he escaped from North Korea. While a handful of government churches do exist in the capital, Jung is one of many refugees who believe that these churches exist only to “deceive the outside world.”

“Here is my question,” said Jung. “If North Korea has freedom of religion, why does the government arrest, kill or imprison Christians in camps from which they never return?”

Testimony from various sources confirms that the government actively seeks out Christian groups and meeting points and imprisons Christians solely because of their faith. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last year reported refugees saying that Christianity remained a key factor in the interrogation of people repatriated from China to North Korea. Border guards reserved the harshest punishment for those who admitted having any contact with Chinese or South Korean Christians.

“There is no freedom of belief or religion,” one refugee stated. “[We are taught] that if one is involved in religion, one cannot survive.”

Former police and security officers interviewed for USCIRF’s report admitted that their superiors had instructed them to play the role of Christians and infiltrate “underground” prayer meetings in order to incriminate, arrest, imprison and sometimes execute believers in North Korea.

 

‘Abyss of Death’

A delegation of North Korean refugees recently described their experiences ahead of events on Capitol Hill from Sunday (April 26) through Saturday (May 2) as part of North Korea Freedom Week.

Kim Young Soon, a refugee who spent nine years in a prison camp, said North Korean ruler Kim “is pushing the people into the abyss of death. In such a society, no one can trust anyone.”

Authorities sent Kim Young Soon and her family to prison camp No. 15, otherwise known as Yodok, after she made a seemingly innocent comment about the regime.

“Every mountain and field in Yodok was covered with dead bodies because of malnutrition and hunger,” Kim said. She described waking at 3:30 a.m. to run six kilometers (nearly four miles) to her assigned workplace and surviving on a diet of unripe, salted corn. Her parents and two of her sons died during their incarceration; border guards shot her third son when she fled with him to China shortly after their release.

Former prisoner Jung Gwangil said prison guards sadistically controlled inmates through collective punishment.

“If I did something wrong, all the members of the group I belonged to were punished,” he said. “When guards withheld food or switched off heaters in the middle of winter, fellow prisoners would sometimes beat the responsible inmate to death.”

Another former prisoner, Kim Tae Jin, described being left naked in a freezing cell and forced to sit on quicklime in the rain, resulting in severe burns to her skin.

“Even now, there are people who cut their own fingers off to avoid hard labor, who disguise themselves as madmen, or who lose their arms from beatings because they believe in a God who supposedly doesn’t exist,” she added.

While she was in prison, she said, a fellow inmate known only as Park formed a small “fellowship” of seven Christians. Prison guards eventually caught Park, beat him severely and asked him, “Who told you about the existence of God?”

“Do we have to be told about the existence of the sun to know that it’s there?” Park replied. “We learn its existence by feeling its warmth.”

 

Perilous Journey

In such conditions, the journey to faith is perilous for North Koreans – or nothing short of miraculous in the case of Eom, an assistant pastor at Seoul’s New Pyongyang Full Gospel Church (a fellowship for North Korean Defectors associated with Yoido Full Gospel Church).

She was extremely loyal to the regime until she made contact with a South Korean-Chinese Christian businessman.

“It’s very hard to live in North Korea, so if you don’t secretly do business, you can’t survive,” Eom said in sharing her story with members of another large church in Seoul, South Korea. “So for a few days I just kept being polite and agreeing with whatever he said about God, even though I knew he was wrong … but then God started to change my heart.”

Eventually the missionary gave her a small New Testament.

“I enjoyed it,” she said. “The teaching to love your enemy, give him food if he’s hungry, give him water if he’s thirsty. I also took to heart the words about loving each other.”

Eom asked a superior why North Korea didn’t have a religion other than worship of the Kim family.

“His eyes got big and he told me that religion was poison,” she said, “and that if I tried to learn about Christianity I would automatically become a traitor.”

As a teacher, Eom knew what happened to children of traitors and immediately began to worry about her two daughters. When police arrested the missionary and someone warned her that she could be next, Eom packed a small bag and assured her youngest daughter that she would return in three days.

“At the time,” she told the Seoul congregation, “I didn’t realize that this trip would bar me from ever entering the country again.”

Detained by police, she said, she could not understand why the authorities were so concerned about whether she was a Christian instead of asking about her business activities. After her release and unable to rescue her daughters, she escaped to China, where she was arrested twice and told, “If we arrest you again, we will kill you.”

From China Eom made a dangerous journey via Myanmar to Thailand, where she spent six months in a detention center before being granted asylum in South Korea in 2002.

“This is a most critical time for the North Korea human rights movement,” said Scholte, head of the NKFC and president of the Defense Forum Foundation. “We either advance these issues now with the opportunity that comes from a new administration and a new Congress, or we see another decade of death and despair for those whose great misfortune was to be born under the Kim Jong Il dictatorship.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: SUSPECTS IN RAPE OF CHRISTIAN GIRL CLEARED


Police in Muslim-majority nation suspected of corruption.

ISTANBUL, April 10 (Compass Direct News) – Police have declared three Pakistani men innocent of raping a 13-year-old Christian girl despite eye witness accounts and medical evidence indicating their guilt.

At a hearing in Nankana Sahib district court on April 3, police from the Pakistani town of Sangla Hill, 64 miles from Lahore, cleared 40-year-old Mohammed Shahbaz, 30-year-old Waqas Sadiq and 25-year-old Yousaf Sadiq of accusations of raping and threatening Ambreen Masih.

Shahbaz was the only suspect to attend the hearing, which was initially called to discuss terms of his pre-arrest bail. But Judge Ijaz Hussan Awan said he couldn’t set terms for bail if police didn’t want to arrest or detain him.

“In Pakistan it has always been like this – the wealthy person can approach the police and change the course of an investigation,” said prosecuting attorney Akbar Durrani. “Regarding Christians, they cannot put any pressure on the police for a fair investigation.”

Ambreen and her family accuse Waqas Sadiq and Yousaf Sadiq of kidnapping her and taking her to their family residence. The Masihs accuse the two men and Shahbaz of repeatedly raping her, releasing her after two hours and threatening to kill her if she informed authorities.

The three men, along with a relative, 25-year-old Zahid Riyasat, allegedly kidnapped her a second time on Feb. 5. When her parents started to worry about her absence, her father, Munir Masih, organized a search party with other local Christians. They found the three suspects at the house of the Sadiqs’ father, raping her at gunpoint, according to a First Instance Report (FIR).

As the search party approached the four suspects, the accused fired warning shots into the air and then ran away, Munir Masih said in the report.

Ambreen then returned home with her family. She said that when the captors originally abducted her, they said, “We will kill your parents if you tell them this.”

On Feb. 6 Masih obtained permission from the judicial magistrate of Sangla Hill for an official medical examination of Ambreen, which established that she had been raped. Her parents sought police to file charges against the three men, but officers responded only after CLAAS prompted them to open a case.

After police declared the three men innocent following their investigation, lawyers representing Masih accused family members of the suspects of bribing police.

“In that village, Christians are nothing for the Muslims, they make them work for them and sometimes make them work without paying them,” said CLAAS field worker Katherine Sapna.

The three accused men are part of a wealthy family of land owners in Sangla Hill. Ambreen comes from a poor background and has seven siblings. Her father works as a day laborer, and Ambreen and two of her sisters work as domestic servants.

Attorney Durrani has appealed to the Lahore High Court to put different police officers on the investigation. Although local police declared the three suspects innocent at the April 3 hearing, they did not deny that Ambreen had been raped. But the police did not suggest any other suspects, Durrani told Compass.

Around 60 Christian families live in Sangla Hill, located near the industrial city of Sheikupura, northwest of Lahore.

 

Murdered Christian

Police reluctance to prosecute crimes against Christians in Pakistan also has hampered Samson Joseph, attorney for the family of Adeel Masih, a 19-year-old Pakistani Christian believed to be the victim of an “honor killing” by two Muslims.

On April 1 the Sessions Court in Gujranwala held a hearing in which police declared the suspects innocent.

Masih was found dead in May 2008 in Hafizabad. Police originally declared his death a suicide, but his family and human rights lawyers believe relatives of a 19-year-old Muslim woman, Kiran Irfan, with whom Masih had a one-year relationship, tortured and killed him.

District police arrested her father, Mohammed Irfan, and her uncle, Muhammad Riasat, in July 2008 – two months after Masih’s family went to Gujranwala police, who initially declined to charge Irfan’s family with any crimes and effectively declared them innocent. A high inspector has reopened the case and taken the two suspects into custody.

Sapna of CLAAS said the case has taken its toll on the family of Adeel Masih, whose father is suffering psychological problems from the apparent murder.

Marriage between Christian men and Muslim women is forbidden according to a strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic law), and even social contacts such as these can incite violent reactions in Pakistan, a majority-Muslim nation of 170 million.

Report from Compass Direct News

VIETNAM: HISTORIC CHURCH BUILDING DEMOLISHED


Government wrecking crews arrive hours after promises of security.

HO CHI MINH CITY, April 9 (Compass Direct News) – Just hours after the prime minister’s office assured denominational leaders that there were no plans to destroy their Protestant church building, authorities in Banmethuot last month demolished the historic structure in the Central Highlands city.

Government work crews arrived at the site just after darkness fell on March 11 and quickly demolished the structure belonging to the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South), or ECVN(S), according to local sources.

Authorities had confiscated the church building in 1975 after the Communist victory and had removed its cross. But the bright pink church stood prominently, though unused, for many years on Le Duan Boulevard on Banmethuot’s south side. Church authorities many times had asked for its return.

It was the last remaining church building of the Ede ethnic minority, who make up most of Dak Lak’s 135,000 believers.

The demolition was the latest in a series of painful developments. In early March three pastors from ECVN(S)’s Dak Lak provincial committee took up the matter of the church building with local authorities. The officials told the pastors that the request for return would soon be resolved, and that until then the building was secure.

But on March 11, rumors of an imminent plan to demolish the church reached members of the ECVN(S) provincial committee. Alarmed, they called their top leaders at Ho Chi Minh City headquarters. The church president promptly agreed to call the office of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and the Ministry of Public Security in Hanoi. Officials told him not to worry, that there was no plan to demolish the church.

“Nothing will happen – we are in control,” an official told the denominational president, according to one Christian source. “The ECVN(S) president called his Dak Lak provincial committee in the evening to pass on this assurance from the very top. Hardly an hour later, after darkness had fallen, government officials supervised destruction of the church building.”

A frustrated ECVN(S) leader called the prime minister’s office and the Ministry of Public Security asking how, in the light of the demolition, the church could trust them, sources said.

“He was told, ‘Sorry, but this as an action of the local officials,’” one source said. “This downward deflection of responsibility in regard to religious issues happens regularly.”

A week later, on March 20, the ECVN(S) governing board of 22 members unanimously passed a resolution.

“Numerous times the Executive Council of our church has petitioned the government concerning our many confiscated properties,” the resolution reads. “Most regrettably, not only have the petitions not been satisfactorily dealt with, but on the night of March 11, 2009, officials of Dak Lak province demolished the last remaining Ede church at Gate One in Banmethuot City.

“The Executive Council of the ECVN(S) is extremely upset and in deep sympathy with the 135,000 believers in Dak Lak province. We hereby urgently notify all churches in our fellowship. We are deeply saddened by these events.”

Calling for the church to set aside today for fasting and prayer, the resolution also stated that ECVN(S)’s Executive Council would select representatives to meet with authorities of Dak Lak province and the central government to ask that “they urgently address and solve this matter so that the events described above will not be repeated in other places.”

When the church circulated the urgent bulletin concerning the day of fasting and prayer, government authorities strongly objected, saying they feared it might lead to demonstrations in the Central Highlands. But the church did not back down.

Fallout continues. The three pastors of the ECVN(S) Dak Lak provincial committee, two Ede and one ethnic Vietnamese, have resigned, citing government betrayal. A meeting of the two ECVN(S) vice-presidents with Dak Lak officials this week was described as “very disappointing.”

Dak Lak province was also the location of the demolition of a large new church building in Cu Hat, Krong Bong district in December. It belonged to the Vietnam Good News Church, an unregistered group (see “Authorities Destroy New Church Building,” Dec. 17, 2008). Authorities disguised in civilian clothes destroyed the new structure because they said Christians had illegally cut the lumber used to build it. Virtually all homes and buildings in the area are built using such lumber.

Being unregistered or fully registered as the ECVN(S) seems to make little difference to authorities, a Christian source said.

“Leaders of both registered and unregistered Protestant groups express equal helplessness in the face of such malicious government actions against them,” he said.

Last year the prime minister promised a resolution to a major dispute with Catholics over the long-contested property that once served as the residence of the papal nuncio in Hanoi. The outcome was similar: the confiscated property was not returned, and on Sept. 19, 2008 the residence was destroyed.

Both Protestant and Catholic church leaders in Vietnam say that blatant government duplicity quickly and seriously undermines Vietnam’s recent hard-won gains in perceptions of improvement in religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News

MOROCCO: OFFICIALS DEPORT FIVE FOREIGN CHRISTIANS


Female visitors said to be merely attending Bible study with fellow believers.

ISTANBUL, March 31 (Compass Direct News) – The Moroccan government announced on Sunday (March 29) it had expelled five foreign female Christians for trying to “proselytize” in the Islamic country, although sources said they were foreign visitors merely attending a Bible study with fellow Christians.

The accused women were among 23 tourists, expatriates and Moroccans arrested in Casablanca on Saturday during what the Interior Ministry called a “proselytizing” meeting involving Moroccan citizens. Police seized numerous pieces of evangelistic “propaganda,” including Arabic books and videos.

But a source told Compass that everyone in attendance was a Christian and that they had merely gathered for a Bible study, which he said falls within Morocco’s constitutional right of freedom to express one’s faith.

Arriving at the meeting at 5 p.m., 18 plainclothes police officers arrested all in attendance and transported them to a police station. They were detained and questioned until 5 a.m. Sunday morning.

“This was a great humiliation for these women, most of which were of the same family, to be arrested as criminals,” the source said.

Prior to the arrest, all the materials at their meeting had received official government approval. Those in attendance included 15 Moroccan women and one man, two female expatriates of Iraqi and U.S. origin, and the five women visiting Casablanca on the group’s invitation. The women the government called “missionaries” – four Spaniards and one German – were deported to Spain via ferry, according to Morocco’s official MAP news agency.

While the decision to expel the five women indicated lack of religious freedom in Morocco, it likely has more to do with a Moroccan bias against missionary activity in general, not against Christian evangelism per se, said Elliot Abrams, senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations.

Morocco severed ties with Iran in early March on suspicion that the latter was supporting Shiite Islamic missionary activity, which officials believed would disrupt the unity of the 99-percent Sunni country. Earlier this month a Shiite school was closed after accusations that it was attempting to convert students, and rights groups claim that about a dozen people have been arrested for allegedly converting to Shiite Islam, according to The Associated Press.

In light of these moves, Abrams said, the government would have been hard-pressed to allow Christian activities the five women were suspected of undertaking after it shut down Islamic missionary enterprises.

“[Morocco] is generally more sensitive about missionary activity, and cannot be seen to allow Christian activity while stopping Muslim activity,” he said.

A Christian worker agreed with this assertion. He said the government may be attacking Christians “for balance,” even if they are only having a Bible study, after launching an initiative against Shiites.

The North African country prides itself on its religious freedom and tolerance. The constitution provides for freedom to practice one’s religion, but Article 220 of the Penal Code criminalizes any attempt to induce a Muslim to convert to another religion.

 

Official Church Leaders Pounce

Without directly mentioning the women, representatives of Morocco’s official churches swiftly condemned all forms of “proselytism” – a term with a pejorative connotation of asserting one’s will, as distinct from “evangelism,” or proclaiming Christ for people to respond freely – adding that the role of the nation’s churches is only to guide Christians on their “spiritual quest.”

Archbishop of Rabat Monsignor Vincent Landel and Chairman of the Evangelical Church in Morocco Jean-Luc Blanc issued a joint statement that Catholics and Muslims should focus on dialogue, which “by definition rules out proselytizing activities.”

“This dialogue has an intellectual and theological dimension and copes with the social and cultural realms,” they wrote. “Thus, Christians are engaged in various activities alongside Muslims, share the same values and goals and are not afraid of showing their differences.”

Blanc pastors a French Pentecostal church in Casablanca, a congregation mostly made up of expatriates from across Africa. He has criticized independent foreign mission groups, mainly out of worry that they could upset a delicate religious balance in the Sunni Muslim country.

Catholic and Protestant churches have been operating in Morocco for more than a century, and “have learned over the years to live in harmony with the country and its people,” he said in the statement.

In 2007 the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments claimed that foreign missionaries had converted more than 3,000 people to Christianity, particularly in remote areas of the country, according to the 2008 U.S. Department of State Report on International Religious Freedom.

But a source with contacts in Morocco said that radical Islam is perceived as far more of a threat than evangelical Christianity.  

Report from Compass Direct News

COLOMBIA: LEFTIST GUERRILLAS THREATEN, KILL CHRISTIANS


Pastors are issued warnings in north; evangelists murdered in southwest.

LOS ANGELES, March 18 (Compass Direct News) – Having been sentenced to die by leftist rebels for holding Christian worship services in 2006, a pastor in Colombia’s northern department of Arauca took seriously the death threats that guerrillas issued on Friday (March 13), according to Christian support organization Open Doors.

The rebels from the National Liberation Army (ELN) phoned a pastor of Ebenezer Church in Saravena at 5:30 a.m., telling him to meet them at a site on the Arauca River at 7 a.m. When the pastor, who requested anonymity, arrived at the landing, the guerrillas took him by canoe to the other side of the river – into Venezuela – then drove him to a guerrilla camp some 40 minutes away.

For the next three hours, the rebels warned him that area pastors have three options: cooperate with the revolutionary cause of the guerrillas, leave or die.

They warned him that pastors must not preach to ELN guerrillas – the Christian message of peace contradicts their military objectives – and could not support Christian political candidates without their permission.

“We do not want pastors and those attending their churches to participate in politics,” they told the pastor. “We do not want evangelicals in politics, because you do not support our ideals. We have nothing in common with evangelicals.”

The guerrillas said the ELN does not object to pastors preaching within church walls, but that the congregation must not talk of politics, war or peace. Before letting him go, they told him that the ELN will show no compassion on church members if they continue to disobey those directives.

Such threats were not new to the pastor. In 2006, Open Doors sources said, he and his family had to leave behind the church he pastored in Fortul village and much of their belongings after guerrillas threatened to kill him for preaching and leading Christian services in both a home and a worship building.

ELN forces took control of the area in 2007 and quickly declared Christian worship illegal; by January 2008, the guerrillas had closed seven churches and prohibited preaching of Christ in rural areas.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report 2008, the Human Rights Unit of Colombia’s Prosecutor General’s Office is investigating killings in past years of 14 clergy members believed to have been targeted because they were outspoken critics of terrorist organizations. The Presidential Program for Human Rights reported that nearly all killings of priests by terrorist groups could be attributed to leftist guerrillas, particularly the FARC.

“Catholic and Protestant church leaders noted that killings of religious leaders in rural communities were generally underreported because of the communities’ isolation and fear of retribution,” the state department report notes. “Religious leaders generally chose not to seek government protection because of their pacifist beliefs and fear of retribution from terrorist groups.”

A human rights organization affiliated with the Mennonite church, Justicia, Paz y Acción No-violenta (Justapaz), asserted that guerrillas, former paramilitaries, and new criminal groups equally committed violence against evangelical church leaders, according to the state department report.

Leftist rebels opposed to Christian peace teachings continue to issue threats of violence against pastors and Christian leaders in various parts of Arauca department. On Feb. 28, ELN guerrillas took the pastor of another church to a guerrilla camp in Venezuela. Upset that pastors were taking advantage of the presence of the Colombian army to defy the guerrillas – publicly preaching Christ and using their pulpits for preaching peace – the rebels accused Christians of not helping with social projects.

“Preach inside churches, but do not let them die – worry how to save those that are with you,” one guerrilla told the pastor, who requested anonymity. “We will have to take drastic measures with pastors so they obey again.”

The pastor first had contact with rebels 12 years ago, when Marxist members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) held him for several days.

In Puerto Jordán, a municipality of Arauquita, last Dec. 9 presumed leftist rebels gave 40-year-old pastor Rodolfo Almeida eight days to leave. Open Doors reported that a young man came to his house at 8:30 at night and asked for his wife. Surprised that stranger would ask for her at that hour, Almeida asked why he wanted to see her. The young man then told him that he had eight days to leave town or his life would be threatened.

The stranger refused to tell Almeida what organization he was with. He only reminded him that he had been warned. The pastor had received similar threats from ELN rebels in 2007, and by the end of 2008 he and his wife decided to leave with their three children. Almeida had served for more than two years as co-pastor of Ebenezer Church in Arauquita.

Two unnamed Christian mayors in Arauca have also come under threat from the guerrillas, and on Feb. 15 a councilman was killed. Since they took office in January 2008, the mayors of Arauquita and Saravena have been attacked by ELN rebels several times, according to Open Doors. They have drawn the ire of the guerrillas because they cannot be bought as their predecessors were, and they refuse to engage in the rebels’ illegal activities.

“In our lives we have lost the privileges of an ordinary person,” the mayor of Arauquita told Open Doors. “Now we are military targets. God brought me here, but sometimes I have wished not to continue, because being a Christian in a context like this where we live has a very high price.”

Last year, he added, guerrillas killed seven Christians in Arauca department. “Some of them were public officials, others were leaders or simply people recognized by their testimony as believers in Christ,” he said.

Open Doors reported that Councilman Francisco Delgadillo, a Christian who had received threats from the ELN guerrillas, was killed as he returned to his home on Feb. 15.

 

FARC Territory

Across the river, Venezuela serves as a safe haven for the ELN, which the U.S. Department of State has designated as a terrorist group. With the approval of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the guerrilla forces use the country as a base from which to move into Colombia’s oil-rich Arauca department.

Although the ELN has been at odds with the Marxist FARC, in Arauca the two rebel groups co-exist without conflict; from their bases in Venezuela, according to Open Doors, the two groups amicably share paths and roads.

FARC guerrillas control the southwestern department of Huila, where last November four Christians were killed. Open Doors reported that all four belonged to the Alianza Cristiana church of Santana Ramos. Farley Cortés was killed on Nov. 5 in Plumeros village, Hermes Coronado Granado was killed on Nov. 8 in Santana Ramos, and 10 days later a married couple, Dora Lilia Saavedra and Ferney Ledezma, were also killed there.

Guerrillas seized Saavedra, 40, and the 35-year-old Ledezma from the school where Saavedra taught on Nov. 18, bound them on the floor of an old house and shot them several times. The FARC guerrillas had taken their three children, ages 3, 5 and 12, along with them and made them wait at a nearby house within hearing of the shots. The couple, married for five years, were known for proclaiming Christ in the village that borders the farm they owned.

Their pastor, Hernan Camacho, has moved with his family out of the area after receiving death threats.

The FARC accuses the families of Camacho, his brothers and Saavedra of refusing to follow its ideology, Pastor Camacho told Open Doors. “[The guerrillas] say that we, the evangelical ones, are their worst enemy because we teach the people not to take up weapons,” he said. “They accuse us of lulling the minds not to claim our rights against the government … the guerrillas say that it is our fault that the people prefer to continue with the church and not to join them.”

Motives for the killings are still under investigation, but Open Doors reported that Huila is in a zone historically known for systematic persecution of the church by guerrillas. In July 2007, pastor Jael Cruz García, 27, and another pastor, 63-year-old Humberto Méndez Montoya, were murdered in the village of La Legiosa in northern Huila. In 2002, two other pastors, Abelardo Londoño and Yesid Ruíz, were shot and killed in the same area.

Having lost three key leaders last year and been pushed out of most major urban centers by government forces, the FARC has embarked on a terror campaign to make its presence known in cities, according to The Christian Science Monitor. In the Huila capital of Neiva, on March 6 a bomb explosion damaged a hardware store and nearby businesses, according to the newspaper, and on Jan. 16 suspected FARC rebels were responsible for a car explosion at a shopping mall.

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIAN FACES ‘BLASPHEMY’ ABETTING CHARGE, DANGERS


Human rights activist could face violence long after trial finishes.

CHICAGO, March 13 (Compass Direct News) – A Pakistani investigator has ruled out a charge against a Christian for “blaspheming Islam” but retained another for abetting blasphemy, and advocates worry the stigma of the charges could make him a target for local Islamists.

Hector Aleem, 51, remains in Adiyala Jail in Rawalpindi, near Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad. His lawyer said he believes law enforcement officers and community members framed Aleem for his social activism on behalf of Christians so that the stigma of the charges would subject him to the danger of violence.

The case began last November when a Muslim scholar received a text message insulting the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Authorities charged Aleem with violating sections 295c (blasphemy) and 109bb (abetting) of the Pakistani criminal code.

Investigating Officer Zafer Ikbal on March 4 ruled out the possibility of a blasphemy charge since evidence showed the message came from an unlisted phone number, not Aleem’s. This move followed a Feb. 2 decision by Judge Sakhi Mohammad Kohut to exonerate Aleem of blasphemy by moving the case from an anti-terrorism court to a magistrate court; with the change of court, the investigating officer had considered anew the possibility of a blasphemy charge.

Phone records in the investigation showed the original culprit had a one-hour conversation with someone at Aleem’s phone number. Aleem claimed that his assistant, Bashar Kokar, was the one who talked with the culprit. As a result, both men were incarcerated and charged with abetment.

In the meantime, Aleem’s attorney, Malik Tafik, has filed an application for bail. He said he hopes it will be approved at a session court hearing next week.

The crime of abetting does not carry a severe penalty in Pakistani criminal law. But in this case, Tafik said, its connection to blasphemy against Islam could put Aleem in danger of attacks by Muslim extremists even if he is found innocent.

“He will continue to be in danger from religious extremists after the case finishes,” Tafik said. “Even though he is only charged with abetment, he is still in danger.”

A Pakistani official concurred that those in the community opposed to Aleem’s human rights activism may have used the charges as a pretext to jail him. Khushdil Khan Malik, deputy secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights, said Aleem may have been framed due to his social activism as director of a small Non-Governmental Organization that lobbies for the rights of Pakistani Christians in Islamabad.

Last November, Aleem became involved in a land dispute between a congregation and the Rawalpindi Water and Sanitation Agency, which wanted to demolish their church building.

Blasphemy charges carry a particularly dangerous stigma in certain parts of Pakistan. Within Rawalpindi, there is a dedicated following of the Islamist political movement Sunni Tehreek, which has been involved in violent sectarian clashes with other Islamist movements in the last decade. When Aleem was transferred to a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court for a hearing on Jan. 30, a crowd of 150 protestors gathered, shouting that his life would not be spared and that the police should hand him over to them.

But Malik said the case has nothing to do with sectarian tensions and resulted only from members of the municipality targeting Aleem because they opposed his campaign to save a church slated for destruction.

“Generally the relations between Muslims and Christians are good,” Malik said. “This was a false case against Aleem.”

Aleem’s bail application is pending. But due to current court strikes in Pakistan, the application may take a few weeks, said Katherine Sapna, a field officer for the advocacy group Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). Lawyers are rallying against the government in a bid to reinstate former Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudry, who was deposed by former President Pervez Musharraf.

 

More ‘Blasphemy’ Cases

Christian legislators have called on the Pakistani Parliament to strike down its blasphemy laws, as they are frequently used against the Muslim-majority country’s Christian minority.

Punishment for blasphemy in Pakistan can potentially mean death, and the charges are easy to file. Private citizens can register a blasphemy case, whereas normal procedure calls for police officers to file charges.

According to a CLAAS report, police opened blasphemy charges against two Christians on March 1 in the village of Malukay, 55 miles southeast of Lahore. Walayat Masih and his daughter Sarina attended a fair in a graveyard to honor a deceased religious figure, Muharri Shah, revered by both local Christians and Muslims.

In the course of the celebrations, local Muslims thought that the Christians had improperly covered an Islamic inscription on the tomb. Soon a mob gathered and began attacking those Christians who weren’t able to flee. A crowd cornered Masih and his daughter and severely beat them until police arrived and took the victims to the police station, where they were charged with blasphemy.

CLAAS is investigating the case. The organization will represent the two in court if charges are not dropped.  

Report from Compass Direct News

IRAN: SON OF MARTYRED PASTOR FREE ON BAIL, AWAITING TRIAL


Uncertainty remains about condition of Christian charged with ‘propaganda.’

LOS ANGELES, November 10 (Compass Direct News) – Concerns about the health and safety of the son of martyred Iranian pastor Hossein Soodmand are swirling around Ramtin Soodmand as he awaits trial for “promoting anti-government propaganda.”

Soodmand was released on bail Oct. 22 after more than two months in a Mashhad prison, having originally been charged with “proselytizing.”

Before turning himself in to police in Mashhad on Aug. 21, Soodmand received a call from Fershteh Dibaj, the daughter of another Christian martyr, Mehdi Dibaj, telling him that intelligence officers wanted to meet with him. Puzzled, Soodmand asked, “Why do they want me to come there? I am living in Tehran,” according to a family member. (Compass earlier reported incorrectly that Soodmand was ordered to go from Mashhad to Tehran.)

Expecting Soodmand to be in Mashhad for no more than two days, family members told Compass that they were shocked when he remained in prison.

A family member also expressed frustration that the court repeatedly changed the bail amount before finally settling on $22,000. Soodmand’s in-laws put the deed to their home up to ensure bail.

Soodmand has been officially charged with “promoting anti-government propaganda.” But with a new penal code under consideration in Iranian Parliament this month that would mandate capital punishment for “apostates,” or those who leave Islam, friends and family worry that he may face the death penalty. A family member told Compass that the court had originally accused Soodmand of religious activity and proselytizing.

His father, the last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government, was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then at least six Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.

Friends and relatives of Soodmand questioned his treatment while in prison. One source told Compass that he asked about Soodmand’s health on three separate phone conversations. “The government cut off the phone three times,” the source said.

A source closely following the case said that when he asked Soodmand about his treatment in prison, he responded, “No place on [my] body is hurting.” That source believed Soodmand was saying that he had recovered from being tortured.

Another source interested in the case told Compass, “It’s odd that Mitra [Soodmand’s wife] and Ramtin were only allowed to talk by phone. She never saw his face the whole time he was in prison.”

A family friend said he believes that no physical harm was done to Soodmand, telling Compass, “Ramtin was abused emotionally by being interrogated many times but was never beaten. He was taken to a room where he was told his father had spoken his last words before being executed.”

While there are many questions about Soodmand’s treatment, those close to the family agree that Soodmand has suffered during this ordeal.

“He [Soodmand] asks for prayer because he was badly shaken,” a source told Compass.

Soodmand’s father was executed by the state in 1990, and there is speculation that Ramtin Soodmand may have been singled out because of the relationship.

“I am not sure, but … once something like this happens for you in your family, you are ‘marked,’” said a source closely following the case.

Under the past three decades of Iran’s Islamist regime, hundreds of citizens who have left Islam and become Christians have been arrested for weeks or months, held in unknown locations and subjected to mental and physical torture.

The arrests of Iranian Christians in the last few months have deeply affected churches in Iran. “There is less trust among the believers,” a friend of Soodmand’s said to Compass. “They are suspicious of outsiders or newcomers because they could be ‘moles.’”

The friend also reported that the activities of house churches he works with have been sharply curtailed because many members believe they are under surveillance.

A family member is concerned for the Christians living in Mashhad.

“We got news from Iran that the intelligence service in Mashhad arrested 15 Christian people,” he told Compass last week.

Report from Compass Direct News

IRAN: COURT FINDS WAY TO ACQUIT CHRISTIANS OF ‘APOSTASY’


Tribunal tries to save face by claiming pastors never converted from Islam.

LOS ANGELES, October 30 (Compass Direct News) – An Iranian judge has ordered the release of two pastors charged with “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, but the defendants said the ruling was based on the court’s false claim that they confessed to having never converted to Christianity.

Mahmoud Matin Azad, 52, said he and Arash Basirat, 44, never denied their Christian faith and believe the court statement resulted from the judge seeking a face-saving solution to avoid convicting them of apostasy, which soon could automatically carry the death penalty.

Azad and Basirat were arrested May 15 and acquitted on Sept. 25 by Branch 5 of the Fars Criminal Court in Shiraz, 600 kilometers (373 miles) south of Tehran.

A court document obtained by human rights organization Amnesty International stated, “Both had denied that they had converted to Christianity and said that they remain Muslim, and accordingly the court found no further evidence to the contrary.”

Azad vehemently denied the official court statement, saying the notion of him being a Muslim never even came up during the trial.

“The first question that they asked me was, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I am a pastor pastoring a house church in Iran,” he told Compass. “All my [court] papers are about Christianity – about my activity, about our church and everything.”

Members of Azad’s house church confirmed that the government’s court statement of his rejection of Christianity was false.

“His faith wasn’t a secret – he was a believer for a long, long time,” said a source who preferred to remain anonymous.

During one court hearing, Azad said, a prosecutor asked him, “Did you change your religion?” Azad responded, “I didn’t have religion for 43 years. Now I have religion, I have faith in God and I am following God.”

If the court misstated that the two men said they were Muslims, it likely came from political pressure from above, said Joseph Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.

“If the court did in fact lie about what he said, I would think it’s part of the larger political game that [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and his factions are trying to play to garner political support for him,” Grieboski said.

Ahmadinejad, who is facing re-election, has approval ratings hovering above the single digits and has faced international criticism for the apostasy law.

“What he does not need is bad press and bad political positioning,” Grieboski said. “I would be shocked if [the acquittal] were not somehow involved in the presidential campaign.”

International condemnation of the law and of the proposed mandatory death penalty for those who leave Islam come as Iran faces new rounds of U.N. economic sanctions for uranium enrichment.

Upon his release, Azad said that no reason was given for the court freeing him and Basirat. Disputing the court’s allegation that they claimed to be Muslims, Azad said that he told his attorney, “Two things I will never say. First, I will not lie; second, I will not deny Jesus my Lord and my Savior.”

The two men are grateful for their release, he said, but they worry that their acquittal might merely be a tactic by the Iranian government to wait for them to re-engage in Christian activity and arrest them again. Their release could also put anyone with whom they associate in danger, Azad said.

There is another worry that the government could operate outside the law in order to punish them, as some believe has happened in the past. The last case of an apostasy conviction in Iran was that of Christian convert Mehdi Dibaj in 1994. Following his release, however, Dibaj and four other Protestant pastors, including converts and those working with converts, were brutally murdered.

A similar motivation could have prompted the judge to release the two pastors. Leaving their deaths up to outside forces would abrogate him from personally handing down the death penalty, Grieboski said.

“Even in Iran no judge wants to be the one to hand down the death penalty for apostasy,” he said. “The judge’s motivation [in this hearing] could have been for his own face-saving reasons, for the possibility of arresting more people, or even for the possibility that the two defendants will be executed using social means rather than government means. Any of these are perfectly legitimate possibilities when we start talking about the Iranian regime.”

The court case against Azad and Basirat came amid a difficult time for local non-Muslims as the Iranian government attempted to criminalize apostasy from Islam.

On Sept. 9 the Iranian parliament approved a new penal code by a vote of 196-7 calling for a mandatory death sentence for apostates, or those who leave Islam. The individual section of the penal code containing the apostasy bill must be passed for it to go into law.

As recently as late August, the court was reluctant to release the two men on bail. At one point Azad’s attorney anticipated the bail to be between $40,000 and $50,000, but the judge set the bail at $100,000.

The original charge against Azad and Basirat of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran” was dropped, but replaced with the more serious charge of apostasy.

Those close to the two pastors were relieved at the acquittal since they expected their detention to be lengthy.

“We had anticipated [Azad’s incarceration] would be a while, and then we got this notice that they were released,” said a family friend of Azad. “We were shocked by that.”

Azad described his four-month incarceration in positive terms. He said that while in prison he was treated with respect by the authorities because he explained that he was not interested in political matters and was a pastor.  

Report from Compass Direct News