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By Rebecca Hagelin
For many people around the world, religious freedom is an alien concept. No “First Amendment” protects them. No tradition of religious liberty permits them to worship according to their own consciences. If they go to a church that isn’t the “accepted” church, they risk ostracism, assault, torture, jail … even death.
The fact is, Christians are persecuted around the world on a daily basis — it’s just that their stories are largely unknown.
But we must know their stories so that we can pray for them and support efforts to help.
Compass Direct is a Christian news service that maintains a network of international sources and reports on horrors you can’t imagine. The brave journalists at Compass do their best to uncover the truth so that some action can be taken against the tormentors. I’ve met with several of their reporters from around the world who risk their own safety and lives to shine the light on the ugly truth of religious persecution. They are trained journalists who write under aliases in order to keep from being arrested, or worse. Their reports are read by those in the highest levels on Capitol Hill, in the State Department and other government offices.
When I met with them, I felt humbled by their courage and inspired by their commitment to Christians they will never know. I marveled at the depth of their own faith. Sitting in a room with these warriors for truth made me reflect on my own commitment (or lack thereof) to my brothers and sisters in Christ. Reading the disturbing Compass reports has moved my spirit and deepened my understanding – and made me question my own willingness to “risk it all.”
In India, for example, numerous Christians have been beaten and threatened by Hindu extremists. One was tied to a tree and tormented for three hours before being banished from his village. What did he do to merit this treatment? He was handing out Christian tracts. Forcible “conversions” to Hinduism or other religions occur in some places. Other stories report on beatings intended to warn believers to stop attending prayer meetings. In another village, Christian families were banned from all shops and wells.
All of these instances occurred within the last two months, while we’ve wrapped up relaxing summer vacations and shopped for “back to school” clothes. In the business of your life, did you miss the story about Beijing house church leader Cai Zhuohua? Chinese officials recently released him from prison, where he had languished since 2004 for “illegal business practices” — i.e., distributing Christian literature. His punishment included a firm warning that he must never engage in the activity again.
Thank the Lord there also are other ministries that help the afflicted. Once such group is Open Doors, which tracks persecution and lends a helping hand to embattled believers. Compass recently reported on a horrible incident in Eritrea, a small country along the east coast of Africa:
“Eritrean authorities tortured a woman to death on Wednesday (September 5) for refusing to recant her Christian faith, the fourth such killing in less than a year, according to a Christian support organization. Open Doors said in a statement that it had confirmed the death of 33-year-old Nigisti Haile at the Wi’a Military Training Center; she was one of 10 single Christian women arrested at a church gathering in Keren who have spent 18 months under severe pressure.”
Nigisti Haile was not the first such victim. According to Compass, other Christians in Eritrea have died after suffering torture, including two who had dared to hold a religious service in a private home. What a contrast to our experience here in the United States — where, praise God, we think nothing of walking into any church we please. (Sometimes, we think so much “nothing” about it that we don’t even go. After all, there’s always next Sunday.)
In Turkey, police recently arrested a man who set a fire at the entrance to a Protestant church in Izmit and repeatedly fired a gun. The incident was caught on a security camera installed several months earlier — after three Christians had been stabbed to death. “In the last year, there have been scores of threats or attacks on congregations and church buildings,” according to a report compiled by the country’s Protestant churches.
For those who want to know more about how religious persecution affects real people in our time, I recommend the book “Secret Believers: What Happens When Muslims Believe in Christ.” Written by Brother Andrew and Al Janssen of Open Doors, it’s a compelling look at some Muslims who were drawn to Christ — despite the danger, in their land, of professing any religion other than Islam.
You’ll meet a father whose son has been arrested and is being tortured for holding “illegal religious meetings.” Two government officials visit the father and question him. One says: “It must hurt you terribly to be the father of an apostate. I have a son, just two years old. If my son turned away from Islam, I don’t know what I’d do.” The other official says, “I’d kill him,” to which the first official replies, “Yes. That is all you really can do with an apostate. If he won’t return to Islam, kill him.”
If these chilling tales outrage you as much as they do me, resolve to do something about it. Educate yourself through groups such as Compass and Open Doors. Make sure that others know what’s going on, too, and do whatever you can to raise awareness and to make a difference, however small.
And, of course, don’t forget to pray — first and foremost for the relief of those persecuted for their faith. Then consider adding a prayer of thanks for the blessing of living in a nation where you can worship freely.
The persecution of Christians goes hand-in-hand with some important and disturbing trends taking place around the world, according to a global network representing more than 335 million Christians from 121 nations and over 100 international organizations.
In a recent document on international religious freedom presented to the UN Commission on Human Rights, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) “note[d] with great concern the alarming trend to linking nationalism to a particular religion.”
“Clearly if one religion is linked with national identity, religious minorities are excluded,” the WEA reported. “This is a major source of Christian persecution and an enemy of religious freedom.”
The WEA, which recently participated in the work of the 61st UN Commission on Human Rights, stated in its report titled “A Perspective On Global Religious Freedom: Challenges Facing The Christian Community” that countries influenced by Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism had all recently seen their share of this form of religious intolerance in various expressions.
“In some cases, we see it with the face of government sponsored religious nationalism, and in others, with that of non-government factions engaged in extremist activities, often with the tacit approval of their governments,” the global ministry stated. “In its various expressions, the use of political might to enforce religious conformity continues to be a disturbing trend around the world.”
One “frightening and increasingly common” tool of this form of intolerance is the application of national religious law to control and restrict citizens’ freedom. According to the WEA, Christian minority groups continue to be targeted, and suffer discrimination and persecution because of this growing trend. Laws such as Pakistan’s “blasphemy laws,” Sri Lanka’s, Saudi Arabia’s and United Arab Emirates’ “anti-conversion” laws, and Saudi Arabia and Iran’s wide-reaching “Shari’a law” criminalize the beliefs and activities of Christians and other religious minorities, the ministry claimed. Therefore the laws have led to widespread and often violent persecution of minorities in those countries.
The WEA also noted with particular concern the number of countries whose governments have set up a registration process for religious groups. It stated that registration systems provide possible venues for governments to utilize excessive power and can be used to violate human rights norms set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“Many Christian groups face rigorous challenges or are simply denied governmental approval and therefore are forced to operate illegally at the mercy of the government officials,” according to the WEA.
In China, for example, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) reportedly restrains religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship, fearing any organization that may threaten their authority. Sources say organizations that do not register with the government are considered illegal, though many groups are denied authorization and are thus forced to operate illegally.
Government officials monitor and judge the legitimacy of all religious activity and teachings of registered groups, the WEA stated in its report. The CCP often requires leaders of registered religious groups to publicly endorse the government’s actions and policies or publicly denounce unregistered groups. Though the level of religious intolerance varies from region to region, religious minorities tend to be perceived as “cultish” and for simply engaging in their religious practices risk facing intimidation, harassment, torture, “re-education” in labor camps and in some cases, death.
“As incidents of persecution by religious intolerance against minority groups continue to increase around the world, we strongly urge the members of the Commission to monitor these laws and the development of religious intolerance,” the WEA continued.
“We further urge the members of the Commission to take measures to actively protect and promote religious freedom.”
Among those countries listed in the WEA report as countries of particular concern, the ministry listed Burma/Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.
With a highly detailed list of 48 rules and norms, the government of China has published new regulations on religious personnel, place and activities, an Italy-based news agency reported Monday. The new guidelines, which will come into effect next year on Mar. 1, replace the 1994 regulations for the administration of religious policies.
AsiaNews, which received and translated the text from a Chinese source, said the first chapter affirms the state’s commitment to “guaranteeing religious freedom and harmony between religions and in society.” The text further states that no one is to be discriminated for his faith or lack thereof.
The regulations go as far as condemning the abuse of power by local authorities or the Religious Affairs Office, who have been known to expropriate property, levy taxes and make arrests on the basis of their own personal interests, while pocketing the goods and taxes extorted from religious communities under the threat of expropriations and imprisonment.
And now, according to Article 28 of the new regulations, “If a government official for Religious Affairs, while carrying out his duties, abuses his authority or uses if for personal purposes, such person commits a crime punishable by law. In the case of minor infractions, disciplinary action and fines will be applied.”
However, for those who carry out religious activity without permission the new regulations allow for expropriation of goods, fines, penal sanctions, demolition of places of worship, disbarment from religious office as penalties.
According to the text, permission is required for each place or person involved in worship. The text also sets the conditions for the opening of new places of worship, educational structures, and religious activities, which must all register with relevant government offices. “For example, to build a place of worship, a group must obtain permission from the local government (xian), then from the next level of government (shi), then from the provincial government (shen). At this point, construction can begin. Upon completion and before the building is put into use, another government permit is required,” AsiaNews reported. “Meanwhile, the Religious Affairs office must check that places of worship respect laws, regulations and the constitution and must verify all the activities in and around the group.”
The regulations also specifically set out the bureaucratic procedures for registration, calling into play local, provincial and national governments, and setting the time frame for the presentation of applications and the rendering of decisions (which must be within 30 days of the application). “Such procedures became necessary as numerous non-official Protestant communities have complained that their applications for registration are simply not accepted and thus are turned down without being processed,” AsiaNew reported.
According to the agency, the biggest discrimination is that believers can exercise their religious freedom only if officially registered. In Beijing, religious freedom is not an inalienable right, but is conceded by the state.
Syndicated columnist David Limbaugh, a lawyer and brother of talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, recently published his second book, “Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity.” The following are excerpts from a telephone interview with Mr. Limbaugh:
Q: What incident was the “last straw” in leading you to write this book?
A: No specific one, but I’ve continued to see examples in the media, including The Washington Times, about a lot of discrimination against Christians, the suppression of their civil liberties and examples of them being denied tolerance by those who tout tolerance as their highest virtue. So I decided to prepare a comprehensive compendium to show how bad this has gotten. This book was originally 150,000 words and I had to cut it in half to get it to its current size [352 pages].
Q: You write a lot about the Supreme Court. Why is it so hostile to religion?
A: Secular forces have infiltrated all levels of society, even our courts. In a lot of cases, the majority of the court is completely judicially active. In some places, [Chief Justice William H.] Rehnquist and [Justice Antonin] Scalia have tried to curb this. Our society has become so indoctrinated with the notion that the Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment] requires a much stricter separation [of church and state] than it actually does.
The Supreme Court is so far afield from the original intent of its framers as to government involvement with religion, there is no relationship to the original intent.
Q: Why do you portray school superintendents as such cowards when it comes to religious rights for students?
A: In many cases where the courts have ruled correctly, superintendents and county sheriffs will fold at the least bit of pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State or even a group of atheists, even when the law in on their side.
This call is a call to arms to Christians and lovers of religious liberty to fight back, because our religious liberties are eroding. This is a clarion call to Christians to forsake their apathy.
Q: Is the situation getting worse or better?
A: The drive to deprive people of their religious rights will continue to gain momentum. The political correctness totalitarians will not take any prisoners. They demand we accept their ideas as equally valid. Take the homosexual lobby. They want you to accept the idea that homosexuality is natural and not deviant. Some Christians believe homosexuality is sinful. You cannot believe homosexuality is normal and proper, and sinful, at the same time. But they want you to adopt their value system forcibly and abandon your own.
Q: Why is there such an enormous antipathy toward Christianity in American society?
A: It’s not top down, started by the Supreme Court, but from the bottom up. These counterculture forces have become dominant in our society and they are getting their way. We are changing the laws and fabric of our society as a result.
The Supreme Court opened the legal floodgates. When the Supreme Court pronounced something like Engel v. Vitale in 1962 — where voluntary nondenominational prayer was outlawed because a school board had written it and that made it too much an endorsement by the state — it lent credence to the idea there is something wrong with government and religion.
The Establishment Clause was never intended to keep the government completely out of religion, but only prohibited Congress from establishing a national church.
Q: Why do Americans give so much advantage to their enemies?
A: It is inherent in a free society that your enemies are allowed to advocate your society be overthrown. We’re allowed free speech and we have to grant it to everybody, short of allowing libel and slander and defamation and yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.
We want to allow free speech and it is essential. But why do liberals always allow other religions to be promoted, even by government agencies? There was a case last year when two Muslim residents at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine were allowed to promote their religion during a required lecture on Islam that had nothing to do with medicine.
Separationists are not sincere in wanting to keep government out of religion. They just want to keep Christianity out of the public square and make it a free-for-all for the other faiths. They do not want to give Christianity a fair seat at the table. They really think Christianity is so dangerous or harmful that it should not be countenanced.
Q: Can democracy only exist within the bounds of Christianity?
A: The United States is the [most free] and most prosperous nation in the world. It was also founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Those two are factors together in one country is no accident. Judeo-Christian principles are conducive to a free society.
They may not be the only way, but they are far the best way to guarantee freedom. Secularists have a vested interest in excising Christianity from our textbooks. For instance, we say Thanksgiving was a day of thanks to God, not a multicultural feast, but the secularists don’t want you to hear about that. Because if we conclude our freedom is a byproduct of Christian heritage, we will want to return to the heritage.
Q: Are you hoping the United States returns to what it once was?
A: I am not advocating a theocracy. Most of the change has to occur in churches and society at large. Some say a revival will be necessary. But it will not happen in a single generation. We cannot legislate change in people’s hearts, but if we do not turn things around, our freedoms will evaporate eventually. We are in jeopardy if we continue to abandon the ethic that founded this country.
I first met Imad Shehadeh at a press conference — and an uncomfortable press conference at that. Several of us in the media, along with some Christian clergy, were sitting in a hotel room in Amman earlier this year listening to a Catholic and three evangelical Protestants talk about being Christian in overwhelmingly Muslim Jordan.
Shehadeh, a tall man who would fit in on any American college campus, was describing his work as president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, which has had a rough row to hoe getting accreditation from the Jordanian government. Shehadeh got the idea for the school after noticing how few resources there were available for Christian theological study in the Arabic-speaking Middle East. After getting his bachelor’s degree at the University of California at San Diego, and his master’s and doctorate at Dallas Theological Seminary, he returned to Jordan to found JETS in 1990.
Just getting government approval for the institution took him five years. He tried operating under the auspices of a registered church, but that was shut down. Then financial backers, impatient at the long wait, began dropping out.
Finally, he took a position as principal of an 800-student Christian elementary and secondary school, which brought him into contact with influential people who showed him the inside track on how to obtain approval for the seminary. Through them, he learned the necessary administrative, financial, and academic procedures for setting up such an institution under Jordanian laws.
Thus armed, JETS was finally launched in 1995, in rented facilities, as an educational institution under the Ministry of Culture. At first, Muslims were allowed to attend for the purpose of studying Christianity, but when it became obvious some of them were converting, the government clamped down. In 1999, the government imprisoned three such converts (an Iraqi, a Sudanese, and an Egyptian) under wretched conditions — then deported them. The incident was so egregious, it even got mention in the State Department’s 2000 Human Rights Report.
“They were placed with criminals in tight quarters, sometimes as many as 30 in one room,” Shehadeh says. “During those difficult weeks, it was very cold and they had to sleep on concrete with no cover and were poorly fed. One of them was beaten and when he finally got out, he was physically ill and unable to move for weeks.”
Since then, the government has tied up the 150-student seminary in bureaucratic red tape, making it impossible for them to obtain accreditation or even residence permits for some of their foreign students and staff. Some of the 38 Iraqis in training there are being sent away because of restrictions. And due to visa restrictions, this is the last year Sudanese students can study at JETS. If the school were accredited, visas would be much easier to come by, and the school could also issue decrees.
But the government this year insists that all faculty appointments — as well as that of the president and board of directors — must be approved by the government’s Council on Higher Education. Like a state university, JETS would be required to conduct classes on Sundays, which it does not presently do. Worse yet, some of the more traditional Christians in Jordan — Orthodox and Catholics — have perceived JETS as a threat and have petitioned the government to deny them accreditation.
“They say persecution is good for the church; well, we’ve had our share,” Shehadeh says. “We’re a long way from where we’d like to be in terms of human rights.” JETS is a strategic institution amidst 270 million people in 19 Arabic-speaking countries, many of which would never give Christian students student visas to western countries but would allow them into Jordan. One-third of the enrollees are women. It has gradually built up a 16,000-volume library, most of which is in Arabic. JETS is particularly concerned with the 500,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan, some of whom have converted to Christianity. JETS students have helped start eight Iraqi churches.
“I pray that the Christians in Muslim lands get the same freedom as Muslims get in Christian lands,” Shehadeh told us at the press conference. “There are Muslim centers all over the United States but no churches in Saudi Arabia or many of the Gulf states.”
For that and other remarks the Jordanians found inflammatory, he was later interrogated, he said, quite harshly for his frankness. Supported by Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Free Evangelical, Baptist, and Christian and Missionary Alliance churches in Jordan, the seminary somehow muddles through despite various obstacles — which are sure to mount in the coming months and years, as the U.S. campaign against Islamic terrorists intensifies.
Shehadeh is hardly a Westerner himself; his parents are Palestinians, Orthodox Christians who were driven out of Israel in 1948. His travails are part and parcel of what Christians in the Middle East endure on a regular basis. We got to sample this during an interview with Akel Biltaji, then minister of tourism for Jordan. All was serene until he was asked why Muslims were not allowed to change their religion in Jordan. Muslims could convert to Christianity, he said smoothly, but they must expect to suffer, if not die for their new faith. After all, he added, Christ died for them.
One could almost hear jaws drop around the room. He was quite cold about it.
And Jordan is considered one of the more friendly countries toward its Christian minority; in fact, only Lebanon is said to be freer.
I began to realize what Shehadeh and his seminarians are up against.
Sudan backs slave trade, Canadian says after mercy mission
The government of Sudan is encouraging the slave trade as a way of forcing Christians to convert to Islam, says a Canadian television producer who helped buy freedom for 319 slaves.
Cal Bombay, a commentator on 100 Huntley Street, an evangelical television program based in Burlington, Ont., flew to Sudan last month after viewers donated $108,000 in response to an emotional appeal on the program last year.
The freeing of the women and children will be broadcast today on Global Television between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m., and repeated at 11 p.m. on Vision Television. Mr. Bombay said all of the women had been raped, and many had been circumcised. Some were pregnant, and others had been mutilated.
The slaves had been forced to work as domestic servants, or to look after herds, and “some of them were used as sexual toys,” said Mr. Bombay.
Every one of the freed slaves had been beaten into converting to Islam, he said yesterday in a telephone interview. “If they wanted to live at all, they bowed to it, but they remained either Christians or animists in their hearts,” he said.
Mr. Bombay said the government in the north of Sudan has encouraged slave traders and even armed some of them as part of a campaign of forced Islamization of the south of the country, inhabited mainly by Christians and animists, or followers of tribal religions.
He said the slaves freed on March 12 had been captured as long as five years ago in raids on their villages. He said slave traders kill the men in the villages rather than capture them and that he and cameraman Lee Absolom were shown a mass grave of 82 people killed in an earlier raid.
The women and children were sold to Muslims throughout the north of the country, and then bought back for resale to the 100 Huntley Street crew and representatives of Christian Solidarity International, a Swiss-based group that has been documenting slavery in the Sudan since 1995.
The Canadians paid $33,000 for the liberation of 200 slaves, while another 20 were freed through donations from Europeans, and the other 99 were freed with money raised by Sudanese villagers who sold livestock to redeem the slaves.
Mr. Bombay said they bought the slaves’ freedom for about $150 each. “It was a horrible experience, but it was also wonderful to see them realize they had been set free.”
The total cost of the 100 Huntley Street trip to the Sudan was $108,000, which included medical supplies, and transportation into an area that’s still part of the ongoing civil war.
The freed slaves received medical treatment and then were sent to refugee camps operated by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, a coalition of black Christians from the south and moderate Muslims who have been battling the militant Muslim government of the north for the past 13 years.
“The traders were aghast that we wanted to buy the slaves for humanitarian reasons,” said Mr. Bombay.
Elfadil Ahmed, chargé d’affaires with the embassy of Sudan in Ottawa, denied Mr. Bombay’s charges that his government has encouraged slavery and is forcing non-Muslims to convert. “We are completely against slavery by virtue of our religion and traditions. There are laws against it and our country is very harsh against such practices,” he said.
Mr. Ahmed said the 100 Huntley Street crew entered his country illegally and broke Sudan’s laws by buying slaves. He also said there is little conflict among religions in Sudan, and many members of his government are Christians.
Diane Simsovic, a spokesman for Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department, said Canada doesn’t see the ongoing civil war in the Sudan “as a simple matter of conflict between Christians and Muslims. We see this as having ethnic causes.”
The Sudan is the largest country in Africa, and includes 77 different ethnic groups in an area about a quarter the size of Europe.
“Many of the abuses have been inflicted on Christians by Christians, and on Muslims by Muslims,” said Ms. Simsovic. Canada has co-sponsored several United Nations resolutions condemning human rights abuses in the Sudan, and human rights groups such as Amnesty International have long been conducting international campaigns against the abduction of children and the deliberate killing of civilians as a common tactic in the war in the Sudan.
Paul Marshall, author of Their Blood Cries Out, a new book condemning the persecution of Christians in the Sudan and other countries around the world, visited the country a year ago. He said some experts estimate the number of people abducted into slavery in the Sudan could be as high as100,000, and most of those are Christian. The slave trade is widespread, and many of the raids are conducted by the government’s semi-official militia forces to break down morale in the south and to abduct Christian children and raise them as Muslims, he said.
In the Nuba Mountains area in southern Sudan, the systematic killing of Christians by government forces amounts to “genocide,” said Mr. Marshall. According to Mr. Bombay, there are now tens of thousands of people in the Nuba Mountains living in forest and caves, without access to food, water, clothing and blankets.
One of the few relief agencies still operating in the southern Sudan is World Vision Canada. Contributions earmarked “for Sudan relief” can be sent to World Vision Canada, at Box 2500, Mississauga, Ontario, L5M 2H2.
U.S. report documents slavery, beatings, killings
Their crops and homes have been burned. They have been beaten, shot. Because they are Christians.
Christian persecution is thriving around the globe, according to the first-ever report on the topic by the U.S. State Department.
“It’s very widespread,” says Paul Marshall, author of a book on the persecution of Christians in the 1990s. “I would say in the last five years there has been persecution of Christians in 40 countries. By persecution I mean there may be physical beatings, imprisonment, church burnings, maybe death, I don’t just mean discrimination.”
Persecution of Christians is most common in Islamic countries and countries that remain under strict communist rule, says Mr. Marshall.
Offences against Christians listed in the report range from the odd to the tragic.
In December 1995, the Cuban government issued a resolution preventing any Cuban or joint enterprise from selling computers, fax machines, photocopiers or other equipment to any church. A 1995 decree prohibited Christmas trees and decorations in public buildings, except those related to the tourist or foreign commercial sector.
In Sudan, meanwhile, civil war between the mainly Islamic north and the largely animist and Christian south has claimed more than a million lives. There are reports that Christians are victims of slave raids and forced conversion, and that some Christian children have been forced into re-education camps where they are given Arab names and raised as Muslims.
The State Department report was prepared at the behest of the U.S. Congress, which last year demanded a detailed summary of United States policies designed to reduce and eliminate the “mounting persecution of Christians throughout the world.”
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has also instructed American embassies to give more attention to questions of religious freedom in their reports and to stay more closely in touch with leading religious figures, both those at risk and others, around the world.
The report criticized China for raiding and closing places of worship and beating church leaders.
The Chinese constitution states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief.” In practice, China has sought to restrict religious practice to government-authorized religious organizations and registered places of worship.
Many groups are reluctant to register with the government because they oppose state control of religion or because they do not want to compromise their position on abortion, which is used as a form of population control in China. Catholics refuse to register because the country’s “official” Catholic church does not recognize the authority of the pope.
Between 1996 and 1997, Chinese authorities in some areas cracked down on the activities of unregistered Catholic and Protestant movements, says the report. Adherents were interrogated, detained and threatened. Their property was destroyed. Some were beaten.
Often Christians are persecuted as much for their political action as their religious beliefs. In Columbia, church personnel have been attacked for their efforts to promote peace and nonviolent action in the midst of Colombia’s internal conflict. On May 19, two employees of the Jesuit-run human rights organization, The Centre for Investigation and Popular Education, were murdered.
Persecution is also serious in Egypt, where Christians have been the target of terrorist groups seeking to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state. In February 1997, gunmen killed nine young Christians at a prayer meeting and wounded six. In March, Muslim extremists opened fire in a predominantly Christian village, killing nine Christians and four Muslims, and wounding 15 others.
In another incident, villagers were incited by Muslim preachers to riot against Christians.
In Indonesia, several Christian churches were burned in 1996.
In Iran, Muslims who convert to another faith may be subject to the death penalty; four Baha’is remain in prison under death sentences.
Jehovah’s Witness adherents seem to face discrimination and persecution almost everywhere. In Bulgaria, a Jehovah’s Witness mother was denied custody of her son solely because of her religious beliefs. In Eritrea, Jehovah’s Witnesses are losing their business licences and being denied passports, identification cards and government housing. In France they are identified as a “sect.” In Greece, Jehovah’s Witness students have been suspended for not participating in national day parades. In Israel a mob attacked a meeting hall, destroying the interior.
By A.M. Rosenthal: The Well Poisoners
They are outsiders among us. They use their foreign religion to poison our wells, and destroy our belief in ourselves and the God we must follow.
Throughout the persecution of Jews, that has been the accusation and justification: an evil religion of the evil outsider.
In their terror and helplessness, sometimes victims pleaded that the charge of foreignness was not true —look at us, we are like you —almost as if being different made their persecution at least explicable to the human mind.
Now foreignness is the weapon used by persecutors of Christians in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Islamicist inquisitors use the weapon in the name of heavenly righteousness, the Chinese political police in the name of their frightened, last-ditch nationalism.
Both types of persecutors of Christians benefit from a peculiar protection —the attitude of many Western Christians that Christianity is indeed foreign to Asia and Africa, a valuable export certainly, but not really, well, indigenous, to the soil.
So they see faraway Christianity as separate from themselves. This profits persecutors, by preventing the persecuted from getting the succor they need, and due them.
The aloofness of Christians to their distant persecuted is a denial of the reality that Christianity was not only born in the Mideast but spread wide and deep in Asia and Africa long before Islam or Western Christian missionaries arrived.
By now, according to David B. Barret’s Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission, 1996, there are 300 million church-affiliated Christians in Asia, the same number in Africa —and 200 million in all of North America.
Americans are waking up to the persecution of Christians in Communist China. Their own Government, however, gives it zero priority compared with Washington’s lust for the bizarre privilege of trade with China granted by Beij ing: to buy eight times more from China than China does from America.
But how many Americans know or care about the increasing persecution of Mideast Christians, like the 10 million Copts of Egypt —the largest Christian community in the region? Copts are vilified as outsiders, though they have lived in Egypt since the seventh century.
In February and March, 25 Copts were shot to death in Islamicist attacks on a church and a school. The attacks were part of the worst outbreak of Christian-killing in 25 years. And Islamic fundamentalists have been allowed to carry out year-round harassment of Copts, including destruction of churches that Copts then are not allowed to rebuild.
In early April Mustapha Mashour, “general guide” of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, a fountain of Mideast terrorism for 50 years, announced a new goal: to bar Copts from the army, police and senior government positions on the grounds that they were a fifth column. He also demanded that a “protection tax” be imposed on Christians, as in the time of the Prophet.
Elsewhere in the Mideast, persecution includes the Sudan’s trade in Christian slaves. But the Egyptian Government boasts of fighting extremists and has received praise and billions from America.
In the U.S., a coalition of 60 human rights and ethnic organizations watches out for persecution of minorities under “Islamization.” The coalition’s definition is a political and cultural process to establish Islamic law, the Sharia, as the ruling principle of all society, to which all must conform.
This is what the Very Rev. Keith Roderick, an Episcopal priest, who is secretary general of the coalition, reports about Egypt:
“The government has created an atmosphere of bigotry and hatred toward the Coptic minority, allowing the Copts to become human safety valves for Islamic militants. . . . A significant reduction in [U.S. foreign aid] for Egypt would send a strong signal that the U.S. has adopted a serious priority objective in its foreign policy to eliminate Christian= persecution.”
Ignorance of the history or huge number of Christian worshipers in faraway countries tends to make American Christians, and Jews too, passive about the persecution of Christians. As long as passivity lasts, so long will persecution continue. It has always been so.
CHRISTIANS are up in arms about a proposed Israeli law that they fear could be interpreted as making possession of the New Testament a criminal offence punishable by a year in jail.
The proposed legislation takes the form of a far-reaching extension of statutes against missionary activity. The proposal has recently passed its first Knesset reading and is now before the Law Committee of the 120-seat parliament.
Clarence Wagner, a prominent Jerusalem-based Christian and member of the religious group Bridges for Peace, said: “There has been a preliminary reading on a law which makes it illegal to have literature which can be considered missionary. Just having a New Testament in my home can be construed in certain quarters as being missionary. I see these kind of laws as a great threat to the Jewish State and to democracy.”
An English translation of the draconian proposed law states: “Whoever possesses contrary to the law, or prints or copies or distributes or shares or imports tracts, or advertises things in which there is an inducement for religious conversion is liable for one-year imprisonment.” The amendment adds: “Any tract or advertisement in which there is inducement to religious conversion will be confiscated.”
The new law is much tougher than the existing anti-missionary legislation which is opposed to “any missionary seduction to convert religion”, especially that involving minors and offering financial inducements to Jewish adults to convert.
Jan Willem Van der Hoewen, the spokesman for the pro-Israel International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, told The Jerusalem Report: “Churches around the world have fasted and prayed against this law.” He expressed concern that it could diminish broad support for Israel among evangelical Christians.
Christians are hoping to whip up parliamentary opposition against the further readings necessary to transform the Bill into law. Christian leaders are well aware, however, that religious Jews won large numbers of votes in last year’s election and, with 23 seats in the Knesset, could make or break any feasible coalition led by a secular party.
The Bill’s sponsors, Moshe Gafni, of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, and Nissim Zvili, of the main opposition Labour Party, claim that they are responding to a Christian missionary campaign last year, when hundreds of thousands of Jews received proselytising material in the post.
Mr Zvili, a close ally of Shimon Peres, the defeated Labour leader, denied that his sponsorship of the Bill had anything to do with Labour attempts to woo religious parties away from the ruling right-wing coalition. He claimed that the proposed Bill was aimed at enabling Israel to act against “an organised campaign by missionary movements, funded by international organisations, to bring about mass conversion of Jews”.
Mr Van der Hoewen was scathing about Mr Zvili’s role in promoting the attempted clampdown. “From a member of a party that believes in an open, pluralistic society, this is almost unforgivable,” Mr Van der Hoewen said.
Baruch Maoz, the head of the Grace and Truth Christian Congregation, a Tel Aviv-based Messianic Jewish group, claimed that the Bill “criminalises basic human rights. It limits the freedom of people to tell about their beliefs.” In an interview with The Jerusalem Report, Mr Zvili pledged that the version of the Bill which finally emerges from the Law Committee to complete its Knesset passage would be much “gentler” than that passed during the first reading.
He said: “No one will be barred from possessing the New Testament. If the law violates the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom, I will not support it.”
Mr Gafni sounded a different note: “The Jewish nation suffered enough through its history as a result of attempts to convert it,” he said. “What is freedom of speech compared with this?”
JERUSALEM (AP) — Deferring a likely showdown with U.S. Jews, the government on Sunday shelved a controversial bill that would have formalized the Orthodox monopoly on conversions to Judaism in Israel.
In exchange, Reform and Conservative leaders — whose groups represent most U.S. Jews but are small in Israel — agreed to postpone a court battle to gain more recognition here until a permanent compromise is worked out.
“In the spirit of openness, I hope that we will be able to see this through, so that Jews everywhere will feel they are recognized as Jews and not as second-class citizens,” Conservative Rabbi Howard Markose said.
In a letter to Reform and Conservative leaders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the deal as “an important step in which Israel and Diaspora Jewry will work hand-in-hand to preserve Jewish unity through mutual respect.”
The so-called “conversion bill” would have formalized the existing Orthodox monopoly over conversions to Judaism in Israel, but conversions performed by rabbis outside Israel would have continued to be recognized.
The bill was pushed by Orthodox parties, which comprise a third of Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Orthodox groups also have sole authority over marriage, divorce and burial for Jews in Israel.
The bill recently passed the first of three required readings in parliament — enraging Israel’s small Reform and Conservative movements, who saw it as an attempt to delegitimize their beliefs.
It also infuriated Jews in the United States, most of whom are not Orthodox, and threatened to cut fund-raising among U.S. Jews. Some Jewish leaders even warned it might harm the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.
Last week, Orthodox and non-Orthodox leaders agreed in principle to try to work together to resolve the dispute — and in the meantime shelve both the legislation and the court battle.
The agreement was formally signed Sunday by coalition chairman Michael Eitan and leaders of the Reform and Conservative communities from Israel and the United States.
The Reform and Conservative rabbis agreed to withdraw or delay several petitions pending before the Supreme Court. The petitioners, who were converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel, want the court to force the government to register them as Jews.
A committee of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox leaders will now be established to try to reach an agreement on conversions before Israel’s parliament reconvenes in November.
Orthodox legislator Avraham Ravitz said his United Torah Judaism party would still pursue the conversion bill but agreed to the delay.
BEIJING (AP) — Chinese authorities confirmed Monday that they have detained the leader of an independent Christian evangelical church but rejected accusations that it was religious persecution.
Peter Xu Yongze, head of the New Birth church, was arrested in March for violating rules governing social organizations, said Han Wenzao, president of the state-run Christian Council of China.
“The detaining of Xu is definitely not persecution of Christians by the Chinese government, but a normal handling of a criminal prosecution,” the official Xinhua news agency quoted Han as saying.
Han’s statement, reported by the official Xinhua news agency, was Beijing’s first official comment on the case. The Xinhua account did not elaborate on the reasons for Xu’s arrest or indicate where he was jailed.
The Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but Beijing does not recognize religious groups that are not government-affiliated. Independent religious leaders have been sentenced to jail and work camps.
Followers of Xu’s church, which is based in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou, number in the millions, according to Hong Kong news reports.
While dismissing any religious motives behind the arrest, Han insisted that Xu was doctrinally deficient.
“Xu’s doings entirely ran counter to the teachings of the Bible and the true canons of Christ. Xu is not a Christian at all,” he said.
Xu’s preaching about the imminent end of world led “people to do no normal work but cry collectively every day,” Han added.
Independent Christian churches, some of which proclaim unorthodox beliefs rejected by mainstream sects, have flourished in China over the past two decades despite repeated crackdowns.
Han noted that the U.S. and Japanese governments had taken action against religious groups on legal grounds in the cases of the Branch Davidian sect and the Aum Shinrikyo cult.
Rights restricted for Protestant sects
The Russian Duma has given final approval to a controversial bill to restrict the rights of “non-traditional” religions, including Baptists and other Protestant sects.
The Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, approved the religious limits by an overwhelming 300-8 vote yesterday. The bill is expected to gain speedy approval from parliament’s upper house, leaving it to President Boris Yeltsin to accept or veto.
The bill was promoted heavily by the Russian Communists, who have abandoned the atheism that marked their ideology in the Soviet era. Most of the Communists now are hard-line nationalists and close allies of the Russian Orthodox Church, the chief beneficiary of the religious restrictions.
If the bill becomes law, religions will be unable to gain full legal status in Russia unless they have been registered for more than 15 years. This would impose severe limits on the Protestant sects that have proliferated in Russia since the political reforms of the 1980s.
It also would give priority to religions such as the Orthodox church, which chose to co-operate with the Soviet regime. Other churches, which refused to register themselves under the Soviet rules, would be given an inferior legal status.
Foreign missionaries and religious organizations would be barred from Russia unless they were affiliated with a registered Russian organization.
The bill, which would replace a liberal 1990 law on freedom of conscience, would create a system of state “experts” to review religions and decide whether they should be legally registered. Only four religious groups would be considered traditional Russian religions: Russian Orthodox, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.
Without full legal status, the “non-traditional” religions could be reduced to holding prayer meetings in private apartments. They would have no guaranteed right to lease buildings, own land, establish schools, maintain bank accounts or publish religious literature. They would be vulnerable to harassment from police and local authorities.
“This would be the greatest legislative setback for human rights in Russia since the Soviet era,” said Lawrence Uzzell, Moscow representative for the Keston Institute, which studies religious life in Russia and Eastern Europe.
It is difficult to predict whether Mr. Yeltsin will veto the bill, Mr. Uzzell said in an interview. “There’s a danger that it could get through. There’s a struggle going on, behind the scenes, in the presidential administration. There are some people on the presidential staff who want him to sign this bill.”
Many senior officials are supporting the religious restrictions as a way of “reaffirming Russia’s national identity,” Mr. Uzzell said. “The mood in Russia today is less pro-Western. The Orthodox Church has become a shorthand for the patriotic beliefs that tug at Russian heart-strings.”
Russian human-rights activists said the legislation could force some Protestant sects to go underground. They described the bill as a blatant violation of Russia’s constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.
“This is interference by the state into the affairs of religious organizations,” said Vladimir Ryakhovsky, a Pentecostal Christian who is president of Christian Legal Centre in Moscow.
Father Gleb Yakunin, an Orthodox priest and former dissident who was jailed for five years by the Soviet authorities, said the bill is openly discriminatory. “It is effectively aimed at resurrecting Soviet religious policy,” he told a Russian news agency.
Orthodox leaders, however, have lobbied hard for the religious restrictions. They have accused the Protestant sects of sending foreign missionaries to Russia to exploit its economic and spiritual crises, at a time when the Orthodox church is too weak to defend itself.
Patriarch Alexy II, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, has repeatedly demanded a halt to “proselytizing” by Protestant and Catholic groups in Russia. He recently cancelled a long-delayed meeting with the Pope because the Vatican refused to promise that the Catholics would restrict their activities in Russia. The Patriarch, who has close political connections to the Kremlin and the Communists, has consistently refused to allow the Pope to visit Russia.
Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a spokesman for the Orthodox church, said the church would suffer a “violation of its rights” if a smaller sect was given equal status to it.
Under the current laws, he complained, it is easy for any organization to register itself as a religion, then engage in “destructive activities” such as “arms selling or drug trading.”
Mr. Uzzell said the Orthodox church’s fear of foreign missionaries is groundless. The Protestant groups and other sects are “past their peak,” he said. “There was a boom in spirituality of all kinds in the early 1990s, but that has faded now.”
He said the religious limits in the new bill were drafted in secret and approved by a Duma committee without any serious opportunity for debate.
RUSSIA’S parliament yesterday passed a Bill intended to restrict religious organisations, which have flourished in the relative freedom of the post-Soviet era.
Amid accusations that Russia was taking a step back to the days of state control over religion, the Duma, the lower chamber, approved the new legislation by a majority of 300 to eight.
The Bill sets out to limit the activities of religious groups, which can be recognised as legal religious organisations only after 15 years. Foreign groups will be allowed to operate only if they are accredited with a Russian organisation.
The move drew instant condemnation from human rights groups and liberal politicians, who gave a warning that the state was again tightening its grip over freedom of worship.
The Rev Gleb Yakunin, an Orthodox priest and liberal deputy, said that the Bill was “openly discriminatory” and contradicted the “principle of freedom of religious choice under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. He added: “The Bill is effectively aimed at reinstating Soviet religious policy.”
However, he appears to be in the minority in Russia. Only last week Patriarch Aleksi II, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, complained that the country’s traditional faith was being undermined by foreign “proselytism”.
Muslim and Jewish leaders have also supported the Bill, expected to pass easily through the Federation Council, the upper chamber, and become law unless President Yeltsin decides to use his veto.
The new restrictions on religious organisations are intended to tighten up the liberal religious legislation passed in 1990, which is seen to have failed for two main reasons. First, the Russian Orthodox Church has felt threatened by the aggressive preaching of foreign missionaries, particularly American evangelical groups, who have succeeded in wooing the Russian flock from their traditional church.
There is also genuine concern that exploitative and sometimes dangerous cults are flourishing: details are only now emerging of how the Aum Shinrikyo sect, which launched a poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway, succeeded in establishing a powerful network in Russia, where top officials were bribed, chemical weapons purchased and gullible followers recruited.
‘We are a Jewish state,’ official says
JERUSALEM (CNN) —The dwindling number of Christians in the Holy Land are facing yet another threat. Militant Jews and Israelis are trying to force members of the religion from seeking converts in the country.
Most alarming to Christians is a newly proposed law that would let authorities jail anyone who shares Christian literature.
“It could even include the New Testament because, after all, that is certainly a document Jesus would say, ‘go out into the world and make disciples,’” Pastor Ray Lockhart of Christ’s Church in Jerusalem says.
The proposed legislation is aimed at those who possess, print, reproduce, distribute, import, track or publicize information meant as an inducement to religious conversion.
“We are a Jewish state,” explains Israeli Knesset member and bill co-sponsor Niffim Zilli. “We want to remain a Jewish state.”
Much of the literature in a small Christian bookstore in Jerusalem would be outlawed by the legislation in its present form. Orthodox Jews already visit the store to harass customers, and there are fears that if the proposed anti-missionary law passes, militants might try to close the shop.
“I see this as being quite contrary to human rights, particularly to the right of religious freedom and choice of religion,” Lockhart says.
Zilli’s reply: “Stop your missionary activity in Israel. Stop it!”
Christian Evangelical missions give free food to poor Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, and indigents line up to accept it.
“Some of Israel’s best friends around the world come from the Bible-believing Christian communities. And if it is seen as though Israel or the government is opposing the people who have been the best friends of Israel, then perhaps support for it could run cold,” Clarence Wagner of Bridges for Peace said.
The legislation has cleared its first parliamentary hurdle. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly opposes it, but some believe it could pass over his objections, especially if Orthodox Jews decide to engage in muscle-flexing.
Rabbi David Rosen of the Anti-Defamation League opposes the bill, but admits that democracy does not have deep roots in Israel.
“We are dealing with a society that is very fragile in terms of its own self-confidence and its ability to function within the modern democratic world, and therefore you have to take that into consideration,” Rosen says.
What is being waged is a cultural clash that opens centuries of old wounds between Jews and Christians. It is a struggle for souls, and the Christians do not have the upper hand.
Worshipping and other religious activities will not be curbed unless they violate laws, Tung Chee-hwa told Lutherans yesterday.
Speaking at the opening of the Ninth Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, the Chief Executive said the SAR would continue to preserve religious freedoms and property rights.
He said the Basic Law clearly guaranteed freedom of religious belief. The Government would not “interfere in the internal affairs of religious organisations or restrict religious activities which do not contravene the laws of Hong Kong,” he told the 900-strong conference.
The Lutherans reacted positively to Mr Tung’s words, although rights groups continue to express fears over the fate of religious freedoms following reports of persecution in China.
However, Mr Tung gave assurances that religious organisations could continue to run seminaries, other schools, hospitals and welfare institutions, and provide other social services.
Organisations and individuals with religious beliefs could maintain relationships with other religious groups and believers elsewhere, he said.
The assembly sparked a political row in February last year when Xinhua (the New China News Agency) said the decision to hold the conference should be taken to the Joint Liaison Group.
Beijing had expressed concern over the presence of a Taiwanese delegation.
A spokesman for Mr Tung said the decision for him to attend was made in the “normal course of setting Mr Tung’s schedule” despite fears by the Lutherans that he would not accept their invitation.
Minority religions fear they will be squeezed out if Buddhism is officially declared the national religion in the new constitution.
Some 5,000 monks held a rally on Monday claiming they had three million signatures in favour of the move.
But Uthai Pimchaichon, in charge of drawing up the constitution, says declaring a national religion may trigger further unrest in the country’s turbulent south.
It has been plagued with separatist attacks by religious groups who believe that Thailand’s five southern provinces should be declared Muslim states.
Mr Uthai’s stance comes despite more than 90 per cent of the country’s population claiming to adopt the Buddhist faith. He insisted the move would “seriously affect national security”.
Late last year and early this year, a train was bombed, teachers and police shot and schools torched in the region.
No students were injured, but separatists claimed the schools should be teaching the Muslim faith only.
Thai army chiefs fighting the rebel army say they have been able to control the problem, but police say they fear further attacks are likely.
“This is the biggest problem of our region -bigger than drugs or other related crime,” said a southern police chief.
“I have lost some of my staff to this cause and I would hate to see it get even further out of hand.”
The country is also home to a number of Christians, but Buddhists argue their religion has unofficially been the national one for 1,000 years.
“If it was to be declared the national faith, it would allow us to promote Buddhism seriously,” said Senator Somporn Thepsitta.
MOSCOW (AP) — Working a few short paces from an old Russian Orthodox Church, its golden crosses glittering in the sun, well-scrubbed American teen-agers pass out invitations to a Sunday morning meeting of the Mormon church in Moscow.
Fresh from Utah, the young Americans in white shirts and dark ties are among 500 Mormon missionaries who have helped build a following of 7,000 people across the nation since the church became active in Russia six years ago.
“For religious groups, things have improved dramatically in the past few years,” said Donald Jarvis, head of the Mormon mission in Russia and a periodic visitor for more than 30 years. “It’s been quite gratifying to see what we have accomplished.”
But the post-Soviet freedom that has allowed the Mormons and other religious groups to flourish may be threatened by pending legislation designed to curb the influx of religious organizations that proselytize in Russia.
Their growing popularity has alarmed the conservative Russian Orthodox Church and communists — who sparred throughout the Soviet era — and has driven them into an unlikely partnership.
With the church’s backing, the communist-led Parliament last month overwhelmingly approved legislation that would give the state the power to revoke the legal status of most religious groups and monitor their services.
President Boris Yeltsin’s government has shown no intention of banning mainstream religious groups. But under the proposed law, which now is before the president, religious groups would have to work in Russia for 15 years before they could register, own property, set up bank accounts or perform other basic tasks.
Churches fear they would be vulnerable to corrupt authorities who wanted to harass them, demand bribes or otherwise make life difficult.
Human rights groups, religious organizations and U.S. congressmen have written to Yeltsin condemning the legislation as a violation of the 1993 Russian constitution, which says all religions should be treated equally.
At a time when Russia seeks to integrate with the West on many levels, some critics say the measure is a step backward — to the Soviet Union’s atheist policies, when religious activities were persecuted and many believers held their services secretly.
“This law has a discriminatory character and takes us back to the time of Brezhnev and Khrushchev, when we were harassed by the authorities,” said Vladimir Murza, who leads the Evangelical churches in the country.
Murza is a minister who was jailed from 1960-63 for his religious activities, as was his father, who spent 10 years in prison.
Yeltsin has a record of defending religious freedoms, but hasn’t said whether he will veto this law. Even if he rejects the measure, Parliament has more than enough votes to override a veto.
The Orthodox Church, by far the largest and most influential religious organization in Russia, says the bill is needed to safeguard against cults.
Alexy II, the head of the church, has specifically cited the Japanese group Aum Shinri Kyo, which had a sizable presence in Russia, and the Heaven’s Gate cult in the United States, which did not.
But critics say the church’s real target is foreign-based Christian denominations, which are viewed as well-funded and capable of drawing Russians away from the Orthodox Church.
The bill says the Orthodox Church is an “inalienable part” of Russian history, and it also pledges “respect” for Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other “traditional” religions.
But it makes no mention of other Christian groups, which would be subject to the strict limits, including the 15-year wait to register.
Since most religious groups were not allowed to register during the Soviet era, they are only a few years old, legally speaking, and could lose their accreditation.
“We don’t understand the logic of the bill,” said Murza. “Missionary work is as old as the times of Jesus. It was missionaries who brought Christianity to Russia in the first place.”
Evangelicals have had a presence in Russia for about a century, but were not permitted to legally register until 1990. Since then, they’ve gone from 50 congregations nationwide to 800. They now own dozens of churches, which could theoretically be confiscated under the proposed law.
“Formally, the state could disband us because we don’t meet the 15-year requirement,” Murza said. But he said the church was sure to survive. “Our organization is based on the gospel — it’s 2,000 years old.”
BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — Resisting pressure from the Buddhist clergy, an assembly drafting a new constitution for Thailand has voted against designating Buddhism as the national religion.
Members of the panel voted 66-7 against declaring a state religion for Thailand, despite Buddhist monks’ threats to refuse religious rites for those who spurned their demands during Sunday’s vote.
The assembly cited fears that officially elevating Buddhism above other religions could incite sectarian passions in the south, where most of Thailand’s 4 percent of Muslims live.
Those who advocated designating Buddhism the state religion argued it would allow Buddhist monks to collect state subsidies and other support.
One assembly member, Prasong Soonsiri, dismissed that argument and said monks should stay out of politics.
“Buddhism’s survival will not depend on adding some words to the constitution,” Prasong was quoted as saying Monday in The Nation newspaper.
Thailand’s 60 million people are overwhelmingly Buddhist, and monks are treated with deep reverence by most Thais. But the clergy’s status has declined in recent years following a series of scandals. In one case, a monk is accused of murdering a tourist; in another, a monk repeatedly broke his vows of celibacy by engaging in sex with his followers.
The assembly is drafting a new constitution to replace one written by the country’s last military government in 1991-92. It will be submitted to Parliament for approval in August.
Muslim separatists have been blamed for terrorist bombings in southern Thailand, though the movement is not considered a threat to the region’s stability.
Still, Muslim leaders warned that any article enshrining Buddhism could be used as ammunition by the separatists to escalate their campaign.
ASSIUT, Egypt (AP) — Police have arrested a Muslim militant leader wanted since 1992 in connection with the killings of 12 Christian farmers in southern Egypt, security officials said today.
Mohammed Mahmoud Zahran, a regional leader of the outlawed al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, or the Islamic Group, was detained Monday in the southern town of Dairut, 35 miles northeast of Assiut, the officials said.
Zahran was being interrogated by state security, they said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
Muslim extremists gunned down the villagers near Assiut, 200 miles south of Cairo, after a rumor spread that a Christian was pressuring a Muslim to sell his land. A Muslim also died in the shooting.
CAIRO, Egypt (AP) — Years of neglect, earthquake damage and water seepage have taken their toll on one of Cairo’s most popular tourist sites — and so have bungled renovation jobs.
But the government on Tuesday launched a new, multimillion-dollar reconstruction of the “Hanging Church,” promising to be more careful this time around in fixing walls, draining water and restoring artwork.
The church — a Coptic basilica that dates to the 4th or 5th century — is one of the oldest in the ancient quarter of Old Cairo and is visited by thousands of tourists each year.
But the structure has been weakened by seeping ground water and a 1992 earthquake, and the Coptic Christian community fears the church could collapse.
To keep the Hanging Church from becoming a falling one, government officials announced a $6.7 million renovation project Tuesday “to restore the entire area of Old Cairo to its previous glory,” said Ali Hassan, chairman of the Supreme Council for Antiquities.
Hassan made the remarks after a ceremony for the signing of the contract, which includes work on an annex of the Coptic Museum and the remains of an old Roman wall.
Earlier efforts to restore the church were fraught with problems caused by shoddy workmanship and poor planning.
In once instance, an engineer ordered the removal of a column that supported an interior chapel. Four hours later, the chapel collapsed, destroying all the works of arts inside.
Culture Minister Farouk Hosni said care will be taken in the latest restoration effort. He said that soil and water studies have been conducted as well as site assessments.
“If there are certain stages, such as restoring frescoes, that we feel we are not equipped to handle, we won’t hesitate to call in foreign experts,” Hosni said.
Orascom and the Arab Contractors — Egyptian firms that have been awarded the restoration contract — said they expected work to take about 20 months.
The Hanging Church, officially named the Church of the Virgin, gets its name because the floor was built across two southwestern towers of an old Roman fortress known as Babylon. Since then, the structure has been added to and the church no longer hangs over thin air.
Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 60 million people, long have complained that their churches and monuments are not given the attention afforded Islamic and pharaonic sites.
But Egypt is committed to preserving its multireligious heritage, Hassan said.
“This is not a pharaonic, Islamic or religious issue,” Hassan said. “It is about restoring monuments ... and we have to carry out our responsibility.”
After the project is completed, the government will look to other sites in Old Cairo, an area rich in religious sites.
“Old Cairo is the home of numerous archaeological and historic monuments,” Hassan said. “The next step is to clean up the garbage and fix up the other churches, mosques and synagogues in the area.”
WASHINGTON (CNN) —In the United States, where separation of church and state are sacrosanct, it’s odd to find Congress ordering the executive branch to study the persecution of Christians worldwide.
However, both arms of government agree the maltreatment of Christians in the world is woefully underreported.
“I read a study a while ago that made the argument, and it is a plausible argument, that there has been more persecution of Christians in the 20th century than in any of the preceding 19 centuries,” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.
Studies like these led to the State Department survey of suppression, harassment and other atrocities around the globe.
“The issue of persecution is a serious one affecting many religions,” Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck said. “The issue has not previously received much attention with respect to Christians, and the focal point of this report, at the request of Congress, is that subject.”
The Christian lobby, for one, believes the study was necessary.
“It has to be understood that the State Department, our government, needs to do a lot more to begin to seriously address what we think is the foremost human rights issue in the world today, namely the persecution of Christians,” said Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Burma, Iran, China criticized
Although the report touches on the kidnappings and deaths of Christian leaders in Burma and the imprisonment of several religious leaders in Iran, its findings are especially vigorous on China. Shattuck, however, cautioned that China was not targeted.
“I think this is not a report that focuses on China anymore than it focuses on any other one country,” Shattuck said. “But those who are seeking to exercise basic rights of freedom of religion in China (are being persecuted.)”
The report charges that Communists in China are in the tenth month of a crackdown to rid the country of religious groups not licensed by that party.
Just hours after the report was issued in Washington, Russian President Boris Yeltsin took a huge political gamble by rejecting proposed legislation that would have had a draconian effect on most Christian denominations aside from Russian Orthodoxy.
In the report¹s forward, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright states that “people who are free to profess their beliefs without fear and to live by them without impediment will do more to enrich their societies than people held back by prejudice.”
But despite its findings, there is a sense the State Department did not feel comfortable doing this report without it being included in a larger picture of human rights abuses worldwide. And sources tell CNN the department would be more comfortable not focusing on one religious group ever again.
THE Unites States, in its most detailed global report on the persecution of Christian groups, has sharply criticised China for suppressing freedom of prayer and cracking down on unauthorised religious activity.
The report, covering 78 countries, accuses Beijing of violating constitutional promises of religious freedom and of detaining and interrogating Catholic and Protestant leaders not authorised by Beijing.
The report was prepared after requests from Congress which wants a United States policy designed to reduce growing religious persecution.
America continues to be critical of Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Israel, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been harassed and attacked.
Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State, has instructed American embassies to give more attention to questions of religious freedom and to stay closely in touch with leading religious figures.
MOSCOW (AP) — President Boris Yeltsin rejected a bill Tuesday that would have placed tight restrictions on many religious groups in Russia, including evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics.
The bill had drawn strong opposition from the Vatican and the U.S. Senate, which threatened to cut off aid to Russia if it became law.
Yeltsin’s action sends the bill back to parliament, which can overhaul it or let it lapse.
“This was a very difficult decision,” Yeltsin said in a written statement, noting that the measure was supported by a large majority of Russian lawmakers and the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.
“But many provisions of the law infringe on constitutional rights and freedoms of individuals and citizens, establish inequality between different confessions, and violate Russia’s international obligations,” Yeltsin said.
The law would have officially recognized the central role of the Orthodox Church in Russian history and culture, and pledged “respect” to Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other “traditional” religions.
But it would have imposed rigid curbs on other religions and cults, forcing them to register with the government and barring them from owning property or conducting public worship for 15 years after registration.
“Thank God,” said Maria Varzaruk, a spokeswoman for the Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith in Russia. “Now we can freely serve God.”
In his statement, Yeltsin acknowledged the controversy over the bill, and asked parliament members to support his decision.
“We can’t have a democratic society if we violate the constitution and fail to defend the interests of any minority of our citizens,” Yeltsin said.
Russia’s 1993 constitution guarantees freedom of worship.
The bill had strong support from the Russian Orthodox Church, which resents an influx into Russia of what it considers “foreign” religions. Those include evangelical Christians, Mormons and Roman Catholics as well as less mainstream groups such as Japan’s Aum Shinri Kyo cult.
MOSCOW (CNN) —Calling his action “a very difficult decision,” President Boris Yeltsin rejected a bill Tuesday that would have restricted many religious groups in Russia, which have gained huge numbers of converts since the fall of Communism.
Among the denominations that would have been affected by the bill were evangelical Christians, Mormons and Roman Catholics. It was criticized by the Vatican and U.S. Senate, which threatened to cut off aid to Russia if it became law.
But the bill was enormously popular with the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, which resents an influx into Russia of what it considers “foreign” religions, and in the Russian parliament, where both houses approved it by overwhelming margins.
Yeltsin’s action sends the bill back to parliament, which can overhaul it or let it lapse. The president said he would be willing to consider an amended proposal.
Backers sought protection from cults
The measure’s supporters said Russia needs to protect itself from pseudo-religions and cults, such as Aum Shinri Kyo, some of whose members waged deadly sarin gas attacks in Tokyo subways.
But in rejecting the measure, Yeltsin said, “Many provisions of the law infringe on constitutional rights and freedoms of individuals and citizens, establish inequality between different confessions and violate Russia’s international obligations.”
Most important, he said, the law could become the basis for religious feuds inside Russia, whose 1993 constitution guarantees freedom of worship.
“There can be no democratic society,” Yeltsin said, “where the interests of any minorities among our citizens are not protected.”
The law officially would have recognized the central role of the Orthodox Church in Russian history and culture and pledged “respect” to Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other “traditional” religious.
Religions would face ‘probationary period’
Other religions would face a “probationary period” to prove they had officially existed in Russia for 15 years —or wait another 15 years before they could be registered. Until then, religious groups could not worship publicly, print literature, open schools or own property.
“It would make it nearly impossible for any group except those groups which were acceptable to the Communist government before Glasnost,” Mormon Mission director Don Jarvis said. “Those would be the only groups that can work here.”
PRESIDENT YELTSIN yesterday rejected a Bill opposed by the United States and the Pope that would have imposed tough new curbs on religious freedom.
The Bill “on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association” was passed by both houses of parliament this month after receiving strong support from the Russian Orthodox Church and nationalist politicians. But it had been criticised by human rights groups who said it violated the rights to freedom of conscience enshrined in the constitution. Had Mr Yeltsin approved the Bill, Russia risked losing millions of dollars in foreign aid.
Groups such as the Mormons, Baptists and Pentecostalists in particular were likely to find themselves ensnared in legal problems if the Bill had been approved. They would be banned from owning property, publishing literature or even worshipping in public.
The Bill sought to give full legal status to Russia’s traditional religious faiths, defined as the Orthodox Church, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. Apart from these, it said that only faiths and denominations that have been registered in Russia for 15 years would be recognised. Others would have had to wait another 15 years before being allowed to apply.
The stated aim of the Bill was to clamp down on the activities of extremist sects such as the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo which was linked with the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995 and other organisations such as the White Brotherhood group, which has been accused of preying on young people.
Hundreds of these sects have mushroomed all over the country during the past six years, feeding off the desperation of an impoverished and directionless population. Orthodox Church figures involved in drafting the Bill have also seized the opportunity to thwart the activities of other Christian denominations, particularly evangelical churches from the United States.
The small Church of England community in Moscow and St Petersburg, consisting mainly of expatriates, was not expected to be affected by the law, although it could theoretically reopen a legal wrangle over the ownership of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Moscow.
The Pope said the Bill threatened the survival of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia. He had written to Mr Yeltsin to ask him not to sign it. The United States Senate said it would block $200 million (£119 million) of aid if the Bill was signed into law.
WASHINGTON (AP) A State Department report noted allegations of discrimination against Scientologists in Germany but emphasized that the German government respects religious freedoms.
“Scientologists, including American citizens, have reported discrimination and harassment in Germany,” said the department’s first report on the state of religious freedom around the world.
In recent months, a number of German states and organizations have banned Scientologists from participating in political parties. In the southern German state of Bavaria, members are required to state their affiliation up front when applying for public jobs.
Authorities in Germany say the Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology is not a religion but a commercial operation.
In June 1997, authorities placed the church “under observation” for a year, a decision Scientologists said they would appeal, the report noted.
The report said the German constitution “provides for religious freedom, and the government broadly respects this right in practice.”
BEIJING — Beijing Thursday accused the United States of ignorance about religion in China and dismissed a U.S. State Department report critical of freedom of worship in the communist state.
“The Chinese constitution stipulates that citizens of the People’s Republic of China have freedom of religious belief,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Tang Guoqiang told a news briefing.
In a report on freedom of religion around the world, the U.S. State Department Tuesday accused China of violating constitutional pledges on religious freedom by clamping all religious activity under government control.
“Western countries, including the United States, lack necessary understanding of the situation of religion in China,” Tang said when asked for China’s response to the report.
The number of religious believers in China had reached 100 million, he said.
The State Department report said that following a central policy directive, Chinese authorities in some areas sought to crack down on unregistered Catholic and Protestant movements in 1996 and 1997.
However, Tang dismissed the criticisms as a pretext to meddle.
“Some people also use religion as an excuse to make irresponsible comments about China’s internal affairs,” he said.
Religion has seen a revival in China in recent years as Beijing has relaxed controls over worship, once suppressed as subversive.
But Beijing still keeps a close eye on religious activities and insists that believers practise their faith through officially controlled or sponsored religious organizations.
Official estimates place the number of Protestants in China at about 10 million, while another 20 million are believed to practise their faith in secret through underground churches.
China also has several million Catholic believers and many more who pledge secret allegiance to Rome.
MOSCOW (AP) — A day after he was chastised by Russia’s Orthodox Church, President Boris Yeltsin defended his rejection of legislation that would restrict “nontraditional religions,” including evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholicism.
“A democratic state cannot encroach upon the interests of minorities for whatever seemingly noble motives,” Yeltsin said today in a nationwide radio address.
Calling the measure an unconstitutional threat to religious freedom, Yeltsin refused earlier this week to approve the legislation, which would have given special status to the Russian Orthodox Church. He sent it back to Parliament for redrafting.
A church spokesman, Metropolitan Kirill, in turn warned Yeltsin that his rejection of the measure threatened the fabric of Russian society.
In his radio address today, the Russian president reiterated his objections to the bill, saying it violates human rights standards and Russia’s international obligations.
“It was a difficult decision. The law was supported by the majority of State Duma deputies, the Russian Orthodox Church and others,” Yeltsin said.
Trying to assuage his critics, Yeltsin praised the overall thrust of the bill, saying he could understand the church’s concerns and the need to protect “the moral and spiritual health of the Russians” from “radical sects.”
Controversy over the Russian Orthodox-sponsored bill threatens to open a rift between the president and Patriarch Alexy II, whose church is dominant in Russia and strongly backed Yeltsin’s re-election bid last summer.
Alexy, meeting today with Lithuanian Orthodox and Catholic church leaders in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, voiced regret about Yeltsin’s decision and said the bill “does not trample upon anybody’s rights,” the Interfax news agency reported.
“The bill would have brought to order all the fake missionaries and destructive orders which, unfortunately, have flooded Russia and its closest neighbors,” said the patriarch, apparently referring to the Protestant evangelical groups that have proliferated in Russia in recent years.
While the Orthodox church and most Russian legislators back the bill, it has drawn strong opposition from Pope John Paul II and the United States, which has threatened to cut aid to Russia if it becomes law.
Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other “traditional” religions would be pledged “respect” under the proposed law. All other religious groups would be required to register with the government to own property or conduct public worship, and could not do so until they had been in the country for 15 years.
Orthodox leaders argued that the Roman Catholic Church would face no restrictions, because it could prove it has been present in Russia for 15 years. But that did not mollify Catholic leaders, who had expressed alarm at the bill and relief at Yeltsin’s decision to reject it.
Alexy is head of the world’s largest Orthodox church, with an estimated 80 million followers. There are 15 patriarchs in the Orthodox faith.
The Christian church split into Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches in 1054.
TOKYO (AP) — Local lore says Jesus Christ escaped the Romans 2,000 years ago, eventually settling in northern Japan until he died at age 106.
Two 13-foot crosses marked his reputed grave and that of his supposed brother for nearly four decades — until the small hours of Monday morning, when somebody cut them down with a saw.
Local officials are calling the vandalism a “malicious prank,” and police are pursuing it as a case of property damage.
“It’s a shame that at the height of the tourist season, something like this should happen,” said Ken Yokota, spokesman of the farming town of Shingo, 360 miles north of Tokyo.
On the other hand, he added, “I don’t think there are any Christians in our town.”
The local tradition about Jesus springs from an ancient scroll said to have been found in a temple in the 1930s. Believers say Jesus wrote it after he arrived in Japan following a life of adventure. The text recounts how Christ avoided crucifixion and ended up on Japanese shores. According to the legend, he married a women named Miyuko and had three daughters.
Some 100,000 tourists visit the graves each year, Yokota said, leaving change or fruit because the ground is believed to have magical healing powers.
Village authorities have turned the grave site into a park with an enormous billboard that says “Shingo: Hometown of Christ.”
Until recently, Shingo residents painted crosses on the foreheads of newborn babies in the hope that it would bring good luck from Christ.
Japan is notoriously ambivalent about religion. Rites to appease the spirits of dead relatives are everyday affairs, but most Japanese don’t find it necessary to adhere to one religion in particular. Many families hold Shinto marriages and Buddhist funerals.
CASTELGANDOLFO, Italy, Sept 18 (Reuter) -Pope John Paul on Thursday defended the rights of Christians in Moslem Sudan, saying the civil war there had brought untold misery to many.
“The Lord hears the voice of the innocent victims, of the weak and the defenceless who cry out to him for help, for justice, for respect of their God-given dignity as human beings, for their basic human rights, for the freedom to believe and practice their religion without fear or discrimination,” he said.
The Pope, who travelled to Sudan in 1993, was addressing Sudanese bishops visiting him at the Papal summer residence south of Rome.
“Sadly, Sudan still finds itself in the midst of great turmoil,” the 77-year-old Roman Catholic leader said.
“The torment of a civil war which has brought untold misery, suffering and death, especially in the south, continues to afflict the land and to drain the life and energies of your people,” he added in his address.
Human rights groups say the Islamist government of Lieutenant-General Omar Hassan al-Bashir persecutes Christians. The state denies the charges.
For the past 14 years, the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) has been fighting the government for autonomy of the mainly Christian and animist south from the Arabised north.
Most of the fighting has concentrated in the south. More than two million mainly Christian Sudanese have been displaced by the fighting to the north.
The Pope said Sudanese communities were “deeply affected by a breakdown in the good relations which should exist between Christians and Moslems.”
Catholics make up less than eight percent of the population of more than 25 million of Sudan, Africa’s largest country.
In his address to the Pope, Bishop Gabriel Zubeir Wako of Khartoum said the situation for Catholics in Sudan had improved somewhat since the Pope’s visit.
“Although not all that the government of Sudan promised you has been fulfilled, we feel there is some change for the better.
“We still face many hardships but your words of hope and encouragement continue to sustain us even to this day,” Wako told the Pope.
Backs law limiting Orthodox rivals
MOSCOW —President Boris Yeltsin, bowing to intense pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church, is on the verge of giving final approval to a controversial new law that will restrict the church’s foreign rivals.
Mr. Yeltsin, who may sign the law as early as today, has performed a remarkable reversal on a bill that he originally opposed. His veto of the first version of the bill in July triggered an avalanche of protest from Orthodox leaders, and Mr. Yeltsin quickly abandoned his position.
The new law is a clear signal of the growing political power of the Orthodox Church and its shrewd leader, Patriarch Alexy II. Only a decade ago, the Kremlin was officially atheist. Today, it has been forced to accept the church’s legislative demands, even at the price of strained relations with Western countries that have criticized the bill.
Under the new law, foreign churches and religious organizations will face legal restrictions if they cannot prove that they were officially recognized in Russia for the past 15 years. They will be prohibited from distributing religious literature, inviting foreigners to preach, proselytizing, creating schools or publishing newspapers.
The law is expected to limit the activities of Roman Catholics, Protestants and many other non-Orthodox churches in Russia. Most of these churches were denied any recognition during the Soviet period before 1991, so they cannot meet the 15-year rule.
Local officials in some regions have already begun restricting those churches. Officials in the Russian city of Belgorod, for example, have prevented a Catholic priest from holding mass. If the new bill is approved, the discrimination by local authorities will worsen, analysts say.
“They could see it as open season on foreign religions,” said Lawrence Uzzell, Moscow representative of the Keston Institute, an independent research centre on religious life in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
He describes the bill as “the most aggressive rollback of human rights since the birth of post-Soviet Russia.”
The bill has won overwhelming approval in both houses of the Russian parliament. The opposition Communists, who demolished church buildings and persecuted Orthodox leaders during the Soviet era, now are among the most vociferous supporters of the bill.
Parliament’s upper house, the Federation Council, approved the bill 137-0 on Wednesday. Council members said they were flooded with letters from Russians demanding laws to restrict the activities of “destructive cults.”
Patriarch Alexy has used similar rhetoric, portraying the bill as a defence against “sects and pseudo-missionaries” who threaten the Orthodox Church. In reality, the law could severely hamper the work of mainstream Protestant and Catholic groups.
Only two of the 150 Catholic parishes in Russia would qualify for full legal rights if the bill were approved, Mr. Uzzell said. Only the Moscow and St. Petersburg parishes were allowed to operate throughout the Soviet period. Every other parish may be legally shut down if the law is interpreted strictly, he said.
In July, when Mr. Yeltsin vetoed the first version of the bill, the Orthodox Church launched a stinging attack on him. For the first time in memory, Patriarch Alexy issued a sharp criticism, attacking Mr. Yeltsin’s decision. Within a few days, the Kremlin was scrambling to win back the Patriarch’s support.
Orthodox leaders have insisted that the law is necessary because of the large number of foreign missionaries and sects that have entered Russia in the post-Soviet period. The spread of missionaries is like a Western military invasion, Patriarch Alexy once said.
“Alexy has succeeded in convincing the Kremlin that he can command millions of votes,” Mr. Uzzell said.
“Politicians of all factions —including the Communists —like to associate themselves with the symbols of Orthodoxy. It’s like the flag. It’s seen as being above politics. You cannot be seen to be against Orthodoxy.”
Only a tiny percentage of Russians —perhaps 1 per cent —regularly attend services at Orthodox churches. But a much greater percentage, about 50 per cent of ethnic Russians, define themselves as Orthodox believers.
Kremlin strategists are fond of citing opinion polls showing that the Orthodox Church is the most respected institution in Russian society. At a time when Mr. Yeltsin has ordered his staff to search for a “national idea” to replace the old Communist ideology, a growing number of politicians believe that the Orthodox faith could be the cornerstone of a new patriotism.
“Orthodoxy, not as a religion but as a reservoir of slogans and symbols, could fill the void in Russian society,” Mr. Uzzell said. “It’s become the tribal religion of the Russian people.”
The new bill has sparked protests from the United States, the Vatican, most Protestant and Catholic leaders in Russia and a number of human-rights groups. Protestants and Catholics are planning to challenge the law in Russia’s Constitutional Court if Mr. Yeltsin gives it final approval.
The U.S. Congress has threatened to cut off $270-million in aid to Russia if the bill is approved. Vice-President Al Gore, who was in Moscow this week, tried to persuade Mr. Yeltsin to veto the bill but later acknowledged that his lobbying was futile.
After Mr. Yeltsin vetoed the earlier version of the bill in July, the Russian parliament drafted a new bill. But its supporters and critics have agreed that the differences between the old and new versions are merely cosmetic.
Kremlin lawyers have defended the new version, saying mainstream Catholics and Protestants could easily prove their existence in Russia for the past 15 years. Even a court sentence for anti-Soviet religious activity could qualify as evidence of their existence, one Kremlin lawyer said.
But human-rights activists are skeptical of this claim. The new law will be open to interpretation by local and regional officials, who tend to be hostile to foreign churches, they say.
Hard-line nationalists and Communists have praised the new bill, rejecting all protests from foreign churches. “Pack up your bags and go back where you came from,” ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky shouted at a group of religious protesters at Russia’s parliament last week.
MOSCOW (CNN) —Russian President Boris Yeltsin on Friday signed into law a highly controversial religion bill that enshrines the Russian Orthodox Church as the country’s preeminent religion and limits the activities of other religious groups.
Yeltsin vetoed the original bill in July in response to sharp criticism at home and abroad, including that from the Vatican and the U.S. Congress.
Russia’s Orthodox Church and hard-liners and nationalists in parliament fought hard for the revised bill, arguing that the country was flooded by dangerous alien religious groups following the fall of communism.
But opponents contend the bill violates Russia’s post-Soviet constitution and discriminates unfairly against minority religious groups, including Protestant and Roman Catholic groups that have become increasingly active in Russia since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
There was no immediate comment from Yeltsin on the signing, only a brief Kremlin statement that said the president had signed the bill into law.
The new version includes several changes but keeps the most controversial clauses largely intact. U.S. Vice President Al Gore, during a Moscow visit this week, said he believed the revised version discriminated against many religions.
The bill pledges respect for Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity in general, but many opponents fear that the Orthodox Church wants to prevent Catholic and Protestant groups from operating freely in Russia.
One clause in the bill says religious groups must be present in Russia for 15 years before they can publish or distribute religious literature, or invite missionaries to the former Communist nation.
Such groups would not be able to hold worship services in hospitals, senior citizens’ homes, schools, orphanages or prisons. They would not be able to form educational establishments, found newspapers or magazines and their clergy would not be exempt from military service.
Only a few religious groups were allowed to operate during the officially atheist Soviet era, and most do not meet the 15-year requirement.
Parliament’s upper chamber, the Federation Council, voted unanimously to approve the measure on Wednesday, and the lower house approved it overwhelmingly last week.
A commission of representatives from the presidency, parliament and Russia’s main religions drew up the revised version.
This Update on Christian Persecution provides examples of how Christians are facing discrimination, harassment, and persecution worldwide because they call on the name of Jesus Christ.
* Asia *
CHINESE HOUSE CHURCH LEADERS ARRESTED
On March 16, 1997, Xu Yongze, a Christian itinerant evangelist in North East China for the past 29 years, along with seven other top leaders, were arrested and imprisoned by Chinese Security forces. The eight were arrested after having met to discuss uniting their house churches. Pastor Xu’s church network is estimated to be over eight million in number. Their living places were searched for information, addresses, telephone numbers, fax numbers and photos of foreign Christian leaders. This could cause trouble for many Christians.
Latest reports indicate that Pastor Xu is on trial for “cult activities” but do not support any death sentence rumors. Although accused of leading a cult, Xu’s theology is mainstream Evangelical Protestantism.
This is Xu’s fourth arrest, he was last arrested in 1988 and released in 1991 after serving a three-year sentence of education through labor. Keep Chinese Christians in your prayers. Praise God for the exponential growth of Christianity in China which is one of the greatest stories in church history.
Many groups, including the National Association of Evangelicals (U.S.A.), are organizing letter writing campaigns to protest the actions of the Chinese government toward Pastor Xu and other Christians in China. For information contact NAE’s Office for Governmental Affairs at (+1-202)789-1011.
Letters should go to: Mr. Xiaowen Ye, Director Bureau of Religious Affairs State Council 22 Xianmen Dajie Beijing 1000 17 People’s Republic of China
RIOT IN INDONESIA
On May 23, six days before the national Indonesian elections, eight churches in Banjarmasin were ransacked. Before troops could restore order during the day-long riot, one church was burned and seven churches had their contents removed and burned by the mob. Many shops and three large banks were also looted. Although the immediate cause of the attack was not clear, violence began shortly after Muslim worshipers left their mosques. The majority of Indonesians are Muslim and some believe they should be able to change Indonesia to a Muslim state. Pray that Christians in Indonesia handle their tormentors with Christian love and that many will be brought to Jesus Christ.
BIBLE SOCIETY OF UZBEKISTAN TOLD TO SHUT DOWN
The government of Uzbekistan warned the Bible Society of Uzbekistan to stop distributing Bibles in the Uzbek language or face being closed down. Distributing Bibles, officials said, was “missionary activity” forbidden by law. The nation is traditionally Islamic. The Bible Society contested the ruling, declaring that Bible distribution was not proselytism of Muslims, but the distribution of Bibles made “available to all a book, the sacred character of which is many times referred to in the Holy Koran.” Since the appeal was denied, the Bible Society is planning an international campaign to contest the judgement of the government. Pray that God’s Word can continue to be shared throughout Uzbekistan.
CHURCH TORCHED IN INDIA
On the night of May 14, 1997, the thatched church in the village of Pedapalli, India was burned by Hindus. Four years ago Christian ministry began in Pedapalli, now 40 Hindu families have thrown away their idols and accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. In December 1996 they built a thatched church. May 5-7 they held village crusades and God blessed the ministry. Some families were unhappy with the village’s change toward Christianity. They were afraid that the entire village would become Christian! At midnight on May 14 when everyone was asleep, they set fire to the church. Two days later 15 new believers were baptized. They plan to rebuild. Pray that these new Christians have courage to stand up to adversity and be a mighty witness in their village.
KAREN REFUGEES PAY HIGH PRICE FOR CHRISTIAN VALUES
The monsoon storms are pounding more than 100,000 Karen refugees trapped between the armies of Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand. The Myanmar army punishes the Karen, a largely Christian minority, for refusing to assist the government’s drug trade. Soldiers burn villages, rape women, kill babies and force men and boys into slave labor. The Thai army forces the Karen people back over the border into Myanmar. Ask God to comfort His people among the Karen and shelter them from the storms that rage about them. Pray that international pressure will force the governments of Myanmar and Thailand to stop their pressure.
* Europe *
ROMANIA BECOMING INTOLERANT TO RELIGIOUS MINORITIES
The Baptist World Alliance called on the government of Romania to investigate the role of police when a group of nine Baptist Christians in the village of Ruginoasa, Romania were beaten by a crowd of citizens from a nearby village on Sunday March 30. A report in one of the leading newspapers in the city of Montoiorul de lasi and also on national television on April 4, says over 700 people surrounded a house used for worship. When nine Christians, including women and children came from the worship service, the crowd beat them. This incident in Romania is among several recently that highlight a growing intolerance by religious majorities among religious minorities. Pray that all people in Romania be allowed the God-given right of freedom of religion.
* Africa & the Middle East *
CHRISTIANS ATTACKED IN SUDAN’S NUBA MOUNTAINS
The Sudanese army attacked nine Christian villages in the Nuba Mountains over three days in April 1997, killing dozens and forcing an estimated 50,000 from their homes. Christian leaders were thrown into dry wells, doused with gasoline and set on fire. Ask God to bring peace and an end to the conflict for persecuted Christians suffering throughout Sudan.
HOLY SPIRIT WORKING IN ALGERIA
In Algeria fundamentalist Muslim groups still carry out brutal attacks even on women and children. Nevertheless the Christian church is quietly growing. Pray for the continued outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Algeria.
* Americas *
GUATEMALAN PASTOR PREACHES IN JAIL
Guatemalan pastor Eugenio “Queno” Nij remains in prison since his arrest in April 1997 on false charges of murder. However, God is using his suffering to expand the Kingdom. Newspapers continue to carry front-page reports on his situation. Catholics have joined Evangelicals in interceding for him. Churches are overflowing with seekers. Pastor Nij ministers night and day to other prisoners. Ask God to strengthen and protect Eugenio in prison, pray for his quick release. Ask God to use this injustice to draw hundreds of thousands to Christ.
THREE JAILED IN MEXICO
Lift up members of Jesu Cristo de las Americas in Netlatonoc, Guerrero, Mexico who have been told they must either revert to the Catholic church or leave town. Three men, Natalio Romero Cortez, Daniel Villanueva Calixto and Agustin Garcia Moren, have been jailed since May 11 “for professing the Evangelical religion and refusing to carry out stewardship duties in the community’s Catholic festival.” A small church building under construction was destroyed by six local leaders in March. Ask God to comfort these believers and enable them to withstand this test of their faith. Pray for reconciliation between Catholics and Evangelicals in Mexico.
* Global *
OPEN DOORS WORLD WATCH LIST
The 1997 Open Doors World Watch List states that moderate to severe persecution of Christians continues in more than 80 countries. Of the 25 nations with the worst violations, 20 are Muslim-dominated. The nations are: Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan (South), China, Iran, Sudan (North), Yemen, North Korea, Morocco, Comoros, Egypt, Libya, Maldives, Qatar, Algeria, Vietnam, Mauritania, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Laos, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Kuwait, Nigeria (North), United Arab Emirates.
DID YOU KNOW?
International Urban Associates reminds us that nine of the countries with the largest Muslim populations are not in the Middle East. They are Indonesia, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Iran, and Nigeria.
(Sources for the July ‘97 Update: Advance; Association of Evangelicals in Africa; Baptist World Alliance; Compass Direct; Gospel Fields, Repalle, India; Justin Long, GEM; Patrick Goodenough, ICEJ/Middle East Digest; Institute for Chinese Studies; International Urban Associates; Keston News Service; Law and Liberty Trust; Open Doors; Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries; Sri Lanka Evangelical Alliance; World Evangelical Fellowship’s Religious Liberty e-mail conference)
A POWERFUL movement of “godly disobedience” is sweeping through schools across the state of Alabama after a federal judge struck out a state law allowing prayer in public schools.
Students, teachers and parents, united in their opposition to the ruling, are staging “pray-ins” in defiance of Judge Ira DeMent of the Federal District Court in Montgomery. The protesters have the full support of Forrest “Fob” James, the state’s Republican Governor, and that of Bill Pryor, its Attorney-General, who have lambasted Judge DeMent’s decision as “an unconstitutional abuse of power”.
Mr James, vowing to appeal against the decision, has said that he will resist the prayer ban “by every legal and political means, with every ounce of strength I possess”, and that he will turn the issue into a test case on the apparent conflict between the rights of states and federal powers.
Not since the “monkey trial” of 1925, when a teacher in Tennessee, John Thomas Scopes, was prosecuted for violating the state’s ban on the teaching of evolution in the classroom, has the issue of religion in schools so inflamed passions and public opinion. The latest case began last year when Michael Chandler, the assistant principal of Valley Head School in DeKalb County, brought an action against the state of Alabama, asking Judge DeMent to strike out a 1993 statute permitting “non-proselytising, voluntary prayer” in schools.
Mr Chandler, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and a group called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, argued that the state law violated not just a panoply of Supreme Court rulings outlawing school prayer, but also the First Amendment.
Last week Judge DeMent agreed. The 1993 Alabama law violated the First Amendment which guarantees free speech because it “favours religion over non-religion”. He ruled also that the law fell foul of the essence of the so-called “Establishment Clause” of the US Constitution, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
This prompted an audacious response from the state Governor. Mr James has written a 34-page letter to the judge arguing that the First Amendment does not apply to the states.
He contends that the Bill of Rights was enacted to limit the power of federal government, not that of states. Therefore, he continues, the Supreme Court or any other federal tribunal has no jurisdiction to bar Alabama students from voluntarily praying in school.
The Governor has received unstinting support from one of the state’s judges, Roy Moore, of the Etowah County Circuit Court in Gadsden. Judge Moore, not one to hide his religious convictions under a bushel, is the subject of another action by a “secular crusader” seeking to force him to remove a tablet of the Ten Commandments from a wall in his courtroom.
Judge Moore issued an order from his court last week defying Judge DeMent’s ruling, describing it as “one of the worst cases of judicial usurpation of people’s rights I have ever seen”. He has declared that the ruling banning prayer in schools was “not the law in Etowah County”.
As prayer meetings were held in schools in defiance of the ban, and as Judge DeMent announced that all those so assembling would be liable for prosecution, the Governor gave a warning that he would call out the National Guard to protect those who “answer the call to prayer”.
POLICE in Pakistan yesterday opened fire on hundreds of Christian mourners outside a cathedral in the Punjab city of Faisalabad. Three people, including a girl, were wounded.
The shooting started when a large crowd carrying the body of a Roman Catholic bishop pelted stones at the police and smashed vehicles. Bishop John Joseph, a religious rights campaigner, committed suicide on Wednesday to protest against the death penalty imposed on a Christian peasant under the nation’s blasphemy law.
Police used teargas to disperse the crowd, who chanted anti‑government slogans and demanded the abolition of Islamic laws which, they claim, are being used to persecute Christians and other religious minorities.
The body of Bishop Joseph, whose funeral will take place tomorrow, was placed in the cathedral. Mian Asif, the city police chief, said he had ordered his men to fire into the air to scare away the crowd. “But two policemen who were hit by stones from the crowd began firing straight into the people,” he said. “The police attacked the crowd without any provocation,” said Johnson Michael, a Christian member of the Punjab provincial assembly.
Bishop Joseph, 65, who shot himself outside a courtroom in the Punjab city of Sahiwal, “anticipated” his suicide in the text of a speech sent days earlier, according to the Vatican’s Fides news agency. “I will consider myself extremely lucky if, in the mission to break down barriers, Our Lord will accept the sacrifice of my blood for the good of His people,” he wrote.
Last month a Pakistani court sentenced Ayub Massih to death for making blasphemous comments against the Prophet Muhammad. A Pakistani rights group said that the charges were fabricated. Massih remains in prison pending an appeal.
KABUL, Afghanistan — The radical Islamic Taliban militia announced on Wednesday it will put on trial eight foreign aid workers arrested on charges of preaching Christianity.
“After the investigation is completed, the case will go to court and the court will decide according to Shariat,” or Islamic law, Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil told the Taliban’s official Bakhtar News Agency.
The eight foreign aid workers — two Americans, four Germans and two Australians — have been held for more than three weeks on charges of propagating Christianity in this deeply Muslim nation.
The members of the German-based Christian organization, Shelter Now International, were arrested along with 16 Afghan staff members.
There was no indication of when the investigation would be completed.
According to Taliban law, the penalty for foreigners caught preaching Christianity is three to 10 days in jail and expulsion. The penalty for an Afghan who converts to Christianity is death.
The official news agency quoted Muttawakil as saying the court ruling will be sent to the Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who has final say in all matters in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the International Red Cross on Wednesday delivered a stack of woolen blankets to the detained aid workers at the Reform School, where they are being held in the heart of the city.
The Red Cross truck delivered 24 blankets apparently for the eight foreigners and 16 Afghan staff of Shelter Now International, who were arrested more than three weeks ago.
The aid organization is described as a German-based Christian group that has been operating in Afghanistan since 1993, prior to the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in 1996. It operates in several provinces, but the Taliban have shut down all its projects since the arrests in Kabul.
The Reform School is a sprawling, compound filled with trees where delinquent children, many of them arrested for begging and scavenging, are held.
It was expected that the parents of two jailed American women — Dana Curry and Heather Mercer — would be allowed to see their children again Wednesday.
On Monday, Mercer’s father, John Mercer, and Curry’s mother, who did not want to give her name, saw the two women, who are believed to be single and in their 20s. The meeting came hours after the parents arrived in the Afghan capital.
Since then, the parents have been confined to the U.N. guest house where they are pacing the grounds, watching television and waiting to hear when they can next visit their daughters. The parents have avoided talking to the media and have refused to give any personal details, including information about their hometowns.
The other six aid workers being held have been identified by Taliban as four Germans — Margrit Stebnar, George Taubmann, Kati Jelinek and Silke Duerrkopf — and two Australians — Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas.
Diplomats from the United States, Germany and Australia, have been meeting Taliban foreign ministry officials to try to find out when an investigation will be completed into the charges that the aid workers were proselytizing.
The diplomats, who had been denied access to the detainees last week, said the atmosphere seems different now.
“They have engaged us with talks, which is something they were not doing last time,” Helmut Landes, consular officer at the German Embassy in neighboring Pakistan, said of the Taliban on Tuesday. “We saw the detainees as soon as we arrived. This is all very positive.”
KABUL, Afghanistan — Four weeks after they were arrested on charges of preaching Christianity, eight foreign aid workers, including two Americans, went on trial Tuesday, officials said.
The trial, which Chief Justice Noor Mohamed Saqib said would be closed despite earlier promises that it would be open to journalists and relatives of the accused, was expected to last several days at least.
The radical Taliban militia imposes a harsh brand of Islam in this impoverished South Asian nation and accuses the aid workers of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. Their organization, Shelter Now International, a German-based Christian group, has denied that they were proselytizing.
Saqib and 14 bearded Islamic clerics met for nearly four hours Tuesday at the start of the trial, which will eventually allow the eight foreign aid workers to speak in their own defense.
Saqib would not say when they would be called to the court. He said they would also be provided a lawyer if they requested one.
The eight foreign aid workers, who also include four Germans and two Australians, were arrested along with 16 Afghan staff members. The foreign aid workers were to be tried separately from the Afghan staff.
Under Taliban law, the penalty for a foreigner who is caught proselytizing is jail and expulsion. For an Afghan, the penalty is death.
For the parents of the two jailed Americans, Dayna Curry, 29, and Heather Mercer, 24, the wait has been fraught with uncertainty.
On Monday, John Mercer of Vienna, Va., celebrated his birthday quietly while waiting at the U.N. guest house for news about his daughter’s fate.
“The only present I want is to have my daughter home,” he said.
Curry’s mother, Nancy Cassell, a teacher from Thompson’s Station, Tenn., took comfort in the hope that the ordeal would soon be over.
Three Western diplomats, from Germany, Australia and the United States, have tried to get information about the legal procedure under Taliban rule, but have been unsuccessful.
Saqib said Tuesday he was willing to explain the procedure to the diplomats if they wanted to come to the court and meet him.
The only precedent of a foreigner being tried in Afghanistan under the Taliban occurred in March 1997, when two French employees of the Paris-based Action Contre la Faim were tried on charges of immoral conduct.
Facing litigation after spending 26 days in a Taliban jail, they were sentenced to time served and ordered to leave the country immediately. Their trial lasted less than one hour.
The charges against the two French nationals were made after their humanitarian aid organization held a lunch for Afghan women employees during which Afghan men were also in attendance, a crime under Taliban law.
The Taliban impose strict segregation of the sexes among Afghan men and women. Afghan women are required to wear the all-encompassing burqa, which hides them from head to toe. They are not allowed to work, attend school after the age of 8, or travel without a male relative.
Afghan men must wear a beard and cover their heads. Male government employees have to wear a turban.
The Taliban’s strict enforcement of their laws among Afghans has left many international aid organizations fearful for their local employees.
A senior Taliban official has told The Associated Press that at least some of the 16 employees — probably the teachers — will be either sentenced to life in jail or death by hanging.
One of the books the Taliban say they have confiscated from Shelter Now International in Afghanistan was entitled “Sharing your Christian faith with Muslims,” which the ruling militia considered to be a book about proselytizing.
Known as a missionary organization among expatriate workers in Afghanistan, Shelter Now International was forced to close in neighboring Pakistan during the early 1990s after its employees were said to be proselytizing in Afghan refugee camps.
The other six foreign aid workers being held have been identified by the Taliban as Germans George Taubmann, Margrit Stebnar, Kati Jelinek and Silke Duerrkopf, and Australians Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas.
THE Taleban Government intensified its campaign against Western aid organisations in Afghanistan yesterday, displaying an array of Bibles and Christian films which it said had been confiscated from charity workers expelled earlier this week.
The gesture came as the trial of eight other foreign aid workers entered a third day of hearings behind closed doors.
Kabul was awash yesterday with rumours that the eight foreigners from the Shelter Now organisation — four Germans, two Americans and two Australians — will soon be questioned by the court in what Taleban officials call the second phase of the trial.
“The process of scrutinising the investigation files is continuing in the court,” Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the Taleban Foreign Minister, said. In the second phase the detainees would appear before the court and diplomats, journalists and relatives would be able to attend.
But the public display of supposedly impounded Christian material yesterday was a clear indication of the political point of the trial: to place Western aid organisations under even tighter scrutiny and encourage Islamic charities to take their place. Two groups, International Assistance Mission (IAM) and Serve, both much-respected aid groups, were given 72 hours to close their offices and leave the country.
IAM, which runs two eye hospitals and several clinics, has been active in Afghanistan for more than 35 years. About 50, mainly American, expatriate workers live with Afghan families and help to provide some of the best medical eye care in the country. Surgeons and opticians with mobile clinics are taken to remote areas.
Serve is a smaller charity that concentrates on providing solar panels and housing projects. “Both organisations have declared that they do not know why they were expelled,” the Taleban Foreign Minister said yesterday. “So they have forced us to show what we have found.”
The action indicates the Taleban’s increasingly hostile approach towards the international aid agencies and the expatriate workers. The Islamic authorities announced the establishment of a new commission to enforce compliance of the rules by aid organisations. The regulation decreed by the regime binds international organisations to deposit their funds in the Afghan state bank and to hire Afghans approved by the administration to run their operations.
The commission, which consists of representatives of the Foreign Ministry and the Department of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, will also monitor whether the expatriate workers were observing the restriction on mingling with the opposite sex in public and the ban on women driving.
The new tone was set at the beginning of the year by the Taleban, which demanded full lists of all Afghan and foreign aid workers, details of their projects and financing. While Western organisations are being closed, Islamic organisations are moving in. The Pakistan-based Al-Rasheed Foundation has been allowed to expand quickly, building 29 bakeries in Kabul over the past four months.
“Until Al-Rasheed moved in we were the only people in town,” Peter Goosens, a spokesman for the World Food Programme in Kabul, said. “Now we are receiving more and more applications for food programmes from Islamic non-governmental organisations.”
Al-Rasheed Foundation has contacts with the militant group Jaish e-Mohammed, whose leader, Massood Azhar, was freed from an Indian jail in 1999 after the hijacking of an aircraft. Two other charity organisations — al-Akhtar Foundation and al-Mujahidin — are also becoming very active. Al-Akhtar runs an orphanage in Kabul and is building mosques, restoring a military hospital in Kandahar and establishing a male university.
The Shelter Now trial appears to be part of a power struggle aimed at curbing Western influence and restraining Islamic reformers. Diplomats expect the hearings to be, in effect, a show trial against the West. The trial has sparked outrage in all three countries involved — Germany, America and Australia — with influential newspapers such as The New York Times, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung raising questions about the future of aid to Afghanistan. It was still unclear yesterday whether the foreign defendants faced the death sentence. America, Australia and Germany have been muted in their response to the case, fearing inflaming the situation.
Chief Justice Noor Muhammad Saqib appeared to backtrack on comments that he made on Wednesday suggesting that the eight foreigners could face the death penalty. The Chief Justice is on record as having called for the severest punishment available. Yesterday, however, he said that it was too early to make any statement about penalties. Other ministers have suggested that the defendants could be sentenced and then pardoned at the highest level.
Relatives of the Americans, Heather Mercer and Dana Curry, were allowed visits yesterday. All the defendants are said to be in reasonable condition. The Australians have been named as Diana Thomas and Peter Bunch. The Germans are Georg Taubmann, Silke Duerrkopf, Margrit Stebner and Kati Jelinek.
Little is known about the 16 Afghans who were arrested at the same time.
The judge and the law
Noor Muhammad Saqib, the Chief Justice of the Afghan Supreme Court, is one of the most powerful men in the hardline Islamic regime. He was appointed to the post after Taleban seized control of the capital, Kabul, in 1996.
This is only the second time that the Taleban has put foreigners on trial: in March 1997 two French nationals of the Paris-based Action Against Hunger were tried on charges of immoral conduct, and expelled.
Afghanistan has never had an indigenous Christian population. It had a large Hindu and Sikh community and a small Jewish group, but most of these have now fled the country.
There is no church in Kabul, although Christian aid workers hold services at the UN guest house. Some missionaries had been active in the country even under the Communist regime that collapsed in 1992.
Taleban officials said that Afghans converted to Christianity for the promise of a better future in the West. Sixteen Afghan workers of Shelter Now International face the death sentence on a charge of converting to Christianity.
By Ann Noonan, New York coordinator, the Laogai Research Foundation. For more information on religious freedom in China, visit www.freechurchforchina.org.
Religious persecution in China has reached a level unrivaled since two Christian aid workers faced trial and possible execution by a Taliban court last year. Lai Kwong-keung, a 38-year-old Hong Kong businessman, was detained by police for transporting 33,000 copies of the New Testament to Fuqing City in the Fujian Province last year. He was issued an “evil cult” indictment and may face the death penalty for Bible smuggling. Interfaith coalitions and human-rights organizations have joined U.S. President Bush in his concern over this particular case, and have seemingly caused a delay in Mr. Lai’s sentencing. However, prominent religious leaders inside China say that his case is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Center for Religious Freedom issued a press release on January 11th protesting against the Chinese government’s crackdown on Chinese Christian churches. “A letter from members of an underground Chinese Christian church, dated December 31, 2001, and smuggled to the New York-based Committee for Investigation on Persecution of Religion in China, reveals graphic details and new information about the Chinese government’s crackdown on Pastor Gong Shengliang and his South China Church in central Hubei province.” The letter provides details about “two women, Li Tongjin and Chi Tongyuan, from Shayang, who were arrested and tortured by police with electric prods, resulting in blisters and burns all over their bodies.” The letter also reports “numerous other cases from May to December 2001 of brutal police beatings of the congregants.”
This recent crackdown comes as no surprise. During last December’s National Religious Working Conference in Beijing, President Jiang Zemin called for the elimination of spirituality’s encroachment on China’s Communist Party rule. The three-day meeting was attended by a “who’s who” list of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council. Top leaders included Li Peng, Zhu Rongji, Li Ruihuan, Hu Jintao, Wei Jianxing, and Li Lanqing, as well as senior regional and ministerial officials. They all stressed the adherence to China’s policy of “religious independence”. But religious independence from what — or from whom?
The CPC insists on controlling China as an atheist state. Yet, despite China’s communistic ideological principles, religion and spirituality have flourished. Over the last few years, there has been a tremendous growth of Christianity in China. Born-again sects such as the Shouters are among the fastest growing with more than 500,000 adherents. Millions of people in China have also found peace in practicing the breathing and spiritual exercises of Falun Gong. One might think that people of faith might make better citizens; but CPC officials worry about these “religious problems” and have decided that all forms of spirituality must be clamped down on with “management networks” as the government reinforces Communist Party Control.
In his speech at the National Religious Working Conference, Jiang Zemin emphasized that the CPC’s work related to religion is an important part of what the China’s Communist Party must now do. In describing how this should be done, he seemed to be suggesting an all-out effort to confiscate the best attributes of various religious activities — while disregarding any actual tenets of the faith. Accordingly, any results might only force a stranglehold on benevolent acts of faith while depriving believers of the glory of salvation. Though China claims that all are free to believe, or not believe, in religion, all Central Committee officials are atheists and must approach religion from a skeptic’s point of view.
Of the situation’s impact on Hong Kong’s identity and the future of its citizens, Ann Lau, a Chinese human-rights activist living in the U.S. remarked, “The anomaly is not that there are various religious sects of Christianity in the PRC, nor PRC’s persecution of Lai Kwing-keung who smuggled thousands of Bibles into the PRC — it is the silence of Hong Kong officials and the people of Hong Kong to defend their own and leaving such task to President Bush of the U.S.”
This week in Hong Kong, U.S. Ambassador Clark Randt raised the issue of religious freedom in China. According to Mr. Randt, “The President has expressed his grave personal concern over the case of Hong Kong businessman Lai Kwong-keung, who sits in a jail awaiting trial, apparently for importing Bibles. The importance of the Bible to Christians and the negative impact of such a story on the image of China in the United States cannot be overestimated.”
In a statement to the Laogai Research Foundation, Hong Kong legislator Emily Lau said, “It is very sad to learn that shipping Bibles to mainland China can attract the death penalty. Now that China has acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, I hope Beijing will learn to respect the rights of its people and adopt the behaviour of the civilized world.”
As President Bush prepares to embark on a state visit to China next month, religious leaders and human-rights leaders continue to offer hope to Mrs. Lai and her family, all hoping that US pressure will help secure the release of her husband, and allow for all citizens inside China to live and worship in peace.
By Doug Bandow
AMBON, INDONESIA — “Peace is a big word,” says C. J. Boehm, a Dutch missionary working at the Catholic Crisis Centre Diocese of Amboina. Nevertheless, he hopes that the mid-February peace agreement signed in the town of Malino will end religious strife extending back to January 1999.
Not that the path to peace is easy. In late April Muslim militants murdered 14 Christians, including a six-month-old baby, in a village just three miles outside of Ambon, the provincial capital of the Moluccas Islands. That gruesome incident follows a spate of post-Malino bombings and shootings largely directed at Christians.
Ambon is still largely quiet, blanketed with police and military personnel. The remains of war are omnipresent, however. Barricades separate Christian and Muslim sections of town. In no man’s land sit ruined buildings which once housed Christians and Muslims, as well as a thriving Chinese business district. A large bank building at the corner sits vacant. A makeshift wooden cross marks the spot where a church once sat, now a vacant lot between the two camps.
With an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 people dead and as many as 700,000 refugees, war-weariness pervades the Moluccas. Many remain in refugee camps, relying on outside assistance from groups such as Christian Freedom International, with which I traveled. War-weariness may offer the best hope for peace. As part of the Malino agreement, 70 Christian and Muslim delegates called for investigation of the start of the conflict, respect for religious freedom, disarmament of communal forces, and the return of refugees.
But the peace process remains fragile. “Now we are in round five or maybe round six. We finish one, have reconciliation, then it starts again,” observed Theny Barlola, a Christian hotel manager.
After the negotiations, Boehm said “on the whole the agreement has been received fairly well.” If the gains “can be consolidated, we will have a good future.” After the latest murders he was no longer so sure, though more recently he has seen “an undeniable tendency towards an improving mutual trust” among Christians and Muslims.
The barriers to reconciliation are enormous. The first round of violence grew out of a spat in January 1999 between a bus driver and passenger. Many who lived on the islands quickly lost their taste for killing. But upwards of 6,000 fighters of the Laskar Jihad, or “Holy Warrior Troops,” flocked to the island.
Religious sites were targeted for attack, with some 400 churches destroyed. Human casualties include not only dead and wounded, but also forced conversions, principally to Islam, and coercive male and female circumcisions. Jafar Umar Thalib, the Jihad commander, called for the imposition of Islamic law in
areas cleared of Christians.
Religion also split the security forces. “In most cases individuals and in some cases whole units, because they were afraid, or cowards, did nothing,” said Boehm. The Jihad couldn’t have arrived without the military’s complicity in his view. Other soldiers turned over their weapons to Muslims. Finally, “some were among the attackers,” says Boehm. Although Muslims appeared to be the chief beneficiaries of outside intervention, some police, who tend to be drawn locally, were more inclined to help the Christians. There were even clashes between military and police.
Inter-communal distrust remained rampant after fighting sputtered out. For instance, Agus Wattimena, head of a Christian militia, complained last year: “Christians and Muslims are talking about reconciliation. Okay, but the Muslims fight and shoot Christians. Until today, we don’t believe they mean it.” There have been Christian as well as Muslim atrocities. But the bulk of the blame seems to fall on the Muslim side. Last year Boehm told me: “Christians haven’t done any attacking over the last half year. Only the Muslims. The Christians say they have had enough.”
Unfortunately, however, the communities “are quite divided themselves” about reconciliation, explains Pastor Boehm. Muslim factions have squabbled violently. Thus, it is “hard to make peace with the Muslims, since one agrees, but one says no,” says Boehm.
Haddi Abdullah Soulisa, the 81-year-old head of Ambon’s Muslim community, acknowledged the problem, but contended that it is “the same, Christian and Muslim, all the same. Many, many want to make reconciliation. Many groups say no reconciliation because there has been conflict for a long time, with too much damage done.”
Few Christians or Muslims credit the central government, which was unable to prevent ethnic and religious violence there or elsewhere in the island nation. Today the authorities seem both more effective and evenhanded. Moreover, the accord has sparked inter-communal contact and moved the government to begin removing the physical roadblocks within Ambon.
But tensions remain. A small number of Christians favoring secession; however, the decades-old Christian separatist movement is largely moribund. A larger share of the Muslim community opposes reintegration — every member of the Muslim Malino delegation has been threatened and the home of delegation head Thamrin Ely was burned down in mid-May.
The Lasker Jihad remains a particular stumbling block with murderous potential. It was not part of the peace delegation and denounced the accord. Two days before the slaughter of 14, which the Moluccas governor linked to the Laskar Jihad, Thalib, an Afghan war veteran, declared at an Ambon rally: “from today, we
will no longer talk about reconciliation.” The Lasker Jihad “clearly wants to make Indonesia into a Muslim state,” worries Boehm.
Back in mid-2000 a group of Christian leaders, ranging from pastors to retired generals, agreed that these fighters had to be removed. Last year Agus argued that only “without Laskar Jihad we can have reconciliation.”
Most Christians continue to view the Laskar Jihad as the main barrier to peace. “They are still around, but how many, where they are, we don’t know,” says Boehm. After the most recent murders a group of Catholic and Protestant leaders called on the central government to remove the Muslim militants from the province.
Yet Thamrin Ely has opposed removing the group’s members from the Moluccas: “they are Indonesian citizens who have rights to stay wherever they want on Indonesian territory.” Last year Haddi Soulisa defended the Jihad: “There is no problem with the Laskar Jihad.” They “come to help Muslims,” he said, and “not only for war.” And they “are still helping.”
Finally, after the murder of 14, Jakarta proved less forgiving, arresting Thalib and ordering Jihad forces from the islands. Its action sparked Muslim protests across Indonesia and Vice President Hamzah Haz broke with his government, visiting Thalib in jail. But Jakarta appears to have succeeded in disarming at least some of the Jihad fighters.
What of American policy? Barlola notes that during the fighting Christians signed petitions and mailed letters to American and foreign officials asking for help. Most Christians wanted foreign peacekeepers or, failing that, evacuation. My meeting with Christian leaders was filled with demands that the international community in general and the U.S. in particular do something — some pointed to America’s intervention in Kosovo as a model. The recent Christian petitioners sent their letter to President George W. Bush as well as Indonesian government and international religious figures.
Jakarta naturally resisted any outside involvement and Muslims are even more emphatic. Observed Haddi Soulisa: “The U.S. shouldn’t police the world. Give us time for Indonesia to make it by ourselves. Democracy, Indonesian democracy, not by any country imposing it on Indonesia.”
But Indonesian democracy, a fragile creature in the post-Suharto era, may not survive. Moreover, every new spurt of violence threatens to destabilize the peace — the very goal of some perpetrators.
“Don’t forget us,” pleaded Agus. “We are a brotherhood. Go back to America, and tell Christians that they must help us here.” But any help will be too late for Agus, who was shot and killed shortly after I interviewed him. And there’s precious little America can do for anyone else. Only the Indonesians can find peace.
— Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and former special assistant to President Reagan.
Paramedics treat a women injured in a grenade attack in a hospital in Taxila, Pakistan, on Friday.
TAXILA, Pakistan — Three attackers hurled grenades Friday at women leaving a church on the grounds of a Presbyterian hospital in Pakistan, killing three nurses and wounding about 25 people in the second attack this week against Christians.
One of the attackers also died in the assault at 7:45 a.m. on the grounds of the hospital in Taxila. All the victims were Pakistanis, and about half were seriously wounded, police said.
The attack is the latest in a series of terrorist incidents here since Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf sided with the United States against the Afghan Taliban, outraging extremists.
Police said they believed the attack in Taxila, 25 miles northwest of Islamabad, was linked to an assault four days ago against a school for children of Christian missionaries in which six Pakistanis were killed.
“It is clear that terrorists are targeting the Christian community in Pakistan,” said S.K. Tressler, the government minister in charge of minority affairs. “The entire Pakistani nation will have to fight terrorism.”
Chief investigator Raja Mumtaz Ahmad told The Associated Press that the attackers wanted to kill Christians or Westerners to express anger over Pakistan’s support for the U.S.-led war against terrorism.
The attack occurred as worshippers were leaving a church on the hospital grounds, according to Dr. Ernest Lall, a former hospital director who was in the church. The service was attended mostly by women and children, and women traditionally exit first.
The three assailants, one of them brandishing a pistol, ran through the front gate of the hospital grounds, locked two watchmen in a guard booth, then rushed at the women with the grenades, police said. The explosions shattered windows and gouged two large holes in the pavement outside the church. Shoes belonging to some of the victims were seen scattered outside.
Officials said one attacker died when a piece of sharpnel flew into his back and pierced his heart.
Hundreds of onlookers gathered in front of the hospital’s locked gates, while inside the hospital, women wailed and pounded their chests. Staff members hugged each other or stood in shock.
“I was still inside the church when I heard explosions,” said staff member Margif Tariq. “Windowpanes were falling on us, everyone was crying, everyone was in pain. ... When I came out, I saw dozens of women were lying on the pavement and most of them were bleeding.”
Erik Masih, one of the security guards locked in the booth, said he tried to stop the men but “one of them pulled out a pistol and pushed me inside the room.”
“I was inside the room for a few seconds when I heard the sound of explosions,” he said. “At that moment, the man who was guarding me outside ran away toward the main gate.”
The hospital, which is supported by the Presbyterian Church USA and the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan, was founded in 1922 and treats mostly poor Muslim patients. Following the attack, outpatient services were suspended for the day.
“We have been here since 1922, and someone throws a bomb,” Lall said. “I don’t know why. It is somebody who must be against Christianity. We never thought we would be a target like that.”
Shah, the regional police commander, said he believed the assailants were linked to the Murree shootings on Monday because the attacker who died was wearing clothing similar to that of the school attackers.
One day after the Murree attack, three men believed to have carried out the school raid blew themselves up with grenades after being stopped by police in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
Before killing themselves, the three men in Kashmir admitted to attacking the school and warned that other groups like them “plan to carry out similar attacks on Americans and nonbelievers, and you will soon hear about it,” Shah said.
Extremists have vowed revenge against both Musharraf and his Western supporters since the Pakistani government broke with the Taliban and began a crackdown on hard-line Islamic groups.
“If immediate steps are not taken by authorities to provide protection to Christians, I fear that it will lead to the start of genocide in Pakistan,” said Shahbaz Bhaddi, leader of the All-Pakistan Minorities Alliance. “We strongly condemn this incident and we will definitely stage protests. We will not remain silent.”
On March 17, a grenade attack on a Protestant church in Islamabad’s heavily guarded diplomatic quarter killed five people, including an American woman, her 17-year-old daughter and the lone assailant.
In October, 16 people were killed in an attack on a Christian church in Behawalpur, a city in south-central Pakistan.
KARACHI, Pakistan — Gunmen entered the offices of a Christian welfare organization in the southern port city of Karachi on Wednesday, tying office workers to their chairs and shooting each of them in the head at close range, police and intelligence officials said. At least seven people were killed and another was critically injured.
The shooting was the latest in a string of violent attacks against Christians and Westerners, who have been increasingly targeted since Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s decision to crack down on Islamic extremist groups and join the U.S. war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in neighboring Afghanistan.
The killings occurred at the third-floor offices of the Institute for Peace and Justice, or Idara-e-Amn-o-Insaf, a Pakistani Christian charity that does work in the city. Victims were tied up in chairs with their hands behind their backs and their mouths taped before being shot point-blank in the head, according to Karachi Police Chief Kamal Shah.
All seven of the dead were Pakistani Christians, contradicting earlier police reports that three of the victims were Muslim. One worker who survived the attack later died in a hospital, police said. It was not clear who was behind the attack.
Shah said police found eight empty shell casings, one for each of those shot. He said five of the dead were found seated in a main room at the office, and the sixth was tied to a chair in the bathroom. He said police are questioning an office assistant who was tied up and beaten by the attackers, but not shot.
Police want to know how the gunmen got into the office, which had an electronic door that could only be opened from the inside, he said. The office assistant has told police there were two gunmen involved in the shooting, Shah said.
By late morning, hundreds of police had cordoned off the 13-story building in a central business district of Karachi.
A female relative of one of the victims arrived at the office, sobbing and beating herself in anguish before being led away by police.
The Christian group has been in operation for 30 years, working with poor municipal and textile workers to press for basic worker rights, and organizing programs with local human rights groups.
Pakistani Information Minister Nisar Memon condemned the attack, saying those who carried it out were “enemies of Pakistan.”
“We are particularly sad about the killings in Karachi because the terrorist have targeted unarmed Christian civilians,” Memon told The Associated Press. He added that the “cowardly terrorist attacks” would not deter Pakistan’s resolve.
“Pakistan’s cooperation with the world community in the war against terrorism will continue,” he said.
The violence shattered a growing sense of confidence among Pakistani leaders that a wide-sweeping crackdown had broken the back of extremist groups that have targeted Christians and Westerners.
This month, police in Karachi have arrested 23 members of Harakat ul-Mujahedeen Al-Almi, which is believed behind a June bombing outside the U.S. Consulate, a suicide car bomb in May that killed 11 French engineers, and aborted plots to attack U.S.-based restaurants McDonald’s and KFC in the city.
Musharraf touted police efforts against the group, saying the success was the reason there had not been any serious attacks in Pakistan in recent weeks.
“All the first-string operators are behind bars except a very, very few,” he said in an interview earlier this month with The Associated Press.
A string of violent assaults on Christian organizations have killed at least 36 people and injured about 100 since Musharraf’s decision to join the U.S. war in neighboring Afghanistan.
On Aug. 9, attackers hurled grenades at worshippers as they were leaving a church on the grounds of a Presbyterian hospital in Taxila, about 25 miles west of the capital, Islamabad. Four nurses were killed and 25 other people wounded. Two men alleged to have supplied guns and grenades to the attackers were arrested in recent days, police said Tuesday.
Four days before the Taxila attack, assailants raided a Christian school 40 miles east of Islamabad, killing six Pakistanis including guards and non-teaching staff.
And on March 17, a grenade attack on a Protestant church in Islamabad’s heavily guarded diplomatic quarter killed five people, including an American woman, her 17-year-old daughter and the lone assailant.
During the arrest of two of the Al-Almi militants, police found maps of two churches and a Christian school in Karachi, along with weapons and explosives, Interior Ministry officials have said.
That discovery prompted authorities nationwide to remove signs from around some churches set up in private homes and to fortify other Christian sites with sandbag bunkers.
“I don’t know why we live in a country where people are so damn uptight that they can’t stand the thought of seeing the Baby Jesus,” Catholic League head Bill Donohue fumed yesterday. “If you don’t like it, look away.”
If only it were that easy, the Catholic League wouldn’t have had to join with plaintiffs in filing a federal lawsuit on Monday, charging the New York City public school system with religious discrimination and an unconstitutional infringement on the First Amendment rights of Christian schoolchildren. In New York City, Nativity scenes are banned from public schools — but you’ll never guess what they allow.
According to a November 28, 2001, memorandum from the schools chancellor’s top lawyer, “The display of secular holiday symbol decorations is permitted. Such symbols include, but are not limited to, Christmas trees, Menorahs, and the Star and Crescent.”
How do a menorah, the Jewish ritual candelabrum whose use is central to Hanukkah celebrations, and the Islamic star-and-crescent symbol qualify as “secular,” whereas a Christian crèche is “religious,” and therefore unacceptable? Of course a crèche is explicitly religious, as well as of historical and cultural value. But so are the Jewish and Muslim symbols. You can see where Donohue gets the idea that the school system is monkeying around with the meaning of religious and secular for the sole purpose of making it legal to discriminate against Christian students.
The federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of Andrea Skoros, a Catholic mother from Queens, and her two minor children, who are public school students in the city. The lawsuit alleges that by permitting the display Islamic and Jewish religious symbols while disallowing their Christian equivalents, the public schools violate the constitutional prohibition against the state privileging a particular religion. The plaintiffs seek a permanent injunction against the city preventing it from implementing a policy they find discriminatory against Christians.
“I think it’s callous indifference to the religious liberty and rights of Christians,” said Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center, a Michigan legal group that will argue the case on the plaintiff’s behalf. Thompson added that his group is not seeking the removal of the Jewish and Muslim symbols — “it would be totally intolerant” — but rather the inclusion of similar Christian symbols.
NRO was unable to elicit comment from the New York City schools’ press office.
Thompson says this is the first case to challenge the ban on crèches in a public- school setting. There have been previous cases that have successfully overturned bans on Nativity scenes on public property where religious symbols of other faiths are on display.
“The courts have been very clear that when government gets into the business of deciding what is and isn’t religious, they’re entangling themselves with religion,” said John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, a legal organization that specializes in religious-liberty issues.
Whitehead said that if any religious symbols are allowed, then a multiplicity of them must be allowed, as long as they are to be on temporary display, and relevant to the holiday season. He described New York City’s ban on the crèche as “asinine.”
“Who comes up with these things? The one thing they’re always trying to exclude is the Nativity scene,” he said. “If you’ve got a Nativity scene by itself, then you’ve got a constitutional problem. But when you surround it with other symbols, it’s legal.”
The controversial school policy does permit symbols such as Santa Claus and the Christmas tree, but the Catholic League president says those are wholly or primarily secular symbols that are in no way the Christian equivalent of a menorah or star-and-crescent. Donohue says anti-crèche discrimination is a problem not only in New York City, but also in public schools across the nation.
“You can’t have Baby Jesus, but you can have a condom on a cucumber,” he said angrily, referring to sex-education programs in some public schools. “Political correctness has run crazy in this country. I hope this [case] goes to the [United States] Supreme Court and teaches some of these religious bigots a lesson.”
The Catholic League chief said followers of Jesus have been far too quick to allow school administrators and other government officials to trample on their constitutional rights regarding Christmas displays, and must bear some blame for the current confusion. Said Donohue, “Christians are such wimps.”
The dhimmi mentality cannot be easily defined and described. An endless variety of reactions has been provoked by the evolving historical situations in the civilization of dhimmitude, which spans three continents and close to fourteen centuries. Generally speaking, dhimmi populations can be described as oscillating between alienation and submission and, at the other extreme, a self-perception of spiritual freedom.
The basic aspects of the dhimmi mentality are related to characteristics of its status and environment, because dhimmitude operates exclusively within the sphere of jihad. Contrary to common belief, jihad is not limited to holy war conducted militarily; it encompasses all strategies, including peaceful means, aimed at the unification of all religions within Islamic dogma. Further, as a juridical-theological construction, jihad determines all aspects of relations between the Umma — the Islamic community — and non-Muslims. According to the classical interpretation, these are classified in one of three categories: enemies, temporarily reconciled, or subjected. Because neither jihad nor dhimmitude have been critically analyzed, we can say today that the Islamist mentality — currently predominant in many Muslim countries — establishes relations with non-Muslims in the traditional jihad categories of war, truce, and submission/dhimmitude.
In our times dhimmis are found among the residues of indigenous populations of countries that were Islamized during a millenium of Muslim conquests: Christians, Hindus, and a scattering of Jews and Zoroastrians. Christians would seem to be the most familiar group, closer to Westerners by proximity, culture, religion, and subject to the same status under Islam as the Jews, the other ahl al-Khitab, “people of the Book” — the Bible. But this impression is often deceiving as the reassuring appearance of similarity is misleading.
The behavior of Christian dhimmis varies according to the country, the social category, and their association with the ruling classes as, for example, their participation in the Iraqi or Syrian Baath parties or the PLO, a militarist organization engaged in the Arab jihad against Israel. Christian dhimmis appointed to important positions by Muslim rulers have often served as agents between the Arab world and strategic centers in the West: churches, governments, industries, universities, media, etc.
Because Christian dhimmi populations are on the whole highly skilled and better educated than the surrounding population, they often suffer from malicious jealousy coupled with the traditional anti-Christian prejudices of the Umma. The persistence of Christianity in Muslim environments testifies to qualities of endurance and adaptability. Yet survival in dhimmitude had its price: the dhimmi pathology.
Briefly summarized, Christian attitudes can be classified in three categories: active resistance, passive resistance, and collaboration. These three attitudes are manifest within one and the same population, but certain geographical or historical situations favor one or another.
Recent examples of active resistance are noteworthy. The repression of the Christian rebellion against the establishment of sharia in the Sudan in 1983 caused more than two million dead and over four million displaced. Lebanese Christians fought against the Islamization of their country during the civil war that began in 1975. At the dawn of the 20th century, Armenian and Assyrian Christians were punished by genocide for their attempts at independence. In the present day, active Christian resistance against Islamization in Indonesia, Nigeria, and other African countries is manifest in the massacre of Christian civilians, the burning of villages, the flight of populations. Westerners, and especially Europeans, turn a deaf ear to the sufferings of Christians who actively resist Islamization, frequently blaming them for their own misfortunes.
Examples of passive resistance can be found in Egypt, Pakistan, and Iran. Egyptian Christians denounce the violence of which they are victims and strive to protect their dignity, reduce legal and professional discrimination, and secure basic rights such as permission to build or renovate churches. Here again, the West prefers to ignore their dire situation or underplay it with episodic attention. Christians engaged in active or passive resistance exhaust their meager resources in vain efforts to alert their fellow Christians and enlist their help.
Collaborators are recruited among Christians who identify themselves as Arabs. This type of collaboration, which caused endless fratricidal battles over the centuries, has been denounced by dhimmis struggling for centuries against an Islamic domination that progressed with the help of Christians.
Christian collaborationism has taken different forms in the course of history, according to circumstances and political opportunity. It is expressed today in a two-pronged political and theological project. The political project is implemented in a trans-Mediterranean fusion, with the construction of an economic, cultural, political, geographical entity composed of the European Union and Arab and African countries. This policy of association and integration, active in all international forums, works to counterbalance American policy, under cover of a notion of “international legitimacy,” albeit a legitimacy of sanguinary totalitarian Arab dictators.
Collaborationist Christian dhimmis function as the intellectual and economic mechanism of this project because they belong to both worlds. Their role is to invent the idyllic Islamic-Christian past that upholds the political construction of a future Eurabia and to dissimulate the anti-Christian foundations of Islamic doctrine and history.
Dhimmi collaboration on the theological level is oriented in two directions: toward Christianity and toward Islam. It finds its most radical expression in the “Palestinian Liberation Theology,” meaning nothing less than the liberation of Christianity from its Jewish matrix. The spiritual center of this theology is the al-Liqa institute in Jerusalem, created in 1983 for the study of the Muslim and Christian heritage in the Holy Land. This strongly politicized institute, sponsored by international Christian organizations, specializes in disseminating anti-Israeli propaganda through its international religious and media channels.
Uniting Marcionist and Gnostic theological currents, this Palestinian theology strips away Jesus’s Jewishness and turns him into a sui generis Arab-Palestinian Jesus, a twin of the Muslim Jesus (Isa). Christianity, thus liberated from its Jewish roots, can be transplanted in Arab-Islamism. This would place Palestine, and not Israel, at the origin of Christianity, making Israelis usurpers of the Islamic-Christian Palestinian homeland. This theory denies the historical continuity between modern Israel and its biblical ancestor, the locus of nascent Christianity.
The theology of Palestinism, integrating all the anti-Jewish themes of replacement theology, is reworked to fit the new Palestinian fashion and addressed to Christians all over the world, inviting them to gather together around an Arab-Palestinian Jesus, symbol of a Palestine crucified by Israel. The theme goes back to the 19th century. However, in those days when the idea of an Arab-Palestinian entity differentiated from the Arab world did not even exist, the unifying role of Palestine was assigned to Arab nationalism.
Palestinist theology shores up the Euro-Arab policy of Christian-Muslim and European-Arab fusion: the modern state of Israel — considered a temporary accident of history — is bypassed and Europe’s Christian origins are anchored in an Islamic-Christian Palestine. Having fulfilled its historical role of uniting the two enemies — Christianity and Islam — opposed to its very existence, Israel can now disappear, sealing the fusion between Europe and the Arabs. The unifying role devolves on Islamic-Christian Palestine; the reconciliation of Islam and Christianity can finally be consummated on the ashes of Israel and its negation. This is why the European Union — and especially France — designates Israeli “injustice” and “occupation” as the unique sources of conflict between Europe and the Arab/Muslim world, and the cause of international, anti-Western Islamist terrorism.
The contribution of dhimmi Christian collaborationism to Islam is even more important. It satisfies three objectives: 1) its propaganda shores up the mythology of past and present peaceful Islamic-Christian coexistence and confirms the perfection of Islam, jihad, and sharia; 2) it promotes the demographic expansion and proselytism of Islamic propaganda in the West; 3) in the theological sphere it eliminates the Jewish Jesus and implants Christianity in the Muslim Jesus, in other words it facilitates the theological Islamization of all Christendom.
According to Islamic dogma, Islam encompasses Judaism and Christianity, both of which are falsified posterior expressions of the first and fundamental religion, which is Islam. All the characters of the Bible, from Adam to Abraham, Moses to David, the Hebrew prophets, Mary, Jesus, and the apostles, were Muslim prophets who preached Islam, and it is only in their quality as Muslims that they are recognized and respected. They belong to the Koran, not to the Bible. From this viewpoint the bond between Judaism and Christianity is a falsification, because the filiation of Christianity is Islamic, not Judaic. Christianity descends from Islam, the first religion of all humanity (din al-fitra). Christianity is a falsified expression of Islam, and belongs to Islam. According to a hadith, when Isa, the Muslim Jesus, returns, he will break the cross, kill the pig, abolish the jizya (poll tax for infidels), and money will flow like water. Exegetes interpret the destruction of symbols attached to Christianity — the cross and the pig — as the extinction of that religion; the suppression of the jizya means that Islam has become the only religion; and the abundance of wealth refers to the booty taken from infidels. In other words the return of the Muslim Jesus could lead to the destruction of Christianity.
The global jihad has made the problems of dhimmitude a worldwide reality. Europe’s creeping dhimmitude, expressed in a refusal even to mention in its proposed constitution the “Judeo-Christian” values of its civilization, is one of the major elements of the current European-American divide.
— Bat Yeor is the author of The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude. Her latest book, Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide, has just been reprinted. A version of this article was first published in French and is translated by Nidra Poller in collaboration with the author.
Christmas brings our thoughts to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, a town the carol remembers as lying still, in deep and dreamless sleep.
Alas, Bethlehem now knows little stillness or sleep and, if Mary and Joseph were to arrive, life might be even more difficult — and the flight to Egypt come earlier.
Bethlehem’s Christians, gathered around the Church of the Nativity — one of Christianity’s holiest sites — were shaken last year when 200 Palestinians, firing Kalashnikovs, knocked down the church doors to escape the Israelis. They remained inside for 39 days, while eight people were killed and more than 25 were wounded. Never before had armed men been in the Nativity.
In the last three years, several thousand of Bethlehem’s Christians, perhaps five percent of the population, have left. They have gone for many reasons. One is simply that life is very, very harsh under the intifada and Israeli military action. Another is the rising power of radical Islam. A Pew survey in June found that Palestinians judged Bin Laden the “world leader” most likely to “do the right thing,” with 71-percent support. Next was Arafat with 69 percent. (Jacques Chirac came third at 32 percent). Surveys in October by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research put support for Arafat’s Fatah at 28 percent, with Hamas at 21 percent, and the total Islamist vote at 29 percent.
Like its parent, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas fights to reestablish an Islamic caliphate, and its founding covenant proclaims “the Koran is its constitution” and “the law governing the land of Palestine is the Islamic sharia.”
Islamization pressures now reach beyond Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and their kindred. The draft Palestinian constitution says, “Islam is the official religion in Palestine,” and makes the “principles of the Islamic sharia” a “main source for legislation.” Textbooks, PA television, and government-sponsored preachers now stress Islamist rather than nationalist themes. In a sermon broadcast on official television in 2000, Ahmad Abu Halabiya, of the PA’s Fatwa Council, declared: “Allah the almighty has called upon us not to ally with the Jews or the Christians, not to like them, not to become their partners, not to support them, and not to sign agreements with them. And he who does that is one of them, as Allah said: ‘O you who believe, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies, for they are allies of one another.’”
Under this pressure, Christians throughout the Middle East are fleeing their homeland. At the end of the 19th century, they were a quarter of the Holy Land’s population. Today they are barely a 40th. A similar exodus is taking place throughout the eastern Mediterranean, including Chaldeans and Assyrians from Iraq, Copts from Egypt, and Syriacs from Turkey (victims of Turkish Hezbollah before it turned its attention to bombing synagogues in Istanbul). This drain has given rise to fears that the Church’s original home will become little more than a Christian museum.
With Islamic conquest and occupation of the Middle East beginning in the seventh century, Christianity has a very long history of migrating. Over the last two millennia its demographic center has moved from the Holy Land, through Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, then to Spain. Now it lies just north of Nigeria: Two-thirds of the world’s Christians and four-fifths of its active Christians live outside the West.
Their Christmas joy is also shadowed by pain and fear, since this is the peak season for anti-Christian attacks in Pakistan, India, Sudan, Nigeria, and beyond. The U.S. has issued terrorist warnings to westerners in Indonesia, but the likeliest targets are churches throughout the country — there were Christmas Eve church bombings in 18 cities three years ago, and terrorists arrested this year had maps of Christian meeting places. This is also a time when the Chinese and Vietnamese governments are prone to arrest their unregistered believers.
But fear is only one part of the tale. For most, even in the heart of suffering, the larger story is hope. If I may repeat from my book Their Blood Cries Out:
Christians are African women who rise at dawn to greet the rising sun in a wailing chant of thanks to god. They are Indian untouchables cleaning up excrement from the streets. They are slaves in Sudanese markets. They are Chinese peasants flip-flopping by rice fields, or pedaling bicycles through Shanghai, or rotting in prison. They are Mexican tribal people, driven from their ancestral homes. They are Filipino maids, misused throughout the world. They are Arab women who have been raped and had acid poured on them to remove distinguishing Christian marks. And, overwhelmingly, they are people who, given a moment’s time, space and freedom, live life with joy, enthusiasm, gratitude, and hope.
For them, as for many of us, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Bethlehem tonight.
— Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom.
An NRO Q&A by Kathryn Jean Lopez
Seasoned journalist David Aikman is author of the new book Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power. He spoke to NRO about the state of Christians in China.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: How many Christians are there in China?
David Aikman: [There are] about 70 million Protestants and about 12 million Catholics.
Lopez: How have that many Christians managed to flourish in China, largely underground? What drives them?
Aikman: During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) every single church building (and mosque and temple as well) was closed in China. The formal, permitted structures of Chinese Protestantism and Catholicism had also been dissolved by Mao’s Red Guards. Christians become used to gathering in totally clandestine situations, in homes, fields, forests. Because the government was so overtly hostile to religion, Christians took the view that the best response was open and energetic evangelism wherever and whenever they could. Even when China began to open up in 1979 and the “official” churches were permitted to function once more, the “house church” networks had established such a powerful presence all over China that it made sense to continue to operate completely outside of the domain of any Chinese officialdom.
Lopez: Many of the Christians are elites — scientists, intellectuals. How did that happen?
Aikman: Several of the Chinese students and scholars studying in the U.S. and other foreign countries become Christian. Many of these also returned to China and meet up with colleagues of similar professional attainment who were holding private Christian meetings. Those attending these meetings then began to invite others. Word spread that Christianity “worked,” that is, that people who were Christian were genuinely concerned for each other’s welfare and that prayers often produced remarkable physical healings from difficult illnesses.
But another factor has been a very open-minded approach by many Chinese intellectuals into such phenomena as the remarkable historical primacy of Western civilization around the world. How could this happen? What were the core principles of Western civilization that enabled it, time and again, to correct itself rather than plunge into cyclical and eventually permanent decline? Many concluded that it was Christian ethics and the dynamism of a faith based on a profound hope in the future and a belief that history was not cyclical, as Buddhism and even Confucianism proclaimed, but linear, and with a specific end goal.
Finally, Christians in the fine and performing arts have shown that there is a way out from the often-nihilistic cycle of modernism and postmodernism. This can be very attractive to artists who would prefer a hope-filled universe in which to develop their creative skills.
Lopez: How harassed — and persecuted — are Christians in 2003 by the Chinese regime?
Aikman: In some parts of China, notably Henan province, where there are large communities of Christians, and in Anhui, the persecutions have been repeated and severe. There have been reports in the past few weeks of at least one Christian woman beaten to death in prison, and several more seriously injured as a result of beatings. One Christian whom I met in 1998 when I attended a gathering of house-church leaders was sentenced to two years in a labor camp for having written in his private prayer journal, among other things, that he was praying for a Christian constitution for China. The journal was seized during a fishing-trip search of his home. When a Chinese friend phoned the interrogator up to ask on what conceivable grounds this non-political and irenic citizen was being punished, the interrogator replied, “Mr. Zhang doesn’t have a criminal problem, he has a mind problem. He is too superstitious.” Translation: Zhang is a man of prayer.
Lopez: Are there some Christian denominations more targeted for crackdown than others?
Aikman: There are no “denominations” as such in China, only different kinds of Protestant house-church networks and some basically underground Catholic networks. In general, the authorities don’t pay any attention to theology (i.e., whether a group, for example, is Calvinist — “once saved, always saved”) but to how active a group is in spreading the Gospel and organizing meetings. The most active groups are frequently harassed and their leaders arrested and beaten.
Lopez: Are democracy advocates in China more likely to be Christian than not?
Aikman: No. There are plenty of pro-democracy secular activists in China. What has happened, however, is that some intellectuals who were dissident within China and then came to the West and became Christian, have integrated their faith with proposals for a new democratic governance in China. It is nevertheless true that all of China’s Christians would strongly support democratic change in China.
Lopez: You write that Christians in China are pro-Israel. How could a Christian China change global alliances and relationships?
Aikman: If Christians began to fill positions in China’s foreign ministry, strategic think tanks, and even high places within the government as a whole, China would become far less opportunistic about supporting any Middle Eastern group that happened to be critical of, or hostile to, the U.S. In addition, if China ever became open enough to be willing to permit Chinese missionaries to travel overseas, it would probably be supportive of efforts of Chinese missionaries to evangelize the Islamic world, especially the Arab Middle East. This, of course, would render China far less popular in the Muslim world as a whole and thereby far more likely to try to be “even-handed” in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Lopez: Is there any one person or two people who best exemplify/exemplifies Christianity in China?
Aikman: One man who epitomized Chinese Christianity until his death in 1991 was Wang Mingdao, an evangelical Protestant who had started a church in Peking (as it was then called) in the 1930’s. When the Japanese occupied Peking and North China, Wang refused to join one of their puppet Christian organizations, at some considerable personal risk. Later, after the Communists came to power in 1949, Wang similarly refused to be used in their own efforts to manipulate Protestant churches for political ends. Starting in 1956, he spent a total of 22 years in labor camp, steadfastly refusing to kowtow to the regime. Yet when he was released from camp about a decade before his death, he was completely lacking in rancor of any kind.
Another, contemporary figure who has been quite public about his faith is the prominent conductor Timothy Su. For three years Su has conducted first-class orchestras and choirs in public performances in Beijing of Handel’s Messiah in Chinese. He was permitted to conduct one performance in Guangzhou, but local authorities in Shanghai and other cities canceled the performances. Su is highly respected as a musician, and he is publicly known to be a Christian, a fact that has caused him problems when it comes to more performances of Christian worship music.
Lopez: How directly can U.S.-China policy affect Chinese Christians?
Aikman: The U.S. should constantly make it clear to the Chinese government that freedom of conscience is the only acceptable form of policy on religious matters. It should bring up at every opportunity in bilateral discussions specific cases of Christians who have been detained or mistreated because of their faith. At the same time, the U.S. government should not couch arguments in favor of religious freedom in forms that could be considered aggressive or threatening. Chinese officials visiting the U.S. should be encouraged as often as is practical to visit thriving American churches as well as synagogues and mosques in order to press home the point that religious freedom and diversity provides strengthens a nation’s cohesiveness.
Lopez: What do Chinese Christians tend to think about the U.S.?
Aikman: China’s Christians tend to be very pro-American. They tend to support the war on Iraq and Washington’s support for Israel. They greatly admire U.S. religious freedoms and the vigorous functioning of democracy. Most are not naïve about American social and cultural shortcomings.
Lopez: How can Christianity change China in coming years — and how soon will a dramatic difference be seen?
Aikman: Chinese Christians hope that by the year 2008, when China hosts the summer Olympic Games, China’s government will have radically improved conditions of religious life in China. In fact, many Chinese Protestant Christians hope that there will be an opportunity openly to celebrate the bicentennial in 2007 of the arrival of the first Protestant missionary to China, Robert Morrison (who settled in Canton).
Many Chinese Christians believe that a broad Christian constituency throughout China will be one of the few assurances that China can make a successful transition to democracy governance without violence.
Lopez: How will a Christian China affect the rest of the world?
Aikman: The question to ask before answering that is: What would a non-Christian China be like if it became a superpower capable of rivaling the U.S.? Probably dangerous and unpredictable. A Christian China would be far more likely to view its role in the world as containing a global moral responsibility, an “Augustinian” national self-view, if you like. In practice, a Christianized China would be far more likely to see eye-to-eye with the U.S. on many international issues.
Lopez: What did you find most surprising about present-day China during the course of writing Jesus in Beijing?
Aikman: I was struck again and again by how widespread the Christian presence is in China: taxi drivers in Beijing, businessmen in Wenzhou, academics in Shanghai. I was also powerfully aware of how many serious problems there are in the country that are festering away beneath the surface. Take Beijing’s 100,000 cab drivers: I would always ask them how many days off in vacation time they received each year. Some said two; most said none at all. I do not think such working conditions can be sustained for long in a country eager to develop into a stable, modern state.
Lopez: If there were only one thing readers could learn from your book, what would you hope it would be.
Aikman: I would like readers of Jesus in Beijing to grasp how Christianity, though assumed by many in the West to be outmoded and irrelevant to modern life, is regarded by many Chinese as the absolute key to a successful, peaceful, powerful modern China in the future.
Lopez: In terms of religion, are there any president-day or historical countries China resembles?
Aikman: Yes, the Roman Empire in the period approximately 200-300 A.D. Christianity thrived in the Roman Empire, but it was frequently — though inconsistently — suppressed harshly. Yet it is interesting that, by the end of the third century A.D., that is, before Constantine issued a decree of religious tolerance in (I think, 311 A.D.) there had been a “tipping point” in Roman culture and philosophy. The most celebrated Roman intellectuals and teachers were increasingly Christian.
In the modern period, the country that has set a precedent for China’s possible future development has been South Korea. Though Christians are not a majority — maybe they are about one third — South Korea is effectively “Christianized” in the sense that Christians fill very important positions throughout society and government. It was in many ways the self-organizing experience of Christian churches in Korea that enabled that nation to make a successful transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Lopez: Why do you think rather few journalists seem to have paid any attention to China’s Christian phenomenon?
Aikman: Because journalists in general tend to be secular and are often quite tone-deaf in their ability to grasp the significance of religious developments in any country.
Activists want Washington to confront Communist leaders for torturing and killing Christians.
While Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien wined and dined members of Congress last fall, human-rights advocates were also on the Hill. These watchdogs reported that the Communist government is beating and starving some Hmong Christians, and imprisoning others.
Fed up with such abuse, a coalition of Christian and human-rights monitors is asking the United States government to confront Vietnam. Vietnamese officials are increasingly harassing religious believers whom they believe threaten their authority.
Among Vietnam’s 81.6 million people are 6.3 million Christians, including 1.1 million evangelicals—with an estimated 250,000 Hmong believers. Evangelicals are growing at an annual rate above 6 percent, according to Operation World. The country’s Communist masters distrust the Hmong because they helped U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.
In February 2001, members of another ethnic minority, the Montagnards, peacefully protested for religious freedom and against the seizure of their lands by ethnic Vietnamese settlers. The government responded harshly, falsely claiming that the demonstrators were seeking independence. There are an estimated 500,000 Montagnard Christians.
Connie Snyder, vice president of International Christian Concern (ICC), told Christianity Today that many Christians in the Central Highlands are “fleeing into the jungle, where they are starved to death. If they flee to the [Cambodian] border and are captured, they face almost certain death.
“The government also interrogates pastors, and imprisons many of them. Many who are put in prison come out with handicaps.”
Buddhist groups not under the control of the government are also targets of persecution.
“The situation is getting progressively worse, not better,” Snyder said.
Names and places
Congressman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) agrees. “The stories of persecution and torture at the hands of the Vietnamese Communist rulers are staggering and appalling,” Royce said.
Authorities imprisoned Father Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly, a Roman Catholic priest, in May 2001 for “undermining state unity” by condemning Vietnam’s religious persecution in a letter to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He received a 15-year prison sentence. In September, Ly’s niece and nephews, who informed the world of the incident, received sentences of 3 to 5 years, since reduced.
According to Freedom House, Mua Bua Senh, a Hmong Christian leader, died on August 7, 2001, after an assault by police in Vietnam’s northwestern Lai Chau province for refusing to sign a government pledge renouncing his faith. Last year in Dak Lak province, in the Central Highlands, only 2 of 412 house churches remained open.
According to Freedom House, Che La commune officials beat Vang Seo Giao, a Hmong Christian leader, to death on July 1, then dumped his body in a nearby river.
Freedom House also says Chong Thanh Phia, 10, was murdered in April 2002 for refusing to tell security officers the whereabouts of his father, Giang, a Hmong Christian elder. The organization also says authorities are coercing Hmong Christians to sign a card recanting their faith, on threat of stricter “judgment according to law.”
Human-rights groups are asking Secretary of State Colin Powell to designate Vietnam a “country of particular concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Nina Shea, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in November joined two congressional Democrats and one Republican in calling on Vietnam “to cease its latest assault on human rights and religious freedom.” The commission was created as part of the IRFA.
Also in November, representatives Tom Davis (R-Va.), Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), and Royce unveiled House Resolution 427, a document produced by the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam. H.R. 427 calls on the State Department to designate Vietnam a CPC for “egregious, systematic and ongoing abuses of religious freedom.”
Once so designated, a country faces sanctions that could include economic sanctions on trade or aid.
Last year Secretary of State Colin Powell declined to designate Vietnam a CPC. In a report forwarded to the House International Relations Committee last January, the State Department said Vietnam was making progress in human rights.
Activists disagree vehemently. Shea, who is also director of the Center for Religious Freedom of Freedom House, told a congressional panel in October: “Vietnam ranks among the most repressive governments in the world with respect to religious freedom. Local officials are allowed to employ the most barbaric means of their choosing to carry out national directives to suppress the Christian religion among the Hmong. Higher ups in Hanoi simply look the other way and maintain plausible deniability.”
Activists are also lobbying for passage of the Vietnam Human Rights Act (H.R. 1950), which would prohibit non-humanitarian aid to Vietnam until the government stops violating the rights of its people.
Activists also want to pass the Freedom of Information Act in Vietnam (H.R. 1019), which would combat the Vietnam government’s jamming of Radio Free Asia and safeguard access to the RFA’s Internet sites.
The Vietnam Human Rights Act passed the House by a 410–1 vote last year. But presidential candidate John Kerry (D-Mass.), a Vietnam veteran, put it on hold in the Senate. Other senators reintroduced the act last session and attached it as an amendment to a foreign-relations spending bill.
Egyptian state security police arrested and tortured Christian converts
In a late October crackdown, state security police arrested and tortured a Christian couple from a Muslim background. Police also arrested and mistreated 20 other Egyptian citizens, many of whom are Christian converts. Authorities accused them of forging Christian identity papers for former Muslims.
By mid-November, 17 of the 22 were out on bail.
Police arrested the couple in Alexandria on October 18. Two days later, police transferred the two to central Cairo’s El-Mosky police station, where they were beaten, denied food, and hung by their arms. Others arrested in October were reportedly beaten, tortured, or raped.
Egypt’s constitution guarantees religious freedom. Christian citizens who want to convert to Islam are free to adopt Muslim names and change their official religious identities. But Muslims who become Christians often face arrest, torture, and threats. Islamic law demands that unrepentant apostates be executed.
Many converts have tried to change their religious status by bypassing government channels, leaving themselves open to the charge of falsifying official documents.
A group of former Muslims who have converted to Christianity issued an anonymous declaration from Cairo on October 26.
“We are between the jaws of the constitution and the [Islamic] legislation,” the Christian converts stated. “The Egyptian government … has deprived us of one of our basic legal rights.”
Millions have been converted after seeing films about Jesus, and Hindu radicals are responding with violence.
In the darkness of a July night, 200 villagers sat and stared at the makeshift movie screen alongside a river in Nanjanagudu, a rural community in India’s southwestern Karnataka state. Six Indian men in their late 20s stood by the LCD projector they had brought to show a film about Jesus.
Ignoring the plentiful mosquitoes and mat bugs, Lakshmamma, 45, a dark-skinned Dalit woman in the crowd, winced as she watched Roman soldiers drive long nails into the body of Jesus. For the fourth time, Lakshmamma was watching Dayasagar (Ocean of Mercy), a gripping Indian-produced feature film about Jesus translated into 15 major Indian languages under the sponsorship of Dayspring International in Virginia Beach. As the film depicted Christ on the cross, Lakshmamma wept openly.
For the last quarter-century, Operation Mobilization (OM), Campus Crusade, Vimukthi Baptist Church, Dayspring, Gospel for Asia, and others have been penetrating the thicket of traditional Indian culture with compelling feature films about the life of Christ.
Dayasagar and the Jesus film, one or both available in 70 of India’s 407 living languages, have won over large numbers of villagers. Dayspring says 19 million Indians have seen Dayasagar since 1979, and 7 million have made public Christian commitments. Campus Crusade says 500 film teams show the Jesus film to 100,000 Indians daily.
As a result, feature-film outreach has earned its place as a powerful tool for Christians in Hindu-majority India; it has also garnered severe opposition.
It takes 735,000 villages
After the film ended in Nanjanagudu, the mostly illiterate audience listened to Prakash, one of the six missionaries who had shown it. “Brothers and sisters, you saw how the Son of God gave his life to pay for our sins,” he said. Thirty minutes later, the gathering was dismissed and about 20 Dalits came forward to hear more about Jesus.
Dalits, trampled at the bottom of Hindu society, number about 300 million. Mostly landless agricultural laborers, they live in chronic poverty and experience widespread discrimination at the hands of elite, upper-caste Hindus. In recent years, Dalits have increasingly turned to Christianity and Buddhism to escape the Hindu system.
“In the Indian context of multifaith communities, propagating the story of Jesus is the wisest way to bring the people over to church,” said Joseph D’Souza, president of All India Christian Council. “The chief task is to inspire an attitudinal shift and then bring them to the central idea of faith. Film evangelists in India are doing the initial part of paving the ground for a personal experience of faith.”
Operation Mobilization has 140 field teams working with local churches to distribute literature and screen films. They introduce key Christian concepts, including the universal human need for salvation.
“After each show, 5 to 10 percent of viewers decide to choose Jesus as their Savior,” said Kumar Swamy, director of OM’s south zone. “We don’t force them to change their names that identify them as non-Christians or shun their gods. In the course of time, they themselves do it.” Swamy hopes to plant 1,000 new churches in southern India.
Each team conducts four screenings per week, traveling with a 40-pound power generator and related equipment. Teams have visited 85,000 villages, but 650,000 more villages remain on their list.
Campus Crusade for Christ has helped pay for film teams in India since 1983. These teams consist of three Indian Christians who show Jesus 100 times each year in remote villages. Their goal is to show the film to every one of India’s 1.1 billion people.
“Our film evangelism among extremely backward tribal groups in India is proving stunningly effective,” said a source at Campus Crusade in Bangalore, who asked not to be named.
He cited the case of the Bhils, a 90,000-strong tribal community living in villages of Gujarat and Rajasthan states. Bhils, an illiterate community, are stereotyped as crime-ridden, substance-abusing animists. In 1996, Campus Crusade India dubbed the Jesus film into the Bhil language and took it to their villages. Soon, 21 churches and 185 small fellowship groups sprouted.
“Now we have with us testimonials from opinion leaders of Bhils who say alcoholism and crime fell dramatically after the screening of the Jesus film to them,” he said.
Many film evangelists do not just roll up the screen and leave after the show but stay for follow-up. “So far OM has launched around 390 fellowships to instill faith among new followers, and many will gradually turn into full-fledged churches,” Swamy said.
Assaults and murder
All this success comes with a price in Hindu-majority India. Many Christian film evangelists across the country are facing abuse and death threats. In June 2000, Ashish Prabash, a full-time film missionary with Campus Crusade, was found stabbed to death in his home in Punjab. The killers are still at large.
Gospel for Asia reports that Titus, a missionary, was brutally beaten up earlier this year for attempting to show Ocean of Mercy in Jharkhand, a predominantly tribal area. Film ministries face the greatest hostility from Hindu militants in Bihar and Rajasthan states. “[The] threat is real and standing. We risk our lives while going into these villages with projectors and videocassettes,” said one ministry leader.
Film evangelists reported at least 16 cases of assault this year. One attack took place in July in Sirsi village in Karnataka. Unnamed assailants beat up a local pastor who worked with a film team. They confiscated tracts used in the outreach and burned them.
“The day is gone when one could easily show Jesus films or distribute tracts,” said Oliver D’Souza, south zone convener of the All India Christian Council. “These films leave a lasting impression on non-Christian viewers. It works like magic, and the Hindu extremists are left red-faced.”
Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose militant followers attack Christian film evangelists, share a political agenda with the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s ruling political party. In recent months, Hindu elites have moved to curtail the right to conversion.
In the midst of opposition, Christians in India are grappling with how to use this tool most effectively. OM workers, when not starting new churches, funnel new believers to existing local churches. Dayspring says workers have started 2,000 churches since 1979. Such claims are hard to verify, as long-term, independent studies do not exist.
Everyone involved agrees that local churches are key. Joseph D’Souza points out that long-term discipleship of new believers depends more on local congregations than on the efforts of film evangelists alone. “The church has to further utilize the effect of Jesus’ story on the masses. Some churches in India still have a shallow view on this. They have to chalk out well-thought-out strategies for spreading discipleship.”
Tom Steffen, a professor of intercultural studies at Biola University in southern California, agrees. “Films are most effective when connected to an ongoing church-planting movement,” Steffen said. He also said most audiences should have some understanding of the Bible and the film medium. Otherwise, conversions of enthusiastic people who come forward may not last.
The experience of Lakshmamma seems to bode well for the evangelistic use of film in rural cultures, however. Standing at a windy riverside in sleepy Mysore village, Lakshmamma said, “This film on Jesus brought a new meaning to my life. As I submitted myself to Jesus, a new sense of peace dawned on me. I was born a Dalit, but I don’t feel like a lesser being any more.”
Exaggerating our problems demeans the sacrifice of overseas believers.
A Christianity Today editorial
IN APRIL, Jack Moody Jr. tried to mail a Bible study, a book on God’s promises, and religious comic books to his son, Pfc. Daniel Moody, stationed in Iraq. The post office in Lenoir, North Carolina, refused to send them. Officials cited a postal regulation prohibiting the mailing of “any matter containing religious materials contrary to Islamic faith or depicting nude or seminude persons, pornographic or sexual items, or non-authorized political materials.”
Frustrating. But by way of contrast—just two months earlier in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, a Muslim extremist fired 28 bullets into the body of an Iraqi Christian taxi driver, killing him. Zewar Mohammed Ismael, 38, had converted from Islam four years earlier and gave Bibles to his passengers. The killer claimed Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, had told him in a dream to kill Ismael.
It’s understandable that David Limbaugh’s instant bestseller is full of incidents like the first example and not the second. But it’s regrettable that the publisher has set such incidents in a melodramatic context by using the title Persecution: How Liberals are Waging War Against Christianity.
A Long History of Bias
Limbaugh (brother of conservative broadcaster Rush Limbaugh) brings together scores of cases of discrimination against Christians in the USA. He spotlights examples in the public schools, in universities, on public property, in private and government workplaces, in municipal zoning, in the media, and in the pulpit.
The cases follow two key Supreme Court rulings. The court, in Everson v. Board of Education (1947), incorporated Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” language into constitutional law to strictly limit government funding of religion. Its 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision outlawed state-sponsored prayer in schools.
But Limbaugh overlooks the positive. The Supreme Court has affirmed equal access to public facilities for religious groups. President Bush is seeking to level the playing field for faith-based groups providing social services.
Although the book is too gloomy, Christians should be pleased with Limbaugh’s high-profile recitation of a creeping anti-Christian bias in American society. Another example (not in the book) involves the decision of General Motors a year ago to prohibit the GM Christian Employee Network from meeting on company property—even though GM allows affinity groups for Asians, African-Americans, women, the disabled, and homosexuals.
These double standards are maddening examples of what CT columnist Stephen Carter has rightly called a “culture of disbelief.” But in no way do they rise to the level of persecution.
How the Other Two-Thirds Lives
The early church experienced persecution as a part of the Christian life for 250 years, until Constantine signed the Edict of Milan in 313. Losing a job for sharing the gospel and being unable to speak of one’s faith at a high school graduation ceremony may be unjust. But these are not in the same league as being thrown to lions or being burned at the stake.
Nor are they vaguely similar to contemporary persecution. In October, for example, masked Islamic extremists in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, shot or hacked to death at least 10 Christians. We face no similar suffering in the United States. Implying that we do, as Persecution does, cheapens the sacrifices of Christians outside the West. As Richard John Neuhaus wrote in The Naked Public Square, “In societies such as ours, which place no formal liabilities upon being Christian, the contriving of persecution can only trivialize the very real persecution of Christians elsewhere.”
How soft we in the West have become. How could we possibly tell a fellow Christian hanging from a cross in Sudan that the American Civil Liberties Union is “persecuting” us? How would the story of our church’s zoning woes sound to a Christian sister in Pakistan who has been raped and forcibly married to a Muslim neighbor?
Incidents of torture and bloodletting are too common in the non-Western portion of Christ’s church, which constitutes 70 percent of global Christianity. According to the World Evangelical Alliance’s Religious Liberty Commission, 200 million Christians today live with serious persecution—threatened with prison, violence, and other actions—for their faith. Another 400 million face “non-trivial restrictions on their freedom and the loss of many basic human rights, simply because they choose to love and follow Jesus Christ.”
Secular tyrants such as Mao, Stalin, and Hitler ordered the worst examples of the 20th century’s shameful persecutions. Much of today’s persecution flows from non-Christian religious elites in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and elsewhere.
Thankfully, awareness of persecution continues to spread. Every November since 1996, hundreds of thousands of churches worldwide have participated in the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. In 1998, President Clinton signed into law the International Religious Freedom Act. Under the act, the independent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom monitors religious liberty worldwide.
The legal and cultural cases Limbaugh examines in his book can be called many things: injustice, liberalism run amok, or discrimination. But as long as we can redress these grievances in the courts of law and public opinion, for the sake of Zewar Mohammed Ismael’s widow and five children, let’s not label our grievances persecution. It demeans their sacrifice.
Potential converts must ask permission
India’s ruling right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is about to introduce a national law that will effectively prevent religious conversions among the Dalits. Increasing numbers of India’s 250 million Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, have been converting to Buddhism and Christianity.
In September the BJP-controlled National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes introduced the rule without seeking approval from the Indian Parliament. The rule is modeled after similar legislation in Tamil Nadu, Orissa, and Gujarat states. It will become law when officially published.
The rule requires that anyone wishing to change religion receive written permission from a local official.
“This rule is not against conversion. We are just trying to regulate forcible conversion,” said Bizay Sonkar Shastri, commission chairman.
In India, 350 million people are illiterate. About 260 million fall below the poverty line. The rule also requires that aspiring converts have a secondary education.
“This will effectively deny a large section of Indians their right to religious faith ensured by India’s Constitution,” said Oliver D’Souza of the All India Christian Council.
Meanwhile, India’s Supreme Court on September 1 ruled that there is “no fundamental right to convert” someone from one religion to another. The court said the government may restrict conversions.
Christian massacre survivor released from custody, detained, and then released again.
Karachi police authorities forcibly abducted an eyewitness survivor to last month’s deadly Christian welfare agency massacre from the premises of the Sindh High Court Tuesday, minutes after the court had ordered his release from illegal police detention. He was re-released later that night.
Robin Peranditta, 27, was the only eyewitness not shot during the September 25 attack against the Institute for Peace and Justice (IPJ) offices in central Karachi where he worked. He has been held in police “protective custody” ever since the attack, in which seven Christians were shot to death and another was critically wounded.
When he appeared Tuesday before a division bench of the Sindh High Court, Peranditta could barely walk, observers in the courtroom said. “He appeared visibly shaken and scared,” reported the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), a Christian advocacy group which filed a constitutional petition for his release on October 4. “He didn’t say a word in the court,” one observer noted.
According to a court-ordered report submitted at Tuesday’s hearing by Nazir Moinuddin Ahmad, the detained Christian has suffered “severe physical and mental torture” while in the custody of the Criminal Investigation Agency (CIA). On October 8, the Sindh High Court had extended Peranditta’s detention until Tuesday to allow security police time to complete investigations into the unsolved attack.
Yesterday’s edition of The News reported that Ahmad had examined Peranditta yesterday at the CIA Center in Karachi’s Saddar district. The examiner said he found “blue patches around Robin’s eyes, buttocks and at the back of his hands. He was highly afraid, was under severe tension and even could not walk easily, while his health had also declined considerably,” the report concluded.
“The court took serious note of this,” Peranditta’s lawyer Noor Naz Agha said by telephone from Karachi. At the close of the hearing, the two judges ruled that Peranditta’s detention had been illegal, canceling his arrest orders and ordering him set free immediately.
“But while we were going down the stairs,” Agha said, “the police surrounded us suddenly, beating us, and forcibly taking away Robin.” Agha and three other lawyers in the case were injured when the police hit and shoved them, she said.
Agha said that CLAAS coordinator Joseph Francis, the legal petitioner on Peranditta’s behalf, was threatened and cursed by a police officer during the skirmish. “Joseph was trying to save Robin, saying to them, ‘How can you take him? You can’t do this, the court order doesn’t permit it!’” Agha said.
“The order is our foot!” one of the officers shouted back, the lawyer said. “So they were kicking Robin as they took him into custody,” she said.
According to a Catholic cleric who attended the hearing and saw the police action, the whole incident took place “right in front of the press and the lawyers and all who were present there. They were so violent, they were beating him and kicking him and pushing him along.”
Agha said she had informed the presiding justice of the abduction, which occurred about 3 p.m. “I didn’t go to my office afterwards,” she admitted, “because I am afraid that they can do anything to me, and to Joseph, too. Thank God that we were on the court premises at that time, or otherwise they could have done anything they liked to us.”
Agha has filed a paper demanding that the police give an explanation for defying the court order to release her client immediately after the trial.
“I am so afraid for Robin,” she said Tuesday. “The police didn’t have the right to take him, but they have done it. And I am afraid that they might kill him.”
A Pakistan official told the Associated Press that Peranditta was released later that night but “he will remain under observation for some days to check who is coming to meet him.” The city’s police chief told Pakistan’s Daily Times on Tuesday night that the police held him until “completing the formalities but will be questioning him in future to solve the case.”
Meanwhile, Peranditta’s colleague, Robin Shareef, has survived a bullet wound to his head and is still recovering at Karachi’s Agha Khan Hospital. Shareef, 24, worked as a librarian and receptionist in the IJP offices. Although he remains paralyzed on his left side, his doctors reportedly believe he will gradually regain the ability to walk. He still does not know that seven of his co-workers died in the September 25 attack.
According to a source close to the IPJ, the agency’s offices are still sealed by government order. “We cannot even get out our letterhead stationery,” the source said. “And until today, the government has not come up with anything,” he said, in regard to promised compensation to the families of the seven murdered men, all married with children.
Church sources in Karachi confirmed that two young Christian neighbors of Peranditta were arrested about 10 days ago, as reported in Urdu-language newspapers, allegedly on suspicions of complicity in the attack. “We are also trying to get them out of police custody,” the source said, “because they are also innocent, and not involved at all.”
[Note: This article was published before the war.]
Vital but dwindling Christians face many pressures.
Georges Hormis Sada was an air vice marshal in Saddam Hussein’s military. By any standard, he was a success. His son became a doctor in the United Kingdom. His daughter is a teacher in Jordan. With a monthly salary of 1,000 Iraqi dinars—worth $3,300—he had a bank account worth over $3 million. “It was a great life,” he says.
In a country that is 96 percent Muslim, Sada is a Presbyterian. Now retired, he is the president of the National Presbyterian Church in Baghdad and chairman of the Assembly of Evangelical Presbyterian Churches–Iraq.
Nearly two decades of war, crushing United Nations sanctions, and a regime willing to let its people suffer rather than comply with U.N. resolutions about its weapons programs have all contributed to the deaths of at least 1 million Iraqis. During this time, currency devaluation has shriveled Sada’s bank account to the equivalent of $500.
Yet Sada, 62, deflects talk of leaving the country (although about one-third of the country’s Christians emigrated during the 1990s). “We are praying very hard,” Sada told Christianity Today by telephone during a visit to the United Kingdom. “We know that one day our Lord will make it better.”
Marilyn Borst has made four visits to Iraq since 1998 as a missions catalyst at First Presbyterian Church in Houston and as a leader of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding. She notes that three Presbyterian churches are in or next to the northern and southern no-fly zones patrolled by American and British pilots.
“I’ve heard the fighters there. I’ve heard the antiaircraft responses on the ground from the Iraqis. I’ve heard the air raid warnings,” Borst said. “So there is a great deal of fear.”
Saying they trust in God’s providence, Iraq’s Presbyterians are continuing with worship, Sunday school, and youth meetings inside their buildings. Christians say the Iraqi president makes inexpensive building materials available to churches, gives land, and has even provided pipe organs.
“Far from repressing Christianity, the government of Iraq supports a multiplicity of religious expression, seeing this as a way of providing balance,” Borst said.
Some observers, however, think Saddam Hussein’s support of Christian churches is partly propaganda and partly an effort to maintain allegiance to his military regime. Operation World notes, “Religious minorities have been favored by Saddam Hussein if they demonstrated loyalty.”
Presbyterian missionaries came to Iraq in 1836. Iraq has five Presbyterian churches with an estimated 3,000 members. Iraqi Presbyterians, however, tally membership by numbers of families. The oldest church, in Mosul, founded in 1840, has just five to ten member families. National Presbyterian in Baghdad, founded in 1952, has more than 300 families. The Assyrian Presbyterian Church, Baghdad, founded in 1921, has 36 families. Kirkuk’s National Presbyterian Church, founded in 1958, has 36 families. The only church in the south, National Presbyterian Church in Basra, established in 1940, has 32 families, down from 110.
According to tradition, in the first century the apostle Thomas evangelized the region we today call Iraq. An estimated 600,000 Christians live in the country of 22 million people. By far the largest group is the Chaldean Catholic Church, followed by the Assyrian Church of the East (called the Nestorians by some), the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Human rights questions
Despite relative freedom for Christians, the U.S. State Department designated Iraq as a “country of particular concern” in 1999, 2000, and 2001 for severe violations of religious freedom. The State Department says the regime, run by Sunni Muslims, “for decades has conducted a brutal campaign of murder, summary execution, arbitrary arrest, and protracted detention” against the majority Shi’a population. American officials estimate that government policies have killed at least 130,000 Iraqi civilians during Saddam Hussein’s 23-year rule.
In addition, the regime does not recognize Assyrians and Chaldeans as separate ethnic groups. The State Department’s 2002 Religious Freedom Report notes that the regime “has sought to undermine the identity” of minority Assyrian and Chaldean Christians.
Early this year, the government placed all Christian clergy and property under the full control of the Ministry of Islamic Property. Sada, speaking for the Presbyterians, declined to discuss any government restrictions, citing Romans 13. “We obey the government, as the Bible has told us,” Sada said. “Therefore, whatever comes from our government, we will try to handle it.”
Borst acknowledged that Iraqis speak cautiously if at all about their situation. “Knowing of their government’s concern with maintaining internal security, most Iraqis assume that their phone conversations and print interchanges—both mail, and, more recently, e-mail—may need to be monitored,” Borst said. “But even in face-to-face conversations inside Iraq, I have never heard a disparaging word spoken about the current regime.”
Some observers fear that Iraqi Christians may become targets of opportunity for radical Muslims in the event of a U.S.-led assault on Iraq. Albert Shawo, 78, immigrated to the Chicago area with his wife in 1992. Shawo was an elder in the Assyrian Presbyterian Church in Baghdad, a member of a Presbyterian Church in Dohuk that is now a medical center, and a former secretary and treasurer of the Presbyterian assembly. Shawo is one of the 82,000 members of the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac immigrant population recorded by the 2000 U.S. Census. (Unofficial estimates are much higher.)
“Anti-Christianity has expanded a lot,” Shawo said of Iraq. “They make it public: ‘We don’t like you.’ You hear it when they are preaching on Fridays.”
On August 15, three men entered the Sacred Heart of Jesus Monastery in Baghdad. They beheaded Sister Cecilia Moshi Hanna, 71. Observers believe Islamic extremists were responsible, but the government has made only one arrest and has said little about the case. Inside Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, Assyrian Christians have reported numerous attacks against people and property.
Jim Jennings heads Conscience International, an Atlanta-based humanitarian organization. “If you understand the relative position of Christians in the Middle East, it helps you understand the tolerance and even support Christians have for the government,” Jennings said. “The people there are really afraid of the Muslim extremists.”
For his part, Sada insists that Christians and Muslims in Iraq are on friendly terms. Sada says Muslims allowed Christians to live on their farms during the Gulf War when the cities—where most Christians live—were being bombed.
In the meantime, Christian ministries are finding ways to meet well-defined needs in Iraq. The Bible Society in Lebanon, with support from its counterpart in Jordan and other organizations, distributed nearly 6,400 Bibles and 9,300 New Testaments in Iraq in 2000 and 2001.
Working with Presbyterians, the Cairo-based Arab World Evangelical Ministers Association sends representatives into Iraq three times a year. They provide training in evangelism, prayer, leadership, and ministry. The Mennonite Central Committee and the American Friends Service Committee are also doing relief and development work. The largest Presbyterian church in the Middle East, Kasr el-Dobara in Cairo, sends lay leaders to teach and pray with Iraqi church leaders in Jordan.
Tom Hoglind of the Bible Society of Lebanon says that many Iraqi Christians have experienced revival since the Gulf War and have started ministering to the disabled and other social outcasts. Alluding to Abraham, who lived in this region, Hoglind said, “If God asked me if I could find 10 righteous men in Iraq, I can assure you that they are in place. They are Iraqis who love their country and the people living there.”
Chinese intelligence and security forces attack anew.
Last July 6 about 300 officers of China’s Public Security Bureau (PSB) disrupted Christians at worship in the village of Hengpeng and demolished their church building. A week later, police raided a house church in Xiaoshan city while Christians were meeting at 4 A.M. for Sunday prayer and worship. Both were churches of the “Little Flock” network, founded by Watchman Nee. Nee died for his faith in a Chinese labor camp in 1973.
Authorities arrested at least three leaders in the Xiaoshan church. At the beginning of 2003, Christian leaders in China said they had learned from “inside sources” that the government was planning to systematically crush the house church movement. The SARS epidemic evidently stalled those plans, and now the campaign has begun, they believe.
Chinese authorities consider unregistered congregations political subversives. Protestant churches are allowed to register only through the China Christian Council and its related Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Most house churches balk at registering through the Council and TSPM because of their close cooperation with the government.
New regulations prepared in late 2001 allowing house churches and other congregations to register apart from TSPM “were never rolled out,” says Carol Hamrin, a consultant on China.
The Chinese constitution protects religious freedom. Recently, some unregistered churches have successfully appealed to the constitution to obtain reparations for harm done to their leaders or facilities. But the Communist regime forbids worship outside state-backed “patriotic” religious bodies. Evangelism outside church buildings also is forbidden, though both officially recognized and unregistered churches are growing rapidly.
The Communist government finds this growth politically threatening. On August 28 agents of the PSB—the central government’s intelligence agency—arrested 170 worshipers at a house church in Nanyang County, Henan province. At press time all but seven church leaders were released.
During a two-month period beginning in mid-August, authorities closed or bulldozed more than 100 churches in the town of Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, said Bob Fu of China Aid Association. The government has intensified its campaign to force churches to register, then declares illegal those who refuse, he said.
“The new government is at least continuing the implementation of the former government’s policy in a more formal way,” Fu said.
On September 26 PSB agents arrested a lawyer for the imprisoned leader of the South China Church, Gong Shengliang. Xiao Biguang, who had notified foreign media that prison authorities had beaten Gong nearly to death, was released following worldwide protests.
Family saw prisoner injured and bound with heavy chains.
By Compass Direct, Nanjing
A woman belonging to a house church died in police custody on October 30 last year. Police in the village of Dongmiaodong, in Shandong province, arrested Zhang Hongmei, 33, on October 29 for “illegally carrying out religious activities.”
That afternoon, police summoned Zhang’s family members and asked them to pay a bribe equal to $400, according to Philadelphia-based China Aid. Unable to raise the money, Zhang’s family returned to the police station at 7 p.m. to beg for mercy. As members pleaded with police officers, they saw that Zhang was injured and bound with heavy chains. She was not able to speak with them.
Officials summoned the family back to the police station the next day. Police said Zhang had died at noon. A subsequent autopsy revealed several wounds to her face, hands and leg, along with serious internal bleeding.
On November 31, Zhang’s family approached city officials and asked for an inquiry. Approximately 1,000 people joined a march in front of the Pingdu city offices that day, a rare display of protest.
A senior house-church leader says repression continues in many areas. Unregistered house churches are harassed, their members fined, and their leaders jailed and sent without trial to “re-education through labor” camps. The house-church leader sees little hope of improvement in the near future.
BAGHDAD — Hope has become increasingly rare among Iraq’s Christian minority, which says it is under threat as never before.
But Sister Beninia Hermes Shoukwana, the nun who has served as headmistress at the Hebtikar public school for more than 30 years, sees the threats and violence against her faith as just another challenge to be met.
About 10 percent of Iraq’s estimated 800,000 Christians have fled the country, most of them to neighboring Syria.
“The people are terrified, actually, about what is happening,” said the Rev. Saad Hanna, a priest at Mary Jacob Church in the Dora section of Baghdad, which recently was blackened by a bomb. Its parishioners number a third of what they did before the war.
“The people no longer come to church,” Father Hanna says. “The truth is we are in trouble and we don’t know how to overcome this.”
Sister Shoukwana, 64, does not hide her distress over the fate of her fellow Iraqi Christians, most of them Chaldeans — members of the Nestorian sect who converted to Catholicism in the 16th century.
“For years, Christians and Muslims lived like brothers and sisters. Today, the extremists are trying to separate us,” she says.
She vows to continue running her white-brick school attended by 3,000 students and keep building bridges between Iraq’s faiths.
For years, she says, she has been peppered with the same innocent questions from her mostly Muslim student body.
“ ‘Madame Headmistress,’ they ask me, ‘why don’t you dress like mommy? Why do you always wear the same white dress?’ “
But this year, she began hearing more vicious remarks from parents and students.
“I’ve been accused of trying to convert little Muslims into Christianity,” Sister Shoukwana says as the worry creases spread across her forehead. “Leaflets have been distributed asking the parents to withdraw their kids from my school.”
She says fliers were distributed in her hometown of Mosul during Ramadan, ordering Christian women to wear Islamic-style head scarves.
Before that came a wave of attacks on five Baghdad churches in October, the second mass targeting of churches. Attacks on churches in August killed at least 10 and wounded nearly 50 Iraqi Christians.
Through it all, Sister Shoukwana has been fearless in defense of her school.
During the lawless period after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime last year, she holed up for months at Hebtikar, protecting it from would-be looters.
“I wasn’t armed, and I was vulnerable,” she says. “But I confronted the thieves, and they went away.”
Despite the prejudice against her faith, a growing demand for education has more and more parents trying to get their children into her school. Some classrooms have as many as 60 students, and the school is building an annex.
“Of course, I’m afraid that the fanatics will consider this school a target,” says Khaled Hamed Rachid, whose three daughters attend Hebtikar. “Even so, I will never take my daughters out of the school, because its level of discipline is unique.”
Despite her administrative duties, Sister Shoukwana maintains a hands-on approach to running the school. At recess time, she hollers through a megaphone, demanding order from the crowd of uniformed children pouring into the yard.
“Stay in line,” she commands. “Don’t run around.”
The children obey.
If classes end abruptly because of fighting in the Iraqi capital or a nearby explosion that rattles students, she often remains in the school until dawn, making sure her students and teachers have arrived home safely.
Even so, 16 of her students, mostly Christians, have left the country. Every day, desperate parents visit her office, telling her that they are frightened and are considering abandoning Iraq. She urges them to stay.
“I try to explain to them that wherever they go they’ll always be immigrants,” she says. “Iraq is like our house. It’s our duty to try to clean up our house.”
Wife of Coptic priest allegedly taken by Muslim extremists in Egypt
Muslim extremists have allegedly abducted a Coptic priest’s wife in Egypt and forced her to convert to Islam, prompting demonstrations today by thousands of Christian Copts in various parts of the nation against what they say is the government’s failure to protect them against anti-Christian crimes.
Foreign journalists have been barred from the protest areas, the U.S. Copt Association told WorldNetDaily.
Over 3,000 Coptic demonstrators gathered yesterday and today in Cairo, el-Minia, el-Behara and Assiut provinces to protest what they say is the abduction and forced conversion to Islam of Wafaa Constantine Messiha, the wife of a Coptic priest based in Egypt. Demonstrators charged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been indifferent to Coptic pleas for protection from Muslim-led persecution, and called on the U.S. to immediately intervene.
“The situation in Egypt is exploding every minute for the last three days,” Emil Zaki, vice president of the U.S. Copt Association told WorldNetDaily. “Muslims are regularly attacking Copts, and they kidnapped the wife of a priest to force her to convert to Islam.”
Zaki, who says he has been in hourly contact with the protest leaders, said he was told the Egyptian government has barred foreign journalists from attending the rallies. He said only state-run and Arabic networks have been allowed to report from the protest sites.
Indeed, the only media outlet with footage of the protests, Al Jazeera, reported Messiha was not kidnapped, but willingly converted to Islam and ran away from her husband.
“The government wont be able to keep the situation hidden from the international media for long, with clashes increasing by the minute,” said Zaki.
Although Egypt’s native Christian Coptic population, which constitutes between 8 and 15 percent of Egypt’s population depending on which statistical information is used, have long clashed with Muslim extremists, demonstrators say a recent rise in anti-Coptic sentiment has prompted an escalation in violence.
Recent crimes cited by the demonstrators include an increased rate of kidnapping, rapes and forced conversion of young Coptic women.
They said on Friday Muslim villagers stormed and set fire to a building housing a Coptic prayer room. The mob then swept through the village, looting and burning Coptic homes and businesses, destroying a Coptic priest’s car and injuring several Copts in the process, the demonstrators said. They claim the mob was prompted by an announcement that Mubarak refused a request by a local Coptic community to build a church.
In a letter to President Bush, Michael Meunier, president of the U.S. Copts Association, appealed for his immediate intervention with Mubarak on behalf of Egypt’s persecuted Copts.
“Mubarak’s regime has not only ignored, but in many cases contributed to the alarming increase in anti-Coptic violence,” said Meunier. “Only President Bush’s personal intervention can help prevent the escalation of these hate crimes into full-fledged cultural genocide.”
An online petition prompted by the association, asks U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, through the U.S. ambassador in Egypt, David Welch, “to interfere and demand the release of Mrs. Messiha from her captors, and put and end to the police brutality, terror and organized persecution against the Coptic Christians of Egypt.”
“Please be advised that thousands of Coptic Christian youth are currently demonstrating for her release inside and around churches in several provinces, including Cairo, and being subjected to brutality by local police and security forces,” says the petition.
The Coptic Church, a major Christian community in Egypt, reportedly dates back to the origins of Christianity. When the Christian church was torn apart by the fifth century controversies on the identity of Christ, most Egyptian Christians sided with the Monophysite party, which held that Christ has one nature, a doctrine condemned at the Christian Council of Chalcedon, which defined the person of Jesus Christ as being “one in two natures.” The doctrine of “two natures” appeared to them to imply the existence of two Christs, divine and human.
Monophysitism is still formally affirmed by the Coptic Church, which declared itself independent of the Coptic patriarch in 1959. The Coptic Church is headed by the “patriarch and pope of Alexandria, Pentapolis and Ethiopia,” who is elected by the entire community of clergy. His permanent residence is in Cairo.
Individuals and groups who practice their religion outside state controls are often at serious risk of being detained, arrested and sentenced to prison, stated a recently released report focused on human rights defenders in China.
“Amnesty International remains deeply concerned about ongoing patterns of arbitrary detention, torture or ill-treatment and other serious human rights violations against those defending the right to religious belief,” the organization stated its first report on China that focused specifically on human rights defenders.
Amnesty International, which released the report on Dec. 6, stated that criminal charges such as “illegal assembly” and “spreading rumors and incitement to disturb social order” have been used against Christian congregations meeting in unofficial churches.
Although “freedom to believe in or not to believe in religion” is guaranteed by the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, the Constitution makes it clear that only the freedom to engage in “normal religious activities” is protected, Amnesty International reported. These are understood to be activities sanctioned and controlled by the state-run associations representing the five officially recognized religions in China: Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Islam and Daoism.
According to Amnesty International, the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), which administers all official religious activity in China, obliges religious groupings first and foremost to be “patriotic”. Recent pronouncements by the government on religion have also emphasized that “the broad masses of believers” must play a role in “reform and opening up, and socialist modernization”. Such policies have resulted in numerous official controls over all religious groups in China such as the prohibition of Catholics in China to express loyalty to the Vatican and the requirement for religious leaders and teachers to undergo “patriotic education” – the compulsory study of political doctrine.
Individuals and groups who practice their religion outside state controls are often at serious risk of being detained, arrested and sentenced to prison, the report noted. Several Christian groups practicing outside state control have officially been banned as “heretical organizations”, leading to widespread arrests of their members. In the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and Tibet, “religious extremism” is regarded by authorities as one of “three evil forces” along with “separatism” and “terrorism.”
“Leaders and members of unofficial ‘underground’ or ‘house’ churches have often been detained by police in ‘sweep’ operations, and are at high risk of suffering torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in police custody,” Amnesty International stated in its report. In July 2004, China’s official press reported that Jiang Zongxiu, a 34-year-old woman detained when handing out Bibles in Guizhou Province in mid-June, was beaten to death in police custody on the day she was detained.
The U.S.-based Cardinal Kung Foundation estimates there are around 50 members of the unofficial Catholic clergy who are either in prison or labor camps, or whose whereabouts are unknown, following detention by the authorities. “Many are elderly,” the report stated. “These bishops and priests were all sentenced or detained as a direct result of exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of religion, or defending the right to religious freedom for members of their congregations.”
Since March 2003 there has been an increased crackdown against underground churches, and many unauthorized places of worship used by Protestants and Catholics have been demolished by the authorities. “A strategy commonly used by the authorities to stop ‘illegal religious activities’ is to simply demolish places of worship,” the report stated. The demolition of churches and homes used for prayer groups has been reported in various parts of China, including Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Hebei provinces.
In August 2004, three Christian underground church leaders were sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to three years on charges of “supplying state secrets to foreign entities” after sending details to a U.S.-based Christian publication of the demolition of churches in Jiangsu and Hebei Province, and the detention of around 300 members of the churches’ congregations. The arrest and sentencing of the three drew widespread protest from human rights groups and Christian persecution watchdogs.
Amnesty International, which has published numerous reports on the detention of prisoners of conscience in China, has called on the authorities to ensure that all those defending the right to freedom of religion are able to do so without fear of arbitrary detention or other serious human rights violations.
The new rules on religious affairs in China will not lead to more freedoms, analysts said yesterday. Instead, the regulations—made public Sunday by official media—could signal a tougher time for underground churches and groups not officially sanctioned.
While the new regulations are said to safeguard religious freedom and human rights, sources informed Agence France-Presse that the main tone of the regulations has not changed. “They still stress the overruling importance of state interests over religious affairs,” AFP reported.
“Religious bodies, activities and believers should abide by the Constitution, laws and regulations to safeguard national unity, racial harmony and social stability,” states one clause.
Analysts told AFP that the rules, which protect only the legal rights of state-sanctioned religious groups, meant non-state-sanctioned ones such as Christian house churches or other religious sects would be worse off.
“It is a two-edged sword,” said Chan Kim-kwong, a China expert at the Hong Kong Christian Council. “In terms of implementation, it is now clear what they should supervise, or what they shouldn’t bother with.”
Chan told AFP that under the clearer regulations, there would be less room for maneuver for individual groups not registered with the state—as in the often ambiguous rules of the past.
“For those which are not registered, Chinese government’s dismissal of them in terms of banning or punishment will be stepped up,” he added. “These groups will have even less room for survival. When the grey areas have gone and if you’re not registered, you won’t be in the game anymore.”
According to the 2004 International Religious Freedom Report, the China Government has sought to restrict religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship and to control the growth and scope of activities of religious groups.
Analysts say the new regulations—to take effect on Mar. 1, 2005—clarify the areas of supervisory responsibility of various government departments and the sorts of religious activities, projects and publications that should come under state control.
Nicolas Becquelin, research director of Human Rights in China, told AFP it indicated a stepping up of the supervision of religions.
“We’re still talking about a socialist atheist state with the dominant ideology that religion is a bad thing,” he said. “But over the past 20 years the state has moved from trying to stamp out religion to trying to manage it.”
He noted that the rules still required religious groups to register with the state—a de-facto approval process which has barred myriad groups from being recognized as legal religious entities.
“The government is still using registration to enforce political control and there is no way to appeal the process,” Becquelin said.
The U.S. State Department, which released its annual report on religious freedom on Sept. 15, reported that the China Government tries to control and regulate religious groups to prevent the rise of groups that could constitute sources of authority outside of the control of the Government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The report stated that unregistered religious groups continued to experience varying degrees of official interference and harassment. Members of some unregistered religious groups, including Protestant and Catholic groups, were subjected to restrictions, including intimidation, harassment, and detention. In some localities, “underground” religious leaders reported ongoing pressure either to register with the State Administration for Religious Activities (SARA, formerly known as the central Religious Affairs Bureau) or its provincial and local offices, still known as Religious Affairs Bureaus (RAB).
However, despite efforts at government control, official sources, religious professionals, and persons who attend services at both officially sanctioned and underground places of worship all reported that the number of believers in the country continued to grow.
The Prohibition of Forcible Conversions of Religion Bill of Sri Lanka, proposed by a member of a party of Buddhist monks, was published in a local gazette late May. Among other clauses, the bill proposed that anyone involved in illegal conversion, may be fined up to $5,027 and serve up to seven years in prison. Both the convert and the person responsible for his or her conversion would suffer penalties if found guilty.
Shortly afterwards, the Sri Lankan government drafted a similar bill that was approved by the Cabinet June 24.
While sources say that the bill would punish only those convicted of coercion, allurement, or fraudulent means to convert a person from one religion to another, Christians have voiced concern that the tough measures may be misused in the country of Buddhist-majority.
In protest of the bills, heads of the Anglican, Baptist, Dutch Reformed, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches, the Church of South India and the Salvation Army, and the Catholic Churches in Sri Lanka signed a statement on June 29.
“No fetters should be placed in the path of the exercise of [religious] freedom by legislative or other means,” the statement read. “All religions teach their adherents to perform works of charity and all such works of charity cannot be permitted to be criminalized on the assertion that they serve as allurements. It is both a basic feature and duty of all religions to teach and propagate their faith, for in doing so they spread the highest human values.”
Evildoers abuse the trust of their victims when they have gained it through allurement. Though the surreptitious motive may not be visible before affliction; its consequences reveal the heart of an ill-motivated offender. Feasibility of construction of anti-conversion laws lies in evaluating the effectivity of the policy by observing the results of alleged cases of proselytizations. In other words, the law makes sense only when there is a sufficient number of cases in which the induced conversion has afflicted the convert.
If there is a notable number of cases that renders the policy useful, then in a nation where Christianity is the most prominent religion of those who engage in pro-active propagation of spiritual message; anti-conversion law is an attempt to curb Christian mission works and evangelism.
Many Christians will be falsely accused, convicted, and punished, as well as the diverse religious bodies in Sri Lanka whose efforts to share their faith are seen as attempts to “allure” others. Conclusively, the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions is a strategic element to stifle the expansion of His Kingdom, and our missionaries who stand firmly against it will attest to their greater love for Sri Lanka.
Iraq’s Christian minority is being driven out of its ancestral homeland by a wave of persecution as devastating as any tsunami. In less than four weeks, a pivotal election will take place in Iraq that represents this community’s best hope for finding a secure home there, yet they find themselves marginalized and pushed aside in the electoral process — not only by their tormentors but, perhaps inadvertently, by the U.S. government. These Christians, who are both pro-Western and pro-democracy, need our help so that they can build a future in their native land with a modicum of security and freedom. Without it, they will leave, and U.S. Iraq policy will be dealt a setback so severe it may never recover.
Tens of thousands of Iraq’s nearly one million ChaldoAssyrians, as this indigenous cultural and linguistic ethnic group is called under Iraq’s Transitional Administrative Law, have fled into exile over the past few months. Their leaders fear that, like the Iraqi Jews — who accounted for a third of Iraq’s population until facing relentless persecution in the middle of the last century — they may leave en masse. Though many Iraqis, particularly moderates, suffer violence, the ChaldoAssyrians, along with the smaller non-Muslim minorities of Sabean Mandeans and Yizidis, may be as a group all but eradicated from Iraq. Their exodus began in earnest in August after the start of a terrorist bombing campaign against their churches. With additional church bombings right before Christmas, hundreds more Christian families escaped in fear to Jordan and Syria.
In the run up to elections, Sunni terrorists and insurgents have targeted the ChaldoAssyrians with particular ferocity, linking them to the West. The main Assyrian Christian news agency AINA.org reported last week that the kidnapping tally for Christians now ranges in the thousands, with ransom payments averaging $100,000 each. One who could not afford the payment, 29-year-old Laith Antar Khanno, was found beheaded in Mosul on December 2, two weeks after his kidnapping. Cold-blooded assassinations of Christians are also on the rise. Prominent Assyrian surgeon and professor Ra’aad Augustine Qoryaqos was shot dead by three terrorists while making his rounds in a Ramadi clinic on December 8. That same week two other Christian businessmen from Baghdad, Fawzi Luqa and Haitham Saka, were abducted from work and murdered.
Both Sunni and Shiite extremists who seek to impose their codes of behavior have been ruthless toward the Christians, throwing acid in the faces of women without the hijab (veil) and gunning down the salesclerks at video and liquor stores. In the north, Kurdish administrators have withheld U.S. reconstruction funds from ChaldoAssyrian areas, and, together with local peshmerga forces, have confiscated some Christian farms and villages. Of the $20 billion that American taxpayers generously provided for the reconstruction of Iraq two years ago, none so far has gone to rebuild ChaldoAssyrian communities. The State Department is distributing these funds exclusively to the Arab- and Kurdish-run governorates — the old Saddam Hussein power structure — who fail to pass on the ChaldoAssyrian share.
Though Iraq’s president, prime minister, and Grand Ayatollah Sistani have all denounced the attacks against the Christians, the persecution has not abated. The ChaldoAssyrians have endured much throughout the last century in Iraq, including brutal Arabization and Islamization campaigns. But this current period may see their last stand as a cohesive community.
Should the ChaldoAssyrian community disappear from Iraq, it would mean the end of their Aramaic language (spoken by Jesus), and their customs, rites, and culture. A unique part of Christian patrimony would disappear along with this first-century church. The United States would have presided over the destruction of one of the world’s oldest Christian communities. Its reverberations would be keenly felt just beyond Iraq’s borders. As Christian scholar Habib Malik wrote last month in the daily press of his native Lebanon, if the democratic project of Iraq ends in dismal failure for the ChaldoAssyrians, the future will be bleak for all the historic churches of the Middle East. No wonder Pope John Paul II used his public appearances on both Christmas and New Year’s to express “great apprehension” and “profound regret” about the situation in Iraq.
Further loss of ChaldoAssyrian influence in Iraq would also have dire implications for Iraq itself and for American policy. The ChaldoAssyrians are a disproportionately skilled and educated group, and they also possess that increasingly scarce trait in the Middle East: the virtue of toleration. They are a natural political bloc for building a democracy with minority protections and individual rights. Their presence bolsters Muslim moderates who claim religious pluralism as a rationale for staving off governance by Islamic sharia law.
The ChaldoAssyrians who continue to tough it out in Iraq do so desperately clinging to the hope that liberal democracy will take root there. They and their communities in the American diaspora, numbering around 450,000, are stirring with activity in preparation for the elections at the end of January. These elections will choose a National Assembly that will draft the country’s permanent constitution. They are eager to see individual rights to religious freedom and all fundamental freedoms carried over from the interim constitution into the permanent government.
It is in the direct political interest of the United States to keep the ChaldoAssyrians in Iraq and ensure they have a voice in the political process unfolding over the next year. Yet U.S. policy toward Iraq’s valuable ChaldoAssyrian allies seems to be one of utter indifference.
While Iraq’s hard-line Shiite parties are heavily financed by Iran, Kurdish leaders have long been bankrolled by the U.S., and Sunni insurgents are funded by Syria, the pro-democracy ChaldoAssyrians have no sponsors. The U.S. policy of providing democracy-building funds to political parties in emerging democracies, made legendary with Solidarity in Poland, ended a decade ago. The U.S. government is taking steps to compensate one religious minority that might fare poorly in the election. According to press reports, the U.S. administration has called for assembly seats to be set aside for the Sunni minority, which is boycotting the elections after warnings by extremist Sunni leaders. But no provisions have been made for ChaldoAssyrian Christians, who, unlike many insurgent Sunnis, work for the Coalition rather than build roadside bombs against it.
In short, ChaldoAssyrian candidates and parties are alone and without funds. If these Christians fail to win seats in the assembly, they will have no direct say in the critical drafting of the country’s permanent constitution. Don’t expect the United States to speak up for them — or for other moderates.
The same lackadaisical approach to individual and minority rights is shown in America’s approach to the drafting of Iraq’s permanent constitution, where it has adopted de facto a policy of strict neutrality. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development are funding programs to provide outside legal and expert advice to assist in this drafting. These “independent” contractors are not supposed to exert any influence to ensure constitutional protections for individual rights to religious freedom, women’s equality, or any other basic human right. As one such U.S.-funded advisor explained in an L.A. Times op-ed last month: “Outsiders should not... seek to prevent Shiite parties from advancing models for an Islamic republic.” The only such existent model, of course, is the Islamic Republic of Iran — a country so devoid of individual human rights that its dissidents are sentenced to death for blasphemy, the “crime of thinking,” and whose governing ideology is explicitly hostile to American interests.
The rationale for this is that the focus should be on “process,” not on “imposing values” — that is they are not concerned about the outcome, only how it is achieved. A lesson of apartheid South Africa is that the rule of law only goes so far in providing for a fair and humane society. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal agency, wrote an urgent letter on Iraq’s religious minorities to President Bush last month, protesting this approach and recommending that the administration “give clear directives to American officials and recipients of U.S. democracy-building grants” to advocate the inclusion of religious freedom and other fundamental human rights in the permanent constitution.
Over 1,300 American soldiers have given their lives so far in Iraq. We owe it to them and to Iraqis — many of whom have also paid with their lives supporting the Coalition — to take our policy goal of democratizing Iraq seriously. One way is to level the playing field in the political arena for the ChaldoAssyrian community. We should be helping all candidates whose political ideology is based on an acceptance of liberal democracy and individual religious freedom and other fundamental human rights — even if they are Christian.
There is an urgent need for immediate private funding to help pro-democracy ChaldoAssyrian candidates and voters in the January 30 elections. The private response to southeast Asia’s tsunami victims proves that concerned individuals can make a critical difference. Only a small fraction of that generous outpouring is needed to keep the ChaldoAssyrians politically competitive — through voter education, candidate spots on television and radio, campaign literature, get-out-the-vote efforts, and other election essentials. Tax-deductible donations for this purpose can be sent to: Iraq Freedom Account, Assyrian American National Federation, 5550 North Ashland, Chicago, IL 60640.
— Nina Shea is the director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom. James Y. Rayis, an Atlanta lawyer, is vice chair of the Chicago-based ChaldoAssyrian American Advocacy Council.
Sixty evangelical Christians were arrested during a New Year’s celebration at the home of one of the leaders of the Rema Charismatic Church in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, news agencies reported today.
According to a Jan. 5 report from Compass Direct, police took into custody 36 women and 24 men—five of which are reported to be minors. One of the hosts, Letensae Oqbamichel was released on Jan. 4, however the rest remain in solitary confinement at the Mai-Serwa military camp north of Asmara.
Since the U.S. State Department designated Eritrea a “country of particular concern” (CPC) three months ago in its annual report on international religious freedom, Eritrean sources report a marked increase in surveillance.
In the report, the State Department said that the Eritrean government’s “poor respect for religious freedom” for minority religious groups continued to decline during the period covered by the report. “The Government harassed, arrested, and detained members of Pentecostal and other independent evangelical groups reform movements,” it stated.
The Department also noted that there were numerous reports of physical torture and attempts at forced recantations.
Following a May 2002 government decree that all religious groups must register or cease all religious activities, the Government closed all religious facilities not belonging to the four sanctioned religions, the State Department reported. “These closures, the Government’s refusal to authorize any registrations, and the restriction on holding religious meetings continued through the period covered by this report,” it added.
It is believed that more than four hundred evangelical Christians are presently imprisoned for their faith. Eritrea denies any religious persecution.
Jonah Fisher, a correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation, summarized the position of the Eritrean government after being expelled from Eritrea. “The government seems to have decided that anyone who does not follow a certain standard is an enemy of the people, is an enemy of the state,” Fisher stated. “It is afraid that people who consider their highest allegiance to be God, at some point may not be patriotic and follow the state’s instructions.”
When the State Department released it annual report last year on Sept. 15, it was the first time Eritrea was classified as a CPC—the title designated to nations engaged in violations of religious freedom deemed “particularly severe.”
Over recent years, Eritrea has become one of the world’s most serious abusers of religious liberty and persecutors of Christians, according to the Religious Liberty Commission of a global network representing some 150 million Christians in 115 countries.
“More than 400 believers of all ages are presently incarcerated under the most appalling conditions: in solitary cells, in secret prisons for the ‘disappeared’, and in overcrowded metal shipping containers that are plagued by infectious diseases such as diarrhea,” reported the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) in a religious prayer bulletin released today. “The authorities also use torture, trying to make them renounce their evangelical faith.”
In the most recent incident, police arrested sixty members of the Rema Charismatic Church in the Eritrean capital of Asmara on Dec. 31 as they celebrated the New Year in the home of the church’s pastor. Compass Direct reports that though the pastor’s wife was later released, the other believers are now detained in the Mai-Serwa military camp just north of Asmara.
Also, Haile Naizgi and Dr Kifle Gebremeski (chairman of the Eritrean Evangelical Alliance), who are senior leaders in the Full Gospel Church, and Pastor Tesfatsion Hagos of the Rema Evangelical Church remain ‘disappeared’, presumably in one of Eritrea’s secret prisons. Meanwhile sources say popular Christian singer Helen Berhane has been jailed alone in a metal shipping container at Mai-Serwa military camp since last May for refusing to renounce her faith.
“When President Issayas Afewerki cracked down on all political dissent in September 2001, he also closed all private media, leaving the oppressed without a voice,” the RLC stated.
In addition, in May 2002, Afewrki banned all Christian groups apart from the Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical Lutheran denominations, instantly making numerous independent, Full Gospel, Pentecostal, Assemblies of God, Presbyterian, and mission churches illegal, thus affecting thousands of believers. All religious activities—Bible reading, home fellowships, prayer groups—are illegal if not linked with one of the three officially approved denominations. Pastors of banned groups report they are under intense police surveillance at all times.
Christian news services, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the BBC have reported Eritrea’s persecution of Christians. Significantly, the U.S. State Department now lists Eritrea as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ for severely violating religious liberty, claiming that it violates religious rights and severely restricts freedom of worship. However, the Eritrean government has rejected the claim and continues to deny that any religious minorities are persecuted.
Egypt’s President reassured followers of the Coptic Church that they were full members of Egyptian society after recent clashes between Christians and Muslims, sources reported earlier this week.
“In practice, we are a single people, we must stay bound by ties of affection at all times,” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Sunday in a speech broadcast on state television.
“Christians are not a minority in Egypt, they are Egyptian by origin and birth.”
According to MiddleEastOnline, Mubarak played down clashes between Christians and Muslims in the run-up to last Friday’s Coptic Christmas, saying that such unrest “happens all over the world.”
Last month, hundreds of Coptic Christians—Egypt’s largest Christian denomination— staged protests in Cairo and in the west delta province of Beheira following the alleged abduction and forced conversion of Wefaa Constantine—the wife of a Coptic priest—to Islam.
Although the alleged abduction and forced conversion of Constantine sparked the protests, sources say the protest was also a response to the Egyptian government’s sanction of anti-Coptic hate crimes such as arson, torture, murder, and the abduction, rape, and forced conversion of young Coptic women.
The round-the-clock sit-ins at the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Egypt’s capital continued until the confrontation reached its climax Dec. 9 when church authorities instructed demonstrators to disperse after receiving assurances that Constantine had been handed over to a church council.
However, by then at least 60 police were wounded in ensuing clashes and 34 demonstrators were arrested.
Enraged Muslim allegedly hacks off man’s arm, family assaulted, tortured
Reports of Christian persecution in Pakistan are on the rise with one man getting his arm hacked off and a family kidnapped, assaulted and tortured.
A Muslim customer allegedly assaulted a Christian shopkeeper in the small village of Talwandi, Punjab province, according to Asia News. After the shopkeeper, Shahbaz Masih, refused to rent a TV to Ahmed Ali, a butcher, Ali reportedly insulted Masih for being a Christian and left the store. He later returned with a butcher’s ax and allegedly hacked off Mashi’s left arm near the elbow.
As he left, Ali allegedly threatened the victim and his widowed mother with even more “dire consequences” for the supposed insult he had endured.
Asia News reported Masih, 22, spent four days in the hospital and then closed his shop and fled the village with his mother.
According to the report, a group of Christian leaders from the area filed a complaint with the police and Ali was arrested. Local police reportedly are under heavy pressure to whitewash the case and free Ali.
In another incident, Hanifan Bibi, 55, who worked as a domestic servant for a Muslim family, and three male relatives were abducted and abused for two days.
According to Barnabas Fund, which monitors Christian persecution worldwide, Bibi, her husband, son and nephew were at home in Lahore Jan. 10 when they were kidnapped, allegedly by her employer’s husband and others.
They were driven to an unknown destination and kept there for two days without food or water, the organization reported. Bibi’s nephew was suspended upside down naked and beaten with a hot metal pipe, while Bibi was stripped, forced to drink wine, photographed, videotaped and severely beaten, the report states.
The other two victims also were beaten. Barnabas Fund reported that after the ordeal the family was taken to a police station and accused of stealing money and jewelry from Bibi’s employer.
The family says the abduction was in retaliation for Bibi’s refusal to provide the men of her employer’s family with Christian women for sex.
The human-rights group says many Christian women are illiterate and earn their living as ill-paid domestic servants, often for affluent Muslim families. They are very vulnerable to abuse and rarely dare to complain, Barnabas Fund says, fearing the influence of their employer in the local community.
China is implementing new regulations that the government says will protect freedom of faith, news agencies reported Monday. While the guidelines, which take effect today, are meant to give a legal framework for China’s constitutional promise of freedom of religion, critics contend that the broad guidelines could instead be used to persecute religious groups deemed troublesome by authorities.
With 48 articles and seven chapters, the new Regulations on Religious Affairs cover everything—from how licensed organizations can accept religious donations and claim tax exemptions to how religious institutions may accept foreign students, among other topics.
Under existing laws, communist authorities allow worship only in state-monitored churches, temples or mosques. According to the 2004 International Report on Religious Freedom, the China Government tries to control and regulate religious groups to prevent the rise of groups that could constitute sources of authority outside of the control of the Government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Some analysts have said that the new regulations indicated a stepping up of the supervision of religions.
“We’re still talking about a socialist atheist state with the dominant ideology that religion is a bad thing,” Human Rights in China research director Nicolas Becquelin, told Agence France-Presse in December. “But over the past 20 years the state has moved from trying to stamp out religion to trying to manage it.”
Egil Lothe of the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief, similarly said the regulations offer “an improvement on present practices” because they give clearer procedures for registering religious groups and institutions.
But, “to what extent the regulations will change other aspects of Chinese policies on religion remains to be seen,” Lothe told the Associated Press.
It has been noted, however, that the rules still required religious groups to register with the state—a de-facto approval process that has barred myriad groups from being recognized as legal religious entities.
“The government is still using registration to enforce political control and there is no way to appeal the process,” Becquelin said.
Earlier this week, Becquelin told AP, “The law purports to protect ‘normal’ religious activities that in effect means religious activities expressly authorized by the state through a system of compulsory licensing and mandatory inspections.”
Becquelin said overly broad regulations have been used as a pretext to “suspend, ban, suppress, religious congregations as well as fine, detain or arrest religious practitioners.”
Meanwhile, other foreign observers say the outcome of the new rules remains uncertain.
According to AP, China, which has banned many religious or spiritual groups, will convene its annual legislative session Saturday in Beijing.
Police raid international gathering of pastors
China deported at least 10 foreign church leaders, including eight Americans, and detained 140 Chinese house-church leaders in connection with a training event in the country.
More than 100 security officers from five government agencies raided an office building where the Christians were meeting Feb. 24 in a suburb of Harbin, a major city in northeastern China, the China Aid Association reported.
“To disrupt a normal Christian fellowship meeting and to detain and deport the participants of the same faith from other countries is certainly contrary to the government’s claim to guarantee religious freedom in China,” said China Aid’s president, Bob Fu.
The Chinese leaders are part of the unregistered church movement to which the vast majority of Christians in the country belong. The communist government requires all Protestant church activity to be under control of the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which restricts activities such as evangelism and certain teachings.
The foreigners were interrogated separately and, after 13 hours, were ordered to leave the country within three to five days. The Chinese church leaders were interrogated and released after they gave their home addresses, finger prints and house church affiliations.
Among the deported are American church leaders Rev. Dr. Brad Long, executive director of Presbyterian Reformed Ministries International in North Carolina; and Rev. John Chang, recently retired as president of the general assembly of Reformed Church and now senior pastor of the Grace Christian Church in Flushing, N.Y.
China Aid said the interrogators were said to be well-behaved after the U.S. Consulate in Shenyang City intervened.
According to China Aid’s source, some spying devices were installed into the laptop computers carried by the deportees. A source also said the Public Security Bureau confiscated from the pastors the equivalent of about $2,500 cash along with their cell phones.
Separately, the Texas-based group said it has learned from an eyewitness that imprisoned Beijing house-church pastor Zhuohua Cai was tortured for a confession with electric cattle prods by his interrogators.
The eyewitness told China Aid that Cai was seen physically wounded and spiritually depressed.
“We urge people of all faiths to take action to protest the deportations of these pastors and demand pastor Cai and his wife’s immediate release,” Fu said.
Cai, 34, was arrested Sept. 11 in Beijing for printing “illegal religious literatures.”
In addition, Cai’s wife, Yunfei Xiao, along with her brother, Gaowen Xiao, and sister-in-law, Jinyun Hu, were arrested Sept. 27 while hiding in Hengshan County, Hunan province.
The Cais left a 5-year old son Yabo Cai in the care of his grandmother, who has been constantly harassed by the police, China Aid said.
The murder of a Coptic Christian family in New Jersey is a ‘wake-up call’ for the American church, a persecution watchdog group said Friday.
“We know that radical Islam exists in the Middle East. We’re not surprised when Christians in Indonesia or in Egypt are attacked, and yet, it seems, that we’re all rather shocked that it could happen on American soil,” Voice of the Martyrs’ Todd Nettleton told Mission Network News (MNN). “We need to understand though, that the faith that the Bible presents, especially in the New Testament, is a faith that expects to be persecuted.”
While prosecutors have downplayed the possibility of a religious motive in last Friday’s slaying of Hossam Armanious, 47, his 37-year-old wife, Amal Garas, and their daughters, Sylvia, 15, and Monica, 8, there are those in the Coptic Christian community who believe it was a militant Muslim who committed the hate crime. According to some family members, Armanious—a Coptic Christian—had engaged in a heated debate about Islam on a religious Web site.
However, Nettleton told MNN that even if it turns out the murders were not a jihad; the issue has brought up one important point. “This was a family who was talking about their Christian faith, who was encouraging Muslims to leave Islam and follow Christ, and that is where you run into persecution,” Nettleton said.
According to AP, enormous tensions between Muslims and Christians in New Jersey surfaced earlier this week during the funeral for the family of four—whose bodies were found bound and gagged, and their throats and heads stabbed repeatedly. As mourners took the streets of Jersey City to St. George & St. Shenouda Coptic Orthodox Church on Monday, grief and rage erupted as many blamed Muslims for the killings. The Armanious family was said to have been active in the church since immigrating to the United States in 1997 from Egypt.
The FBI said on Tuesday it was cooperating with local police and has been helping with crime scene analysis and forensics. If authorities believe the crime was sectarian in nature, the FBI might launch its own investigation, the FBI spokesman said.
Meanwhile, authorities investigating the slayings say robbery remained a possible motive because no cash or jewelry was found in the home.
Along with the challenges facing Indonesians since the Dec. 26 quake-tsunami devastation, local Christians continue to face persecution in the predominantly Muslim nation, a persecution watchdog group reported Thursday.
According to the Voice of the Martyrs (VOM), three new churches were threatened with closure when the head of the North Grogol community in West Jakarta accused the churches of disturbing the community and meeting illegally in business buildings. However, the three churches—Abraham Camp Church (GKA), Bellezza Indonesia Bethel Church (GBI) and GKRI Karmel—confirmed that the meeting halls could be used for business or other purposes, including religious gatherings.
Pointing to a legal certificate from the Religion Department authorizing them to meet, the pastor of the GKA church, K.A.M. Jusufroni, said church members would continue to meet.
“Nothing can stop Christians from worshiping God,” he stated.
According to a report last month by the Associated Press, some Christians in Indonesia have been trading in their traditional churches for more secure, though unorthodox, buildings amidst fears of bombings and shootings by Islamic militants.
On any given Sunday, thousands of Christians flock to office buildings, shopping malls, hotels, and even movie theaters to worship, the news agency stated.
Christian leaders say the unorthodox approach is necessary because they cannot get building permits and that ignoring the rules risk having a facility shut down, or worse, destroyed by protesters. In addition, plans to build new churches sometimes draw violent protests from Islamic groups, which view them as an attempt to convert Muslims.
Although the vast majority of Muslims in the world’s most populous Muslim nation practice a moderate version of the faith, attacks against Christians—who form just 8 percent of the population—have increased since ex-dictator Suharto’s downfall in 1998, and amid a global rise in Islamic radicalism.
Most recently, VOM reported that a priest in Purworejo in Indonesia’s Central Java region was found dead in a church retreat compound on Friday, Jan. 14, with massive head wounds. “Despite the string of attacks against Christians in various areas of Indonesia, the provincial police chief said that the attack was ‘probably’ robbery,” VOM wrote. However, local sources say that police frequently downplay incidents of violence against Christians.
LONDON - At Wednesday’s assembly of the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), British and Irish church leaders have broadened their horizons from local mission to a wider world, realizing their important roles in supporting the development of Christianity in China.
Caroline Fielder, Director of China Desk, a working group of CTBI, presented a review of its activities in 2004. China Desk actively promotes and facilitates ecumenical cooperation among churches and Christian agencies in Britain and Ireland and churches in China, both Catholic and Protestant.
Some examples of its activities include: coordinating mission projects in China, organizing exchange programs between the UK and China, offering scholarships in theological education for Chinese students, publishing research journals as well as making representations to the government and the media.
Speaking to 300 church representatives from all major denominations, Fielder reaffirmed churches collaborating together in Britain and Ireland have a “unique” contribution to make in supporting the huge growth and development of Christianity in China, particularly in terms of the ecumenical relationship between Catholics and Protestants.
“Because in China they are seen as two distinct religions which rarely have the opportunity of coming and working together,” Fielder explained, “the British and Irish churches are unique in our witness of working with both Catholics and Protestants in China.”
“Our visits and programs afford a unique opportunity for fellowship, learning and understanding together,” she continued.
Fielder has also depicted the changing face of religious freedom in China and is very optimistic towards the future of Christianity in this country and on their current system officially built on atheism.
According to Fielder, the watershed came in between 1990’s and 2000’s when the Chinese government first adopted a more pragmatic approach after the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Tiananmen Square incident. It has caused the revival in many religions.
“In 2001 the Chinese premier declared that religion was not only here to stay but that it may even outlive the Communist Party. The expectation is that religions can and will contribute significantly to the future development of Chinese society,” she said.
“There has been exponential growth in the Chinese churches. Protestant Christians are said officially to number around 17 million. Researchers suggest the real number is more likely to be around 50-70 million. There are 12 million Catholics. The Christian landscape is changing fast,” she reported.
The China Desk has an ongoing research program, in co-operation with the University of Birmingham’s Department of Theology and Research Unit for East Asian Christian Studies. The program aims to document and monitor social and political trends in China. The results of the research are published three times a year in the internationally recognized China Study Journal.
Fielder also said, “Today there is a move away from the ‘official’ versus ‘underground’ church stereotype and a new group of intellectual Christians who are unaffiliated with any institution are emerging and becoming more significant in their witness to Christ in China.”
She urged China Desk of CTBI “to remain flexible enough to respond to the emerging needs of Christians in China.”
Fielder finally called on British and Irish churches at national and local level to become more involved in work to support Chinese Christians at an important time in the development of their country and their faith.
China Desk of CTBI cooperates closely with other important mission agencies in both China and UK, such as the Amity Foundation, the China Christian Council (CCC), the Church Mission Society (CMS) and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK).
A member of an underground house church in China will recount her experience of torture, abuse and arbitrary imprisonment by Chinese police on Thursday, Feb. 10, at the National Press Club in Washington D.C.
Liu Xianzhi, a member of the South China Church, was arrested in 2001 and tortured by police into falsely testifying that the pastor of the South China Church, Gong Shengliang, raped her.
“I was taken to Zhongxiang Police Training Center,” 34-year-old Liu said according to the China Aid Association (CAA). “Six of seven male policemen started to question me in their dormitory. One asked me, ‘Do you know why we arrest you?’ I said, ‘Because I believe in Jesus.’ He slapped my face when he heard this. He said, ‘Do you know what age we are in today? And you still believe in Jesus?’ I didn’t answer him back.”
Even after escaping from China last month, Liu stated that her experience in prison continues to haunt her. “When I hear dogs barking, loud knocking on the door, the sound of police sirens, or I see men who are not wearing shirts (like my interrogators), I have an overwhelming sense of fear,” Liu told the CAA.
According to the Association, Liu is one of 8,903 members of the South China Church who police have arrested for their religious beliefs, including Gong, who is serving a life sentence in prison based on multiple confessions obtained through torture.
On Thursday, the CAA reports that in addition to Liu’s testimony, Senator Sam Brownback and other Congressional leaders will express their grave concern over religious persecution in China. Brownback, who is Chairman of the Helsinki Commission—a federal organization that monitors and works for improvements in human rights in Europe—also serves on the Committee on Appropriations, the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, the Committee on Foreign Relations, and the Joint Economic Committee.
Bob Fu, president of the China Aid Association and a former prisoner of religious conscience, will also release a formal opinion by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in the case of Yinan Zhang, a leading historian of the underground church who was arrested on Sept. 26, 2003. Zhang was sentenced to two years of re-education through labor Oct. 27, 2003 by an administrative tribunal in Henan Province after the government convicted him of attempting to “subvert the national government” by misinterpreting statements culled from his personal prayer journals and Christian essays.
Annual list ranks nations for treatment of Christians
Communist North Korea is the world’s worst persecutor of Christians, according to an annual ranking by the evangelical mission group Open Doors International.
The group’s World Watch List places Saudi Arabia (2) in the second spot, followed in order by Vietnam (3), Laos, Iran, Maldives, Somalia, Bhutan, China (9) and Afghanistan (10).
Open Doors said Somalia moved up four places to seventh in the rankings, primarily because “Christian converts from Islam are paying a high price for their new faith, especially in rural parts of this most lawless country in the world.”
North Korea, where “Christianity is observed as one of the greatest threats to the regime’s power,” topped the list for the third straight year.
While exact figures are hard to obtain, it is believed tens of thousands of Christians are suffering in North Korean prison camps and at least 20 Christians were shot or beaten to death in 2004 while in detention, Open Doors said.
Open Doors USA President Carl Moeller said the regime, led by dictator Kim Jong Il, tends to arrest not only a suspected dissident but also three generations of his family to root out the “bad” influence.
“Yet we hear reports of how the church in North Korea continues to grow,” he said.
In Saudi Arabia, all religions are banned except for the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Conversions to another religion are punishable by death under sharia law. Despite government assurances that foreigners can practice their faith, expatriate Christians who work in the country have been imprisoned and deported. In 2004, for example, Indian citizen Brian O’Connor was sentenced to 10 months imprisonment and 300 lashes.
Communist Vietnam moved up one place on the list after introducing a new law on religion that bans any religious activity deemed a threat to national security, public order or national unity. The new ordinance is used to prohibit unregistered church services in private houses.
Over the past year, the situation for Christians in No. 16 Eritrea deteriorated. More than 400 Christians in the East African nation are in prison for their faith. Some have been subjected to harsh conditions, including being locked in metal shipping containers in severe heat.
Christians in Iraq, No. 21, have enjoyed more liberty since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, but they suffer from increased pressure from radical Islamic groups.
The Open Doors report says, “Written threats, kidnappings, bombings and murder by Muslim extremists continued to drive tens of thousands of the minority Christian population out of the country.”
Christians in Sudan, No. 19, hope a new peace accord with the Islamist regime in Khartoum will lead to greater access to goods and services. Khartoum declared a jihad against the mostly Christian and animist south in the 1980s, seeking to make the entire country Islamic. The agreement allows the mainly Christian and animist south to remain autonomous for six years. More than 2 million people have died from the war and war-related famine.
Nos. 11-25 on the World Watch List are: Yemen, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Comoros, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, Burma, Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Brunei and Nigeria [north].
Rounding out the list are Nos. 26-50: Cuba, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Mexico [Chiapas], Tunisia, Qatar, India, Nepal, Colombia [conflict areas], Indonesia, Algeria, Turkey, Mauritania, Kuwait, Belarus, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Syria, Bangladesh, Jordan, Kenya [northeast], Ethiopia and Bahrain.
The World Watch List is based on evaluation and testimonies obtained by Open Doors’ field workers and local contacts.
The group estimates 200 million Christians worldwide suffer persecution for their faith, including interrogation, arrest and death, and another 200 to 400 million face discrimination and alienation.
Open Doors was founded 50 years ago by the famed Bible smuggler known as Brother Andrew.
Christian groups and some other private relief agencies are being asked to halt their work in the tsunami-ravaged Indonesian province of Aceh and leave the area by March 26, Indonesia’s defense minister said yesterday.
The decision likely will target Western and smaller church groups as the government moves to tighten control over reconstruction work in Aceh, the home of a decades-old separatist insurgency.
“We want each of the relief agencies to be transparent in their programs: Some of them are not clear about their mandates,” said Juwono Sudarsono during an interview in a Washington hotel.
“Aceh is mostly Muslim, and some church groups from Australia and the United States are too eager to be there and do their part,” he said.
Mr. Sudarsono said his government had set March 26 some weeks ago as a target date for moving from the disaster-relief phase of post-tsunami operations to the reconstruction phase.
With that goal in sight, he said, the overwhelming presence of U.S. and Western relief agencies could make members of the local Islamic community uncomfortable, adding that they would be replaced by Pakistani and Saudi Arabian workers.
The relief organizations are being asked to leave Aceh by March 26 unless Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare Alwi Shihab decides they can stay, Mr. Sudarsono said.
One of the conditions for continuing work will be registering with the U.N. Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Bruce Campbell-Janz of the Christian Reformed World Relief program said there were some things Christian relief groups can do “to increase [their] validity in the eyes of the government. ... There needs to be significant sensitivity around religious issues.”
Speaking by telephone from Canada, Mr. Campbell-Janz said he had heard reports of some Christian agencies setting up large banners with Christian references, something he said would be considered disrespectful.
But, he said, the Indonesian government also wants to tighten its control over an area that had been closed because of a guerrilla war with separatists until the devastating Dec. 26 tsunami.
“There are likely multiple motivations — religious sensitivities and issues of control that make the government nervous,” Mr. Campbell-Janz said.
Aceh has been under emergency military rule for years as Indonesian security forces battle the armed Free Aceh Movement. The area has been in a virtual lockdown with few outsiders, including journalists, allowed in.
Human Rights Watch has said that both sides in the conflict have violated human rights with impunity. The organization has documented the security forces’ role in extrajudicial executions, “disappearances” and torture, as well as the separatists’ role in killings, unlawful detentions and forced expulsions.
Mr. Sudarsono said the tsunami had destroyed the infrastructure of some of the military, but also had wiped out the rebel infrastructure — giving both sides new incentives to negotiate.
“I think we are getting some progress,” the minister said.
Catholic Relief Services, part of the private relief effort that plays a large and vital reconstruction role in the region, said it had not been asked to leave Aceh.
“But all that can change. We are definitely keeping tabs on it. I think everyone is, because there is a long history of that happening,” said Cecile Sorra, a spokeswoman for CRS, which has been working in Indonesia since 1957.
“It’s quite possible they just want to pull everyone out and have an orderly re-entry, so they pick and choose who can come back in,” Miss Sorra said.
Tens of millions of Chinese Christians practice their religion in secret. Members of churches that have refused to accept state control, they have gone underground and live in constant risk of detection. Tens of thousands of them have been arrested or worse — tortured, sent to labor camps, even killed for their beliefs.
Facing such a bleak plight, Chinese Christians may at least take heart in knowing that the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, that fine embodiment of our highest ideals, can always be counted upon to help the helpless, to champion the cause of the oppressed, to light a candle of hope in the world’s darkest corners . . .
Ahem, my mistake. I must have been thinking of Jane Fonda. The UNCHR actually won’t be doing anything for Chinese Christians anytime soon, as it’s too busy attacking their defenders.
That’s what Bob Fu discovered last month. Fu is president of the China Aid Association, an advocacy group for persecuted Christians in China. He was invited by an NGO to lead a group of human-rights activists, Christian ministers, and Chinese victims of religious persecution in an appearance before the 61st session of the UNCHR in Geneva.
On April 5, Fu testified before the commission about, among other things, the imprisonment of Cai Zhuohua. Cai is a Chinese pastor who, in September 2004, was arrested for printing Bibles without permission from the Chinese government. (I reported on his arrest in the January 31 issue of NR.) According to Fu, Cai has been tortured in prison, and the judge presiding over his case has just sent him back to the police for another round of “interrogation.” The idea is to make him confess to a crime that carries a long prison sentence.
One of the Chinese police’s favorite torture devices — and one that has probably been used repeatedly on Cai Zhuohua — is a kind of electric baton. Bob Fu owns such a baton, smuggled out of a Chinese prison. He took it to Geneva after obtaining permission from the secretary of the UNCHR to conduct a demonstration of it during his testimony. This demonstration consisted of Fu’s holding it in the air over his head and turning it on for six seconds.
Predictably, the Chinese delegation went berserk, its members claiming that the demonstration made them feel threatened. (One is left to wonder how they would feel if the baton were actually used against them.) They then demanded that Fu be booted from the proceedings. The commission’s chairman, obliging chap that he is, agreed. Fu was escorted from the building and stripped of his U.N. badge. His baton was also seized, and has not been returned.
There is a kind of dramatic perfection in Fu’s being expelled from the commission for exposing outrages committed by one of its members. The incident is a concrete symbol of the way in which the commission is dominated by the very nations it should be censuring. (It did not pass any resolutions condemning China’s human-rights abuses, by the way, although we may console ourselves knowing that it passed no less than four resolutions against Israel.) To capture the repugnant irony in what the UNCHR has become, I can do no better than quote Fu’s own words before the U.S. House’s committee on international relations, before which he testified last week:
[A]bout nine years ago, I was forced into a police car and taken from my home to prison by the Chinese Public Security Bureau in Beijing for alleged ‘illegal religious activities.’ Sadly, this is the second time I have been put into a police car and it was done by U.N. security guards.
Bob Fu is on Cai Zhuohua’s side. How much longer will the U.N. back Cai’s torturers?
— Jason Lee Steorts is an associate editor of National Review.
Despite reports of a virtual Christian exodus from Iraq, the churches in the country are growing, according to the first missionary agency to support and promote indigenous mission groups.
A Christian ministry leader who has traveled in Iraq four times in the last year told Charlottesville, Va.-based Christian Aid, “Despite everything, the churches in Iraq are growing.”
Although Muslim extremists have attacked churches and threatened, kidnapped or murdered Christians, driving thousands of Iraqi believers into neighboring countries for safety, the mission leader – whose name was withheld for security reasons – said Christians who are staying are seeing their churches grow.
He believes the sudden influx and subsequent withdrawal of many foreign missionary agencies following the toppling of Saddam Hussein contributed to this growth.
“I have never seen so many foreign groups coming into one place [after Saddam Hussein’s government was overthrown],” he said, according to Christian Aid. “But, as soon as things started to get difficult, many of them pulled out, leaving only the Iraqi Christians to do the work.”
Christian Aid reports that Iraqi believers have stepped up efforts to spread the gospel to their countrymen despite the danger some of them face from insurgents fighting in the name of Islam.
“Iraqi believers know that the need for Christ’s gospel of peace is stronger than ever, and they are determined to spread it,” Christian Aid reported.
The mission leader says this force of native Iraqi missionaries points to a change that ought to take place in missions across the board.
“Churches in America need to change their ideas about missions,” the leader declared. “They need to trust the natives’ vision to reach their own people and get behind them with support.”
Christian Aid is asking for the prayer support of believers in America for those in Iraq spreading the gospel in a volatile situation.
By Beawiharta and Nury Sybli
TENTENA/JAKARTA (Reuters) - Twin bomb blasts that killed 22 people in a Christian town in eastern Indonesia bore the hallmarks of a regional militant group linked to al Qaeda, the vice president and a senior police official said on Sunday.
Some 50 people were wounded in the blasts on Saturday which ripped through a busy market in the lakeside town of Tentena on the eastern island of Sulawesi, the worst bombings in Indonesia since the 2002 Bali attacks that killed 202 people.
Tentena is part of an area where 2,000 people were killed in three years of Muslim-Christian fighting until a peace deal was agreed in late 2001.
Vice President Jusuf Kalla said the bombings were similar to those carried out by Jemaah Islamiah, a shadowy militant group seen as the regional arm of al Qaeda.
He singled out Malaysian Noordin M. Top, one of the most wanted men in the region and a key Jemaah Islamiah operative.
“The pattern is at least like that carried out by Noordin M. Top,” Kalla told reporters in Jakarta, without giving details.
Top and another fugitive Malaysian and senior Jemaah Islamiah member, bombmaker Azahari bin Husin, are accused of masterminding a spate of blasts in Indonesia including the 2002 attacks on the resort island of Bali.
A senior police official in Jakarta, asked if the Tentena attacks resembled previous bombings blamed on Jemaah Islamiah, said: “There are similarities, based on the analysis of the anti-terror team.” He did not elaborate.
Nearby Poso was the focus of much of the past Sulawesi violence, which drew militants from groups like Jemaah Islamiah.
There has been some violence since the peace deal but Saturday’s bombings, less than 15 minutes apart, were among the worst cases and raised fears sectarian strife would reignite.
Tentena was tense on Sunday, but local community leaders were trying to keep a lid on passions, residents said.
Some 85 percent of Indonesia’s 220 million people are Muslim. But in some eastern parts, Christian and Muslim populations are about equal in size.
Chief security minister Widodo Adi Sutjipto told reporters after a ministerial crisis meeting in Jakarta that the government would step up intelligence operations.
Saturday’s blasts follow Western government warnings about terrorist attacks in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
On Thursday, the United States closed all of its four diplomatic missions in Indonesia because of a security threat, hough no officials have linked the Tentena attacks and the mission closures.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said he would cut short an overseas trip and return home if authorities could not deal with the situation, the official Antara news agency reported.
Yudhoyono was speaking on Saturday night after arriving in Hanoi following a visit to the United States. From Vietnam, the former general will travel to Japan.
One of the aims of his trip is to convince foreign investors that Indonesia is a safe and easier place to do business, after years of ineffective government and occasional major bombings by Jemaah Islamiah.
The Moluccas islands, to the east of the Poso region, were also the scene of vicious communal fighting between Muslims and Christians from 1999 to 2002 that left more than 5,000 dead. A peace agreement was reached there in early 2002.
Faith-based aid and assistance unwelcome in southeast asia, says agency. Religious persecution in the midst of disaster and need.
Despite the desperate need for aid and relief in regions devastated by India’s monsoon rains, in many of the nation’s states, faith-based charitable organizations are restricted in their ability to provide assistance, according to a religious liberty watchdog group.
In response to conversions to Christianity and other minority religions by members of lower casts, Hindus in India have passed anti-conversion laws that can lead to fines and/or imprisonment for members of faith-based charitable organizations attempting to provide assistance, reported the Washington, DC-based Becket Fund.
“The current anti-conversion law in the state of Gujarat, for example, a region affected by the floods, threatens to fine and/or imprison anyone who intentionally or unintentionally converts another,” the agency stated. “A maximum penalty of three years imprisonment and a fine of approximately $2,200 is what one should expect if he or she happens to influence another to convert.”
Under the vague text and application of anti-conversion laws such as those Gujarat state, faith-based organizations offering aid and assistance to those left destitute by floods are in danger of being prosecuted for violation of the law, it adds.
Fortunately, Mumbai – which was most severely affected by the monsoon – is located in the state of Maharashtra, which does not currently have an anti- conversion law. However, the Becket Fund noted that as the monsoon continues to deliver heavy rains to India, “one can only hope that the rains do not fall on those regions where anti- conversion laws, and therefore religious persecution, run rampant.”
According to Jared N. Leland, Esq., Media and Legal Counsel for The Becket Fund, the “chilling effect” of anti-conversion laws such as India’s and similar efforts to “criminalize” Christianity and faith-based relief efforts in Southeast Asia is that they “will inevitably cut off the very lifeline that sustains the growth and redevelopment of the region.”
“Those in Southeast Asia need now, more than ever, helping hands to put them back on their feet,” Leland said, “and these laws and efforts, the fruits of religious persecution, will do nothing more than push them back down.”
Currently in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, relief is being provided by faith-based groups including Gospel for Asia, Christian Aid, Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA), and Action by Churches Together (ACT).
Meanwhile, World Vision, one of the largest Christian relief and development organizations in the world, has provided relief to thousands of people affected by flooding in India’s southern region of Gujarat. In addition their rapid response efforts, World Vision has supplied more than 20,000 food packets to the government, to be air-dropped into flood-affected areas during the first few days of the response.
In an Indonesian court under threat of violence from Islamic radicals, three women were found guilty yesterday of violating the country’s Child Protection Act by “Christianizing” Muslims.
Rebecca Laonita, Ratna Mala Bangun, and Ety Pangesti – who conducted a “Happy Week” program in their homes – were sentenced to three years in prison.
Indonesia’s Child Protection Act of 2002 prohibits the enticement of minors to convert to another religion.
The three women had operated the Sunday School program out of one of their homes until it was closed by a local branch of the Muslim Clerics Council in May, according to the British-based human-rights group Jubilee Campaign.
The women began accepting Muslim children only after receiving permission from the children’s parents or guardians, the British group said.
But the Muslim Clerics Council, claiming the women had no such permission, pressured the police to arrest them in mid-May.
The women remained in jail for the duration of their trial.
At the trial, radical Muslim activists staged vociferous protests, conducting prayers both outside and within the courtroom and loudly demanded that the defendants be convicted.
An observer who had attended most of the court sessions said yesterday was no different.
“[The protestors] arrived in nine trucks and brought a coffin to bury the accused if they were not found guilty. Their violent threats continued in their speeches before the session began. When the panel of judges read the verdict … the crowd erupted with ‘Allahu akbar’ or ‘Allah is greatest.’”
The three women, described by friends as “ordinary housewives,” were relieved that they had not been given the maximum five-year prison sentence, reported the Compass Direct news service, which specializes in stories about persecution of Christians.
All three, however, were devastated at the prospect of being separated from their children, who range from 6 to 19 years of age, Compass said.
Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., told Compass Direct the case could establish a dangerous precedent.
“It’s especially troubling and worrisome since it occurred in Indonesia, a country long known for its relative religious freedom,” Marshall said. “If it signifies the future direction of the country, the consequences will be terrible.”
Defense attorneys argued that several of the Muslim parents had been photographed with their children during the Sunday school activities, Compass reported, demonstrating parental approval.
But when Muslim leaders complained, the parents refused to testify in support of the women.
The “Happy Sunday” program was established in September 2003 to meet legal requirements for a local elementary school.
Zakaria, who pastors the Christian Church of David’s Camp in Harguelis, West Java, was approached by the school in August 2003 and asked to provide a Christian education program for Christian students that complied with the National Education System Bill that came into effect that year.
Compass Direct said that since the first accusations were made, Muslim authorities in West Java have forced Zakaria’s church to close.
Over the past year, Muslim leaders have forced at least 60 unlicensed churches in West Java to shut down.
A controversial 1969 ministerial decree required all houses of worship to obtain a permit from local authorities in the Muslim-dominated state.
Police Chief Insp. Gen. Firman Gani told the Jakarta Post in a story published Wednesday that police would protect licensed churches from forcible closure but would uphold the decree.
A Post editorial said the forced closure of churches had reached an alarming level, and the government seemed to have no political will to uphold freedom of religion as guaranteed in the constitution.
The writer concluded, “It is time now to stop pretending that Indonesia is a perfect model for religious tolerance ... the people of this nation are less tolerant now toward differences in religion.”
The accelerating trend of Christian church closures in predominately Muslim West Java, Indonesia, has recently raised nationwide concern, reported a prominent UK-based human rights watchdog last week.
According to the report released on Sept. 8 by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), recent church closures in Indonesia share a common pattern and appear to be part of a wider scheme by militant hardliners, which can be traced to a previous report prepared by the World Evangelical Alliance’s Religious Liberty Commission (RLC).
On Aug. 17, the RLC reported that thirty-five churches had been closed in West Java since the Indonesian Council of Muslim Clerics (MUI) discussed the “problem” of Christian expansion in Indonesia at a four-day national congress in late July.
To solve the “problem,” the congress released an 11-point fatwa (edict) denouncing liberal interpretations of Islam, secularism and pluralism as un-Islamic.
“Fueled mainly by the MUI, the drive for Islamization has increased in recent years, as has a growing concern over Muslim apostasy (leaving Islam),” the RLC reported. “This is evidenced in the Education Bill, the push for Sharia Law and the escalation in church closures, which are all part of an aggressive counter-measure to halt or reverse the spread of Christianity.”
Another example, which CSW cited, is the high-profile court case of three Indonesian Christian women from the Christian Church of David’s Camp in Harguelis, West Java, who were accused of “Christianizing” Muslim children who attended their Sunday school program over the last two years.
CSW pointed out that the accusation of “Christianization” came not from the parents but from the local chapter of MUI.
MUI claimed that the three women offered the children gifts with a purpose of converting them to Christianity. But the CSW clarified that no evidence of this was given in court and, indeed, no children had converted to Christianity.
“The case is symptomatic of the growing harassment faced by Christians in the area of West Java,” CSW concluded.
CSW’s Advocacy Director, Tina Lambert said, “A huge injustice has been done to these three women. This in itself is a travesty but it is made all the more worrying by recent church closures and an observable strategy by militants over recent years to slowly chip away religious freedom across Indonesia.
“Indonesia has a rich and long tradition of interfaith cooperation and we ask moderate Muslim leaders to condemn this court decision and to continue to work together with Christian leaders to restore harmony and religious freedom for all.”
In another example, CSW disclosed how one pastor was forced by Islamic militants from the vigilante group AGAP (Anti-Apostasy Movement Alliance) to close the church. The militants reportedly threatened the pastor and forced her to close the church when she refused to sign a letter stating that the church would stop all religious activities.
The pastor attempted to seek help from the local police. However, the police appeared to be siding with the militants. During a meeting arranged for a settlement in the next day, various representatives even continued to call for the church to be closed including the local officials, the local head of the MUI and the police and military commander.
Amid the fear of the militants’ massive anti-Christian activity in the area, CSW’s Advocacy Director called on the Indonesian government to take action to prevent militant activity in West Java, to investigate reports of the complicity of local government and security officials in this activity and to revoke legislation incompatible with international guarantees of religious freedom.
On Sunday, local news agencies reported that Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono pledged his government’s commitment to protect the religious freedom of all citizens. He also called on the community to help prevent violence against any faith.
According to the Jakarta Post, the National Police chief has been instructed to enforce the law against those responsible for the closures of the churches, including those who took part in them.
An annual report regarding human rights in China released last week by a U.S. congressional panel found that the country has failed to improve the overall condition in 2004. In particular, the report criticized China’s control over religions and media.
“Citizens who challenge state controls on religion, speech, or assembly continue to face severe government repression,” begins the 193-page report released on Tuesday by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC).
“These detentions and policies violated not only China’s Constitution and laws, but also internationally recognized human rights standards,” the report stated further.
Established in 2000, the 20-membered CECC exists to monitor human rights and the development of the rule of law in China and to submit an annual report to the United States President and Congress.
In its recent report, the panel highlighted the “increased government restrictions on Chinese citizens who worship in state-controlled venues or write for state-controlled publications.”
Beginning Mar. 1, 2005, new regulations on religion became effective in China that restrict worship activities to state-monitored locations and place “anyone who compels citizens to believe in or not believe in any religions” at risk of facing criminal charges, among other restrictions.
It was reported that the new laws were set to protect “normal” religious activities in the wake of the rising Falun Gong movement, which the Chinese authorities have defined as a cult. However, because the laws approve of only “religious activities expressly authorized by the state through a system of compulsory licensing and mandatory inspections,” human rights watchdogs say it could indirectly affect the faithful.
During the time of the CECC report, the panel noted that “the Chinese government continues to harass, abuse, and detain religious believers who seek to practice their faith outside state-controlled religious venues.”
“Religious believers who worship within state-controlled channels are subject to government regulation to all aspects of their faith,” it added.
The panel condemned the Chinese government’s schemed campaign against Protestants as hundreds of believers associated with house churches have been intimidated, beaten, or imprisoned.
“China’s leaders will not achieve their long-term goal of social stability and continued economic development without building a future that includes human rights for all Chinese citizens,” said CECC chairman Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska.
In addition, the CECC raised concern over the weakening freedom of speech and freedom of expression in China.
“Chinese authorities have tightened restrictions on journalists, editors, and Web sites, and continue to impose strict licensing requirements on publishing, prevent citizens from accessing foreign news sources, and intimidate and imprison journalists, editors, and writers,” the report stated.
On Sept. 25, China’s State Council Information Office and the Ministry of Information Industry announced that there would be new laws implemented to control the information posted on the internet.
Religious news with articles criticizing the government’s religious policies are expected to be banned, sources reported. According to Times Online UK, the Chinese government has already blocked many Chinese Christian websites.
In response to all the accusations on breach of human rights, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Kong Quan, on Wednesday expressed resolute opposition.
Kong said the report “wantonly interferes in China’s internal affairs,” according to China’s official state-run Xinhua news agency.
The spokesman urged the United States to take effective measures to eliminate the negative impact of the report.
Senator Hagel, however, said in the CECC’s released statement, the report is “an honest report that takes a comprehensive look at human rights and rule of law in China.”
The panel therefore urges the U.S. President and the Congress to support the development of the freedom of religion in China, which it described as “universal and essential,” by continuing U.S. diplomacy.
Chinese communist authorities arrested 50 house church leaders from more than 20 provinces at a retreat in Hebei Province.
Some were beaten during the Oct. 20 raid, reported China Aid Association.
According to an eyewitness report, the leaders, from independent house churches outside government control, planned to discuss how to help the poor, orphaned and the floating population in urban areas.
Public Security Bureau of the city of Baoding and government religious affairs officials made the arrrests.
One of the church leaders, Dai Hong, was beaten by an officer named Tang, China Aid said.
Among the arrested is a famous evangelist, pastor Zhang Mingxuan, who, along with two other Christians once ran a nursing home in Beijing.
He previously was detained prior to President Bush’s trip to China in February 2002.
“It is no coincident that this kind of incident should happen again before President Bush’s upcoming visit to China next month.” says Bob Fu, the President of China Aid Association.
“The Chinese government is systematically targeting the house church movement in China,” Fu added. “We urge the international community and President Bush to pressure the Chinese government to protect freedom of religion and other human rights.”
President Bush is expected to visit Beijing Nov. 19.
The vast majority of Christians in China, perhaps as many as 100 million, are part of the unregistered church. The communist government requires all Protestant church activity to be under control of the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which restricts activities such as evangelism and certain teachings. Catholics, forbidden contact with the Vatican, are required to submit to a similar organization.
Fifty detained Chinese Protestant leaders were released by authorities following the intervention of U.S. high officials, a Chinese Christian persecution watchdog reported.
“According to a reliable source from a high level government agency, the release was ordered from the Chinese central government because of increasing international pressure on this case,” a statement from the China Aid Association (CAA) on Friday read. The arrest of the 50 Protestant leaders was first reported by the CAA on Oct. 20.
According to the association, the leaders were attending a retreat in Gougezhuang Village, Laishui County, Hebei Province, when the Public Security Bureau (PSB) and the religious affairs officials of the City of Baoding arrested the church leaders at around 4:00 pm on Oct. 20. The retreat, which gathered leaders of independent house churches from over 20 provinces, was planned to discuss how best to help the poor, orphaned, and the floating population in urban areas.
After the arrests, the CAA, religious and secular media reported on the incident, thus prompting the reaction of U.S. officials, the persecution watchdog group said.
According to the CAA report, an aide of U.S. Congressman Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., at the House International Relations Committee contacted the State Department to urge action to release the church leaders.
The CAA believes the pressure from U.S. officials was the major factor in leading to the immediate release of the arrested house church leaders the following morning.
“The relatively quick release of these church leaders is certainly a welcomed step in the right direction,” said CAA President Bob Fu said in the released statement. “The arbitrarily arrest of innocent citizens and illegal detention are contradictory to international human rights norms. Those officials who abuse its power by beating innocent people should be held accountable.”
According to CAA, one of the church leaders – 35-year-old law school graduate Dai Hong – had been repeatedly beaten by the PSB both on the spot of arrest and during interrogation.
While all of the leaders were fingerprinted and forced to sign their names and ID numbers, Dai demanded to see the police IDs before she provided her ID. Although the request was in accordance with Chinese law, Dai was reportedly taken to another room and beaten by two male policemen, the CAA reported.
A digital camera, a cell phone and some cash were also confiscated without receipt by the police, the watchdog group added.
“The Chinese government is systematically targeting the house church movement in China,” Fu commented, saying that it is “no coincident that this kind of incident should happen again before President Bush’s upcoming visit to China next month.”
Over the years, with the rapid growth of the unofficial house church movement, the Chinese government has tightened the religious law and organized raids, trying to suppress Christian activities.
“We urge the international community and President Bush to pressure the Chinese
government to protect freedom of religion and other human rights,” Fu stated on the CAA statement.
President Bush is expected to visit Beijing this year on Nov. 19.
Fearing a repeat of the recent riots against the Coptic Church in Alexandria, Egypt, which left four dead, more than 80 wounded and seven churches defaced, leaders of the Coptic church in the United States are calling on the U.S. government and the United Nations to take immediate action to stop the bloodshed and destruction of churches.
Exclusive video footage released by the International Christian Union and American Coptic Association, or ICU/ACA, yesterday reveals the destruction of the Assemblies of God Church for Evangelical Copts in Moharam Bek on Friday, Oct. 21.
An e-mail report from Dr. Monir Dawoud, president of the ICU/ACA, obtained by ANS says: “We are receiving numerous reports that extremist Muslim groups are planning to surround the Alexandria churches again on Friday, Oct.28, and at the end of Ramadan on the following Tuesday, promising the death of Christians and the continued destruction of churches throughout Egypt.”
Dawoud faults the security forces for encouraging violence by first “giving the green light to the mob,” and then failing to control the resulting riots.
“If the momentum of the riots is allowed to continue, the crowds will be impossible to contain,” Dawoud said.
More than 5,000 Muslims demonstrated outside of the Alexandria Coptic Orthodox Church last Friday to protest the production of a drama staged at the church two years ago. The protesters said the play blasphemes Islam. According to recent statements by the Coptic Church, however, the play does not defame Islam.
“Copts and other minorities in Egypt are continually subjected to physical and verbal harassment by extremist Muslim groups. Yet we do not destroy their houses of worship or call for bloodshed,” said Amgad Zakhari, one of the youth leaders with the ICU/ACA.
In addition to the protests, the Egyptian newspaper El Fagr published threats made by Muslim radicals against the Coptic Pope Shenouda III.
According to the report, Muslim radicals publicly announced their threats through mosques in the outskirts of the city of Alexandria and were calling for the death of Pope Shenouda in revenge for an alleged insult to Islam’s prophet.
The ICU and the ACA are planning a demonstration in front of the U.N. next week to protest the persecution of Christians in Egypt.
Religious persecution in China has reached the point that distributing Bibles is earning a three-year prison sentence.
Cai Zhuohua, 34, a Beijing underground church leader, was sentenced yesterday to three years in prison for distributing Bibles and other Christian materials.
His wife, Xiao Yunfei, got two years, and her brother Xiao Gaowen was sentenced to 18 months by the Haidian Lower People’s Court in Beijing.
They were arrested September 2004, said the China Aid Association of Midland, Texas. They were accused of distributing 200,000 Bibles and other materials as part of an unregistered house church Mr. Cai oversaw for 10 years.
It is the latest in a long string of escalating arrests and harassment Chinese Christians have undergone in recent years.
“This is not an acceptable result,” said China Aid President Bob Fu. “We urge President Bush to use his upcoming visit to China to address this serious religious-persecution case.”
Mr. Bush will meet with leaders in Beijing during a Nov. 19-21 visit.
“You bet when the president goes to Asia next week, he will continue to talk about the importance of promoting human rights and human dignity for all,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday.
In a round-table interview yesterday with Asian journalists, Mr. Bush said he “will continue to remind President Hu [Jintao] about, for example, my personal faith and the belief that people should be allowed to worship freely.
“A vibrant, whole society is one that recognizes that certain freedoms are inherent and need to be part of a complete society,” Mr. Bush said of the message he would give China’s communist leaders.
Mr. Bush meets today with the Dalai Lama. The 70-year-old Tibetan religious leader, in town for several conferences about meditation and neuroscience, slammed his native country at a press conference yesterday for “very, very repressive” policies.
Other religious groups claim persecution similar to that suffered by the Tibetan Buddhists represented by the Dalai Lama.
Friends of Falun Gong, a religious movement espousing meditative practices, say that more than 100,000 of its adherents have been detained, 20,000 sent to labor camps without trial and at least 253 members died from torture and beatings while in prison.
Imprisoned Falun Gong and Christians are forced to manufacture Christmas lights for export, according to Friends of Falun Gong and human rights activist Harry Wu.
Concerned Women for America, a Christian group, yesterday posted statements by Mr. Wu on its Web site (www.cwfa.org) reminding readers that “we never stop to think about where and under what conditions those pretty lights were made. Well, the truth is not so pretty.”
In March, a law took effect in China mandating severe reprisals for house churches that have not registered with the government.
Visiting American seminarians were snatched up Aug. 2 during a police raid at a house church in China’s Hubei province. On Aug. 15, five more were arrested at a house church gathering in the Henan province.
The Americans were released, but 42 Chinese — members of the often-persecuted South China Church — were not so fortunate. Several were tortured, China Aid said, but most were released by Aug. 13, mainly because of a pending visit by members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The commission listed China as one of the world’s eight worst violators of religious freedom yesterday in its annual report to Congress. China has occupied a top spot on the agency’s list since 1999.
“Underground Christian groups, Muslim Uighurs, Tibetan Buddhists, and members of groups that the government considered ‘cults’ were subjected to increased government scrutiny,” the report said. “Security officials used threats, demolition of unregistered property, extortion, interrogation, detention, and at times beatings and torture to harass leaders of unauthorized groups and their followers.”
For instance, Gong Shengliang, pastor of South China Church, was arrested in 2001 on trumped-up rape charges, human rights groups say. He languishes near death in Hubei’s Hong Shan Prison.
• Bill Sammon contributed to this report.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released on Wednesday its Policy Focus on China, raising questions on Chinese law and its upholding of human rights and religious freedom.
The issued report was based on a two-week delegation to China in August when the Commission met with representatives of government-sanctioned religious organizations and senior Chinese officials – including Vice Premier Hui Liangyu – that oversee religious affairs and the protection of human rights.
Marked as a high priority for the Bush Administration, the trip to Beijing, Urumqi, Kashgar, Chengdu, Lhasa and Shanghai was the result of several years of diplomatic effort by the United States government that was agreed to during the December 2002 U.S.-China bilateral human rights dialogue.
“The Commission continues to find that the Chinese government systematically violates the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief, contravening both the Chinese constitution and international human rights norms,” said USCIRF Chairman Michael Cromartie in a released statement. “Indeed, the room for political openness, public activism, and greater civil and individual freedoms is narrowing in China.”
USCIRF also raised questions and concerns on the management of religious affairs in China, Chinese policies concerning religious education of minors and unregistered religious organizations, new regulations on cults and religious affairs, the unique situations in Tibet and Xinjiang, and the situation for North Korean defectors in China, according to the report.
Cromartie, who led the Commission’s trip to China, specifically noted the limited freedom and human rights protections among certain religious groups.
“Particularly vulnerable are Catholics and Protestants engaged in unregistered activities, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, and members of religious and spiritual movements such as the Falun Gong,” he said as he listed specific cases of the arrest of church leaders of underground Protestant and Catholic churches.
“There is a fundamental misapprehension on the part of Chinese officials about what freedom of religion or belief means under international instruments,” he continued. “They have mistaken – cynically or inadvertently – the proliferation of state-sanctioned and state-controlled religious expression with the guarantee of the individual right of freedom or religion or belief. The growth of religious sentiment within the spaces sanctioned by government does not constitute freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief.”
The Commission called U.S. officials to raise the reported concerns at the highest levels as it made several recommendations at the release of the report to strengthen U.S. human rights diplomacy with China.
According to a USCIRF release yesterday, China remains as a “country of particular concern” (CPCs) along with seven other countries that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice designated for this year. Countries that have not yet warranted their removal from the list include Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam.
Concerning China, the Commission came out with a list of nine recommendations for U.S. government action. All nine, listed below, include recommending the government to:
• Urge the Chinese government to end its current crackdown on religious and spiritual groups throughout China, including harassment, surveillance, arrest, and detention of persons on account of their manifestation of religion or belief; the detention, torture, and ill-treatment of persons in prisons, labor camps, psychiatric facilities, and other places of confinement, and the coercion of individuals to renounce or condemn any religion or belief; release all those imprisoned or detained on account of their manifestation of religious belief in contravention of international human rights standards;
• Fully implement the March 2005 bilateral agreement between the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. Department of State, including by urging China to issue a national decree guaranteeing the right of minor children to manifest their religion or belief and the liberty of parents to ensure the religious and moral education in conformity with their own convictions;
• Promote rule of law in China by urging the Chinese government to investigate allegations of abuses of power by law enforcement officials and the use of torture to extract confessions in criminal cases, including the cases raised by the Commission with the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, report publicly on the results of the investigations, and punish those found responsible for such abuses;
• Appoint a new counselor for Human Rights and the Rule of Law at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing;
• Support and encourage programs with U.S. human rights experts and Chinese government officials, academics, representatives of religious communities, and non-governmental organizations on international standards relating to the right of freedom of religion or belief;
• Support and encourage programs with international human rights experts and Chinese scholars, judges, attorneys, and government officials on reforms to the Chinese criminal justice system, including planned changes in the criminal procedure code, the role of defense lawyers, and international norms on criminal justice standards;
• Encourage international coordination of internationally funded technical assistance programs in China to ensure that programs advance Chinese compliance with its international human rights commitments and the objectives of the bilateral and multilateral human rights initiatives with China;
• Increase the U.S. diplomatic presence in Tibet and Xinjiang; and
• Highlight conditions faced by Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists by increasing the educational opportunities in the United States that are available to religious and other leaders from these regions; creating legal clinics to assist Uighurs and Tibetans to enforce their human rights under the Chinese Constitution and international law; and expanding ongoing assistance to civil society programs that promote Tibetan culture, language, and social welfare and develop similar programs for Uighurs.
They came in buses to the small village of Sangla Hill in the Nankana district of Punjab in Pakistan.
Some 2,000 organized Muslims first vandalized three churches, a nuns’ convent, two Catholic schools, the houses of a Protestant pastor and a Catholic priest, a girls’ hostel and some Christian homes, according to Asia News.
Then they burned them to the ground, while about 450 Christian families fled yesterday. They have not returned.
The Justice and Peace Commission accuses the police of “criminal negligence” because they did not intervene.
Lawrence John Saldanha, archbishop of Lahore Archdiocese and chairman of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, said “the attack seems to have been planned and organized as the attackers were brought to the site in buses and instigated to commit violence and arson. It gave our people a lot of fear and anxiety but we hope the government will do something.”
The violence began 10 a.m. Saturday and was apparently motivated by the latest blasphemy case. On Friday, a Christian, Yousaf Masih, allegedly burned some copies of the Quran and disappeared. One of his brothers, Salim Masih was arrested the day before. The Commission of Justice and Peace in Lahore ruled that the blasphemy accusations were false and stemmed from the accusers having a financial dispute with the families they accused.
Saqib Sohail Bhatti, a Christian in Sangla Hill, explained Masih is an illiterate who would not even be able to distinguish the Quran from any other book.
Muslim clerical leaders yesterday called their flocks to gather outside the Jamia Madni Masjid central mosque where they urged them to attack the Christians. In fiery speeches, the leaders provoked the mob to set to fire each and every Christian place of worship.
The angry mob started with Masih’s house and then turned on the house of his brother. Then they headed for the Presbyterian Church, setting ablaze the building, books and the house of the local pastor, Tajamal Perveiz. Then they turned on the Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit and the adjacent convent as well as the home of the Father Semson Dilawar, the parish priest.
The crowd of some 2,000 Muslims also caused severe damage to the Saint Anthony schools, destroying furniture, records, laboratories and the library.
The Church of the Salvation Army was also damaged.
A Christian member of Parliament, Akram Gill, accused police of sitting on their hands during the rampage.
He telephoned for help but got none. Anwar Sohail, who also witnessed the incidents, told Asia News that “police were there when the mob came to attack the Catholic Church but they fled away and let the protesters enter the Church.”
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — With its simple wooden Crucifix, rows of Bibles and pastel-colored seats, it looks like a normal church. Until the singing starts, that is.
In the small band behind the altar, guitars are outnumbered by saz — long-necked Anatolian lutes.
“Let’s praise the Lord with our voices,” the congregation sings. “Let’s praise the Lord with our saz.”
On the surface, the 40-odd worshippers — mostly Muslim converts — at the Diyarbakir Evangelical Church appear to have plenty to celebrate. After three years of official obstruction, the black stone building they renovated in central Diyarbakir was formally recognized as a church a year ago, becoming the first new Protestant church in southeastern Turkey since the founding of the Turkish republic 82 years ago.
“The decision surprised us all,” says Jerry Maddix, a missionary from Washington state who has been with the church since 2002. “But I think the Turkish government only opened the door to us because it was in its own interests.”
His skepticism is shared widely within the tiny community of Turkish Protestants, estimated to number 3,500. It’s easy to see why.
As part of its effort to open accession negotiations with the European Union last month, Turkey passed a series of laws broadening civil rights, including freedom of religion.
According to this overwhelmingly Muslim country’s new criminal code, it is now illegal to prevent missionaries from working.
“Nobody can claim that religious ceremonies are obstructed in Turkey,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has boasted.
But the reality for Turkish converts to Christianity remains more ambiguous, and many of their problems stem from the vaunted secularism that has defined modern Turkey since it was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Whether Muslim or Christian, religious foundations have been kept in close check. Although the Diyarbakir congregation might have its church, it is still it is not legally recognized as a congregation.
Christians in the Istanbul district of Altintepe faced the opposite problem until September, when the legally recognized congregation finally got its building recognized as a church.
Most of the other 50-odd Protestant congregations in Turkey are worse off, enjoying only the most tenuous legal recognition.
“What’s unsettling about the ruling in our favor is that it can’t really be seen as a precedent,” Mr. Maddix said. “We’re an exception, but there are still no clear rules that other congregations can follow.”
To understand the other problem facing Christian congregations such as Mr. Maddix’s, one need only look out a church window into the street, where a police officer dozes in a van while a colleague keeps watch from a plastic chair.
The building has been under guard since last year, when a mentally ill visitor became abusive, unsheathed a knife and tried to set fire to the downstairs meeting room.
Other Turkish congregations have suffered worse. In Ankara in April, gasoline bombs were hurled at the International Protestant Church, causing $10,000 in damage.
Last November, in the southeastern city of Gaziantep, an American missionary was bound and gagged by two assailants claiming to be members of al Qaeda.
Although they didn’t follow through on their threats to kill him, they warned that they would come back and finish him off unless he and his family left Turkey immediately.
Missionaries have long been treated with suspicion in Turkey, where rampant conspiracy theories link them to international attempts to divide the country.
The latent mistrust grew into something approaching paranoia in the first half of this year, when news outlets and some members of Turkey’s government aroused fears.
On June 11, the staunchly secularist daily Cumhuriyet quoted intelligence sources as saying that evangelists were promoting ethnic divisions by concentrating their efforts on Turkey’s Kurds.
The Islamic weekly Aksiyon said in March that 35,000 clandestine congregations were meeting in Turkey. The claim was wildly exaggerated but typical.
Rahsan Ecevit, the secularist wife of a former prime minister, charged in January that missionaries were paying Turks to convert to Christianity.
“We cannot ignore this activity,” she said. “At a time we say we are entering the [European Union], we’re losing our religion.”
Timur Topuz, who attends church in Altintepe, thinks such prejudices stem ultimately from a widespread notion that being Turkish equals being Muslim.
His own grandmother, a Muslim, found it hard to credit his joy at watching Turkey defeat Ukraine in a recent soccer match, he said.
“You, a Christian, happy that Turkey won?” he quoted her as saying.
“People here still haven’t realized that nation and religion are different things,” he said with a shrug.
Police in northern India thwarted a plot by Hindu extremists who threatened to burn to death more than 60 Christian converts if they refused to return to Hinduism by Sunday.
Members of a Christian movement called Believers Church met peacefully Sunday in the state of Himachal Pradesh, according to Compass Direct, a news service that monitors persecution of Christians.
“We were able to meet without incident,” said Ramish Masih Battih, the son of Pastor Feroz Masih.
As WorldNetDaily reported, the radical Hindus severely beat the pastor in a Nov. 4 attack, accusing him of “forcibly converting” Hindus. Masih sustained internal injuries requiring medical treatment and still is recovering.
The pastor’s son told Compass Direct the estimated 10 attackers were members of the World Hindu Council and its youth wing Bajrang Dal, which has been blamed for waves of attacks against Christians and other religious minorities since the rise of the Hindu nationalist party BJP in the late 1990s.
A police official said “misconceptions are the root of the problem.”
“There are many illiterate people who can easily be misled to believe that Christians are forcibly converting Hindus,” he explained.
The Masihs are connected to K.P. Yohannan’s Gospel for Asia missionary group.
Yohannan said police tried to arrange a meeting between the pastor and the attackers, but the assailants had gone into hiding.
“One positive outcome of this incident is that people in the area now know that those who come to faith in Christ are doing so because of the power of the Gospel, not the coercion of men,” Yohannan said.
At a press conference, he pointed out, “many of the new Christians testified that they had accepted Christ of their own free will – often because they had been healed of their diseases.”
Last week, the attackers forced Masih, 62, to sign a document stating his willingness to participate in a ceremony last Sunday in which all of the Christians would convert back to Hinduism.
Refusal to participate would prompt the radicals to burn the converts to death.
The congregation meets in the Masihs’ home in the town of Baijnath.
Yohannan said the threat was reminiscent of the brutal murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two children in 1999 by Hindu radicals in the state of Orissa, who vowed to burn alive anyone who did not renounce their new faith.
Christian persecution groups responded with strong objections to controversial statements made recently by evangelist Luis Palau, who claimed that there was greater religious freedom in China and urged churches to register with the government.
“[Palau’s] position discounts the suffering of our brothers and sisters in China, and assumes the good will of a government that hasn’t earned that assumption,” wrote Todd Nettleton, director of news service for the Voice of the Martyrs (VOM), on the VOM Persecution Blog.
During his fifth trip to China, the highly respected evangelist said at a press conference in Beijing on Nov. 19 that he wanted to “make every effort to let people know that there is more freedom in China than people have anticipated,” and that he would “personally” encourage unregistered churches to register and “receive greater freedom and blessings from the government.”
“I feel that registering is a positive thing for the followers of Jesus,” Palau stated. “Believers should live in the open, especially when the Chinese government offers it. Jesus said that we are the light of the world, and that we should not be kept hidden or in the dark. Therefore, believers should share their faith openly.”
“If I were Chinese, I would definitely register. Not registering only lends to misinterpretations and misunderstandings,” he added.
Palau’s statements concerning persecution in China came as a shock and a disappointment to much of the Christian community and drew the protests of persecution watchdogs internationally.
“Luis Palau echoes common misinformed preconceptions about registration in China when he says that the government’s urging of house churches to register is similar to the way churches must register in the U.S. and in his native country, Argentina and hence, he urges unregistered congregations to register,” wrote Glenn Penner, Communication Director for the Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) in Canada, in a statement to The Christian Post.
Penner noted that rather than receiving “greater freedom and blessings” from the government, Chinese churches actually lose rights when they register with the government including: the absolute right to choose who will lead services; the right to choose location and time of services; the autonomy to appoint pastors and preach about the second coming of Christ; the ability to allow children under 18 to attend Church meetings; the right to perform evangelistic works outside of designated places of worship; the freedom by clergies to choose who and where to study; and the headship of the church.
Registered churches in China must submit to the authority of the Communist Party-controlled government, yielding power to the government to approve basic Church decisions.
“Christians are under a biblical mandate to disobey laws that call for them to disobey scriptural principles or to give to Caesar that which belongs to God,” Penner exclaimed.
“The whole idea of mandatory registration is a violation of religious liberty and basic human rights. Governments are not given the mandate to grant religious freedom; this is a God-given right. Governments can only acknowledge this right.”
In addition, Nettleton noted that “the Communist Party, which controls these registered churches, has as one of its bedrock principles the idea that there is no God. With that in mind, it is easy to understand why an estimated 80 percent of China’s Christians refuse to come under government control.”
“They know that our first loyalty, as Christians, is to Jesus Christ, not to government leaders,” Nettleton continued. “Making a comparison between registering for tax-exempt status in the U.S. and Chinese state restrictions on religion is like comparing a gentle spring rain with Hurricane Katrina.”
Both Penner and Nettleton gave mention of well-known Chinese pastors that have been arrested, beaten, or jailed for their faith as evidence that religious freedom in China is not as Palau claims.
“I wonder how Mr. Palau would explain his comment to Christians like Li Ying, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence for publishing a Christian magazine. Or to Cai Zhuohua, sentenced this month to serve three years in a labor camp for printing Bibles and other Christian literature (the government only allows one printer to print Bibles, and those are not available except to the registered churches),” Penner questioned.
“Or to Gong Shengliang, serving a life sentence for his Christian work with the South China Church. Or to Christian businessman Tong Qimiao, who suffered severe injuries at the hands of police when he was arrested and then denied hospital treatment and whose business was forced to close when he demanded that those responsible for his abuse to be punished.”
Nettleton, also made mention of the family of Jiang Zongxiu, who was beaten to death in police custody in June, 2004 after being arrested for giving out Bibles and Christian literature in the marketplace.
“I suspect all of them would be surprised to hear that there is now more freedom in China,” Nettleton wrote.
“How does Mr. Palau respond to documents smuggled out of China this year that provide concrete evidence that the persecution policies are being directed from the Central Government in Beijing; not only from local or provincial authorities,” Penner continued. “This directly contradicts Mr. Palau’s assertion that ‘It could just be local authorities acting on their own accord.’”
Though Nettleton expressed strong disapproval of Palau’s statements, the VOM spokesman also expressed appreciation for the work he’s done through the years to spread the gospel.
As one of the most respected evangelists in the Spanish-speaking world today Palau has taken the message of hope to an estimated 20 million people in 70 nations through the ministry that bears his name. Palau is well known for the evangelistic festivals he has held over the years. Recent festivals included Washington, D.C.; Madrid, Spain; and Mendoza, Argentina.
“Thank you, Mr. Palau, for your years of faithful service to the King,” Nettleton concluded. “Please honor our suffering brothers and sisters in China by retracting your call for all Christians in China to register with the Communist government. Coming under control of an atheistic government is not the answer to Christian persecution in China.”
Christmas is a time of joy for Christians and, for multitudes around the world, a time of suffering. Last Wednesday, under the auspices of Senator Rick Santorum and the Congressional Working Group on Religious Freedom that he cochairs with Congressman Roy Blunt, some of the world’s foremost defenders of persecuted Christians gathered in the U.S. Capitol to draw attention to this suffering.
Over Christmas 2000 in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country and one traditionally renowned for its religious toleration, terrorists bombed churches in 18 cities, killing scores and wounding hundreds. At Wednesday’s forum, Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver observed that “violence against the Christian minority has steadily continued over the past decade.” As an example, he cited the beheadings of three Christian teenage girls in Sulawesi in late October. International Christian Concern’s Jeff King brought photos of the incident; the girls’ heads were left at a church, each with a note that vowed, “We will murder 100 more Christian teenagers and their heads will be presented as presents.”
Last Christmas in Iraq, St. John’s Church near Mosul was attacked. Assyrian cultural expert Eden Naby described the scene: “The Mass begins. It is cold inside the stone church. Suddenly you hear automatic fire. The doors fly open. The Christian guards are shot, and in march armed Kurdish Peshmarga who shoot up the church, beat up the priest and drive the parishioners cowering home.” In prior months, other churches in southern Iraq had been bombed by Islamic militants, some during worship services. Though the terror came from two different sources, in each case the purpose was the same — to intimidate and force out the ancient Chaldo Assyrian Christian community.
In Saudi Arabia, Christians, a large percentage of the foreign workers making up a quarter of the population, will not be able to find any churches whatsoever to worship in this Christmas — churches are forbidden. Dozens of those who pray together in private houses were arrested and jailed earlier this year. This fanatically intolerant kingdom even forbids Muslims, under threat of death, to wish a Christian “Happy Holidays,” much less “Merry Christmas.”
Christians face similar repression in Iran. Episcopal priest, Rev. Keith Roderick, representing Christian Solidarity International, reported that as the Christmas season got underway around the world last month, Tehran’s tyrannical President Ahmadinejad met with 30 provincial governors and reportedly declared, “I will stop Christianity in this country,” avowing to shut down the country’s growing house-church movement.
Egypt had been a place of refuge for the Holy Family fleeing Herod’s wrath. Today, however, Christians are fleeing Egypt itself. As Fr. Roderick attested, Christians are treated as “second-class citizens” under state-sponsored discrimination and actively persecuted by Islamic militants apart from the government. He cited the week-long riot in October against St. George’s Coptic Church in Alexandria by a 10,000-strong mob incensed by rumors of blasphemy.
Christians in Pakistan will be wise to keep their Christmas celebrations low-key this year. One of them, Yousaf Masih, a 60-year-old illiterate janitor from northwestern Pakistan, is among those under arrest for “blasphemy” because he allegedly burned a Koran. As Paul Marshall of the Center for Religious Freedom recounted, three weeks ago in Sangala Hill, after word of his case got out, mobs destroyed three churches, a convent, a Christian school, and Christian homes. Last week a militant mob rallied to demand Masih’s public hanging and the eradication of the entire Christian community there.
And while China manufactures and exports Christmas lights and ornaments, it arrests and imprisons Christians who lead worship services, preach, or minister without state approval. Richard Land, director of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, gave as an example Catholic Bishop James Su Zhimin of Hebei, who on December 25 will be observing his 27th Christmas in confinement. Cai Zhuohua, a Protestant pastor in Beijing, was sentenced in early November to three years in the gulag, or laogai as it’s called in China, for printing and distributing Bibles. His defense lawyer, the prominent civil rights attorney Gao Zhisheng, also a Christian, has been disbarred and now worries he may become his own next client.
Christmas has been banned in North Korea for half a century. Land reported on a new study conducted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom — “Thank you, Father Kim Il Sung” — based on dozens of in-depth interviews with North Korean escapees. All of them said that there is absolutely no freedom of thought, conscience or belief in North Korea. All report, in fact, that such liberties are explicitly and actively prohibited. None had ever seen churches in North Korea. Most did not know of the three state-controlled churches in Pyongyang, the country’s only churches. None of the interviewees was aware of any authorized religious activity inside North Korea. Two interviewees provided graphic and detailed eyewitness testimony of the summary executions of individuals accused of engaging in unauthorized religious activities. Another interviewee said that her brother was executed for involvement in such activities. One additional interviewee had heard of executions of North Koreans involved in unauthorized religious activities, and, as a police official, had been involved in two separate cases resulting in the arrest of eleven individuals accused of involvement in such religious activities. Of the eleven arrested, two died during interrogation; the interviewee believed that the other nine had been executed. Others mentioned executions they had heard about but had not witnessed themselves.
Vietnam, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, India, Cuba, Eritrea, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan were also among the countries cited for violent anti-Christian persecution. And, as the panelists remarked, this list could be extended.
One mark of hope for genuine religious freedom was offered by Marshall at the forum’s conclusion. He noted that,this Christmas, many churches in Indonesia will be surrounded by the uniformed Muslim Banser group, a wing of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization. The Bansers will not be there to attack the churches but to help protect them from extremists, to prevent any reprise of the Christmas 2000 bombings. Nahdlatul Ulama has done this for several years, in cooperation with the police and the Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist communities.
Christmas is a time of great suffering for these communities. But as these persecuted Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus from their jail cells, within their house churches, or silently in their hearts, it is also a time of joy. For them, truly, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
— Nina Shea is the director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom.
I love Christmas.
I love the music, the lights and the surprises. I love being with family and exchanging gifts. I love reading again the humble beginnings of our Lord Jesus Christ. I love to think about the promise delivered by the angel: “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:10, HCSB).
But fighting long lines at department stores, maxing out our credit cards and becoming exasperated distracts Christians from focusing on that “Good News.” At best many give cursory thought to the baby in the manger. However, that baby in a manger could not save us from our sin and allow us to escape the judgment that awaited us. It was a man on a cross - a martyr - who believed the message He had to share was more precious than life itself. How my heart aches praying that more Christians lived with that intensity of focus. Thank God many have - and it has cost them their lives as well.
It was nearly three years ago (Dec. 30) that a gunman slipped into the Baptist Hospital in Jibla, Yemen, and killed Bill Koehn, Kathy Gariety and Martha Myers. In the blink of an eye, three Southern Baptist workers passed into eternity, literally giving their lives so that the Muslims of Yemen could hear the Good News of the Savior proclaimed by the angel.
Less than three months later (March 2003) a terrorist’s bomb killed Southern Baptist missionary Bill Hyde. The big missionary with a big heart full of love for the people of the Philippines was dead after 25 years of service, but thousands of Filipinos not only heard the Good News but experienced the joy of knowing the Savior who was born in Bethlehem.
Just a year later (March 2004), Southern Baptist workers David McDonnall, Karen Watson and Larry and Jean Elliott were killed when terrorists opened fire with high-powered rifles on their small truck. The four, along with David’s wife, Carrie - who survived - were in northern Iraq surveying potential water purification projects in the area around Mosul. Their hope was to bring the Good News of the Living Water to a spiritually dry and thirsty land.
Jan. 8 will be the 50th anniversary of the deaths of Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, Jim Elliot, and Peter Fleming. The five were killed while taking the Good News to the Waodani people deep in Ecuador’s jungle.
The deaths of David Mankins, Mark Rich and Rick Tenenoff, three missionaries with New Tribes Mission, were confirmed in early 1996. Colombian guerillas had kidnapped them three years earlier from their home near the Colombian-Panamanian border where they shared the Good News among tribal peoples.
It’s been nearly 64 years since New Tribes’ first missionaries - Cecil and Bob Dye, George Hosback, Dave Bacon, and Eldon Hunter - ventured into Bolivia’s jungle to share the Good News with the Ayor tribe. They were buried near where they were killed.
There is the expression that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, but some say these missionaries died in vain. I say we shame ourselves if we even think in that manner. Spiritual fruit continues to be harvested from the sacrifice made by each of these mentioned above. We cheapen the proclamation of the angel when we live in the comfort of a “domesticated Christianity,” as Erwin McManus calls it. We too often miss the point. The church does not exist for us. Most seem to feel that the church exists to provide for them, please them, and satisfy them. It isn’t for us - it is for those outside and away from God. God’s intention is that we inside the church leave our domesticated Christianity and go to them.
But the church has lost its sense of mission. It has accommodated herself to cultural climate. Church is no longer changing culture. Instead it is being changed by culture. The average church member has little or no awareness of mission as a Christian. We have two purposes in this life: To worship God and to make His name known among the nations. Sometimes making His name known is dangerous. Countless common people beyond America’s borders die a martyr’s death everyday because they realize the joy they’ve found in Jesus Christ is greater than any harm man can bring against them.
In a note to his wife shortly before going into the jungle, Cecil Dye wrote:
“I don’t believe we care so much whether this expedition is a failure so far as our lives are concerned, but we want God to get the most possible glory from everything that happens, and we know that the powers of Hell are marshaled against anything that would bring about this desired aim. On the other hand, it seems that it would be a real testimony to the Lord’s power to make this expedition successful. Then again, perhaps, more Christians would become more aware of their responsibility to lost men and less concerned over the material things of this life if the expedition failed and we lost our lives. Maybe they would pray more for the next group that went to the same tribe, and maybe, there would be more “all out” volunteers so that every tribe would be reached in our generation. I believe the real attitude of every fellow in this group is that they want, at any cost, that which will glorify God most.”
This Christmas, I’m not calling you to martyrdom; only God can do that. What I am praying is that through this column you “would become more aware of [your] responsibility to lost men and less concerned over the material things of this life.” We honor the deaths of those who have shed their blood by pressing forward into the world with the same Good News proclaimed by the angel. (Southern Baptists have a great opportunity to do that through the International Mission Board and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering). More importantly, we honor Jesus Christ.
This Christmas, take a few moments to consider whether or not the gift you’re giving is worth your life. Aren’t you glad the gift Jesus gave was worth it? Now share His gift with someone else.
James T. Draper Jr.
Christians in Indonesia are taking few chances this Christmas. As the choirs prep and evangelical rappers rehearse their hip-hop gospel numbers, church leaders are digging bomb pits and coordinating security with local police and the military.
In Jakarta, larger churches have highly visible perimeter security systems, including metal detectors and roadblocks that police and private security will be manning throughout Christmas weekend. Indonesia’s government urged churches in rural areas to dig holes in which to place any suspicious objects that might be improvised explosives.
Many Indonesians anticipated more year-end violence because of worsening economic conditions, political unrest, and the strength of militant Islam. This year has seen renewed violence targeting Christians. In late October, on the island of Sulawesi in western Indonesia, Muslim militants beheaded three Christian girls on their way to a Christian school. In early December, also in Sulawesi, a suspected Muslim militant burned down one church.
Representatives of the government met with Muslim fundamentalists to ask them to focus their Christmas weekend demonstrations on things like the economy and to leave out sectarian attacks on Christians who tend to be economically more successful. Local papers just announced that there were millions more unemployed, and the poverty rate has zoomed upward in recent months.
This fall, police announced that they had launched a nationwide security operation “Candle Operation 2005” with 47,750 officers to ensure peaceful Christmas and New Year celebrations. Some moderate Muslim youth will volunteer guard duty at churches over Christmas, according to media reports.
Open Doors reports that more than 600 churches have been destroyed and 20,000 killed in Muslim-Christian violence since the early 1990s in Indonesia.
Be Watchful, Don’t Panic
Last Sunday, December 18, Christianity Today interviewed worshippers at the 5,000-member Indonesian Christian Church (GKI) of the Gunung Sahari area of Jakarta. Cars were lined up for a brief anti-bomb inspection in the alleyway leading up to the church entrance. High walls surrounded the church itself.
The early morning service started with a bell ringing and then an announcement about security preparations and Christmas services. The church bulletin listed eight “Suggestions for Security During Christmas.” The advice included: “Be watchful. Park away from the church. Don’t panic.”
Memories of Christmas 2000 are still fresh in the minds of local church leaders. Six years ago, 19 people were killed in coordinated bombings at 11 churches on Christmas Eve.
In those attacks and others, police suspect the involvement of terrorist mastermind Noordin Mohammed Top. A native of Malaysia, Top remains a most-wanted man in Indonesia for his leadership in Jemaah Islamiya, a group linked to al Qaeda.
According to American intelligence sources, another Jemaah Islamiya leader at a 2002 meeting in Bangkok announced that soft targets like churches would be attacked because foreign embassies had become too well protected.
At the GKI church, parishioners and pastors were calm, but not complacent. An elderly man named Hadianto said he wasn’t worried.
“In fact, I have gone to two churches today. I want to know how to get closer to God.”
Anita Permana, a church volunteer, admitted, “The situation in Indonesia is not too peaceful, but it doesn’t scare me. I have God.” Youth pastor Imanuel Kristo said this year, “There was more concern than in previous years about security. Rumors are flying.”
But at least the December 18 service at GKI church was unmarred by trouble or worry. The 40-piece children’s orchestra lit up “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Three colorfully dressed wise men came in to illustrate the sermon on the source of wisdom. Pastor Bambang Soetopo said that in Indonesia “wise men” could be translated “weak men.”
He asked if his church was wise or weak. “In Indonesia, we have people using magic and the paranormal. Others depend on their riches.”
Taking up the theme of Indonesia’s economic troubles, the pastor urged his parishioners to not let their economic troubles cause them to lose sight of God and biblical wisdom. “Our economic welfare is not the end of life, but our spiritual welfare is the end of life.”
Recently, high-ranking Christian and Muslim leaders in government announced a social movement for reconciliation and reconstruction. About 85 percent of Indonesia is Muslim. Christians make up the second largest group among the nation’s 220 million people.
Retired army general Monang Siburian told a group of Christian denominational leaders that this Christmas should be focused on “reconciling and forgetting” past wrongs.
“Indonesia cannot be saved by the army. Indonesia cannot be saved by the politicians. The responsibility for saving Indonesia rests with you Christians. You must lead the nation in reconciling and forgetting.”
Siburian told churches that the 2004 tsunami had opened up Indonesians to working together, but that the opening would not last very long.
The church needs to reach out to the rest of society with forgiveness, forgetting of past wrongs, and helping the poor. “There will be no more Indonesia without reconciliation and reconstruction,” the influential general told the church leaders.
CT also traveled across town to a church in the poor Kamal district. There, Handi Hendrawan led his flock in prayers that Indonesians would be unified.
The congregation is full of kids from the neighborhood because of an after-school program that Compassion International sponsors. Compassion is a church-centered ministry to kids in more than 20 countries headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The district is a mixture of Muslims, Christians, and non-believers—mostly poor and very troubled. Just down the block from the church, there are dealers selling street drugs.
Pastor Hendrawan says, “God laid on my heart to come here. This program for the children of the poor is a realization of that dream.”
Before coming to the church program, each kid was running down a path of no return. Several of them spoke about their lives before joining the after-school program. Yunai was a fragile person when she came. Her teacher recalls, “She was afraid of everything.”
Christina felt ashamed and would run away when someone hailed her. Imah wouldn’t study or obey her parents. Susi was a “crying girl” who constantly threw tantrums.
Now, the children say that they are “smart,” “happy,” or “loved like a family member.” As their children change, so do the parents. The families are more unified. There is hope for the neighborhood.
Could this be a parable for Indonesia?
So, appropriately, one week before Christmas, the local church rap artist chanted out during the service, “One Day Indonesia will be one.”
The recent bombings outside four Christian churches in Iraq have struck a tense nerve among the nation’s Christian population, according to an organization that aids the religiously persecuted.
In response to Sunday’s explosions that struck in quick succession, killing three people and wounding nine, Todd Nettleton of Voice of Martyrs said there is a “sense of uneasiness” among the Christians.
“There is a sense of a threat level going up, a sense of uneasiness if you’re there, if you’re involved in Christian ministry,” he said, according to Mission Network News.
The targeted explosions came nearly two months after the relatively peaceful Iraqi elections, where Shiite religious groups took the lion’s share of seats in the new parliament. Reports indicate that the violence threatened to complicate efforts to form a broad-based government, which is in the favor of most political groups excluding the conservative Shiite coalition, according to Khalaf al-Alyan, a leader of the Sunni National Concord Front.
No group claimed responsibility for the church bombings in Baghdad and Kirkuk as well as a fifth bomb that had also exploded near the Vatican mission.
Lee DeYoung, vice president of Words of Hope, did not view the bombings as a direct attack only on Christians. He pointed out that, in the broader context, Christian churches have not been the lone victims of the violent attacks. Last year, he said, 700 mosques were bombed. While there is rising intimidation, the persons behind the attacks are a number of “troublemakers” rather than religious persecutors.
The violence, however, has caused a large decline in the Christian population in most Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq, according to recent reports and persecution experts.
For those remaining behind, safety is an issue for the Christian population and prayer is the key supporter, said Nettleton, and the Gospel must be preached.
“I think we need to be praying for our brothers and sisters that are involved in ministry in Iraq,” he said. “Pray for their safety, but we also need to pray that they will feel safe.
“We have work going on in Iraq and all of our people that are there are very conscious of their safety, they’re very conscious of the issues that are there, but I think they go in knowing that it is a risk but understanding that it’s an important thing to share the Gospel with people in Iraq.”
Iraqi Christians are becoming extremely vulnerable, say Christian groups that have cited increased marginalization of the religious minority after Sunday’s church bombings.
The World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission requested specific prayers for the Christians of Iraq as the threat level rises against the already dwindling population. In a weekly Religious Liberty Prayer bulletin released on Tuesday, the commission dubbed the Christians as being “endangered” in an Islamic society with increasing sectarian tensions.
“As people, groups and whole communities start to identify by religious affiliation rather than their common Iraqi nationality, the Christian minority find themselves increasingly despised, marginalized and exposed,” the commission wrote.
Sunday’s explosions occurred outside five Iraqi churches, killing a 13-year-old Christian on his way to mass and a Muslim couple living near a targeted church in Kirkuk. Evangelical congregations in Baghdad, where four of the car bombings were synchronized, cancelled services that night.
One priest from the Assyrian Church of the East said the attacks were clearly coordinated and planned, according to the Open Doors ministry. Many view them as a direct strike on the Christian minority, linking the attacks back to an anger that was ignited months past among Muslims.
Last September, the conservative Danish daily Jyllands-Posten sparked controversy when it published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The caricatures, which included Mohammed wearing a time-bomb shaped turban, caused boycotts of products and widespread Muslim condemnation of the Danish government’s stance. Religious and political leaders throughout the Arab world made public statements denouncing the cartoons.
The cartoons were reprinted Jan. 10 in a Norwegian Christian publication Magazinet, inflaming past anger and protest from the pulpit in a Muslim outcry. The reappearance was said to be a gesture of solidarity with the Danish newspaper, according to Agence France Presse, with both publications calling the whole affair an attack on freedom of expression.
Fr. Louis Sako, Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, said at a bombed victim’s funeral service Monday that the church had nothing to do with the cartoons and that they represented the views of one individual.
In addition, in a statement released after Sunday’s bombings, Iraq’s Muslim Ulema Council declared that the attacks were “not the way to deal with the newspaper that has offended the prophet Mohammad,” according to the WEA RLC.
The German Society for Endangered Peoples, meanwhile, feared the attacks could lead to a mass emigration of Iraqi Christians, with many fleeing to northern Iraq, or the country altogether. Open Doors released a statement also expressing concern over an exodus of Christians from the country.
“These attacks could also lead to a renewed effort by Iraqi Christians to leave the country altogether,” said Open Doors personnel working in the region.
“Iraqi Christians are extremely vulnerable,” stated the WEA RLC. “They are endangered, without equality before the (Islamic) law, having no clan networks and retaliation ideology, and lacking security in a lawless Islamic society.”
The commission calls believers to pray for the protection of the Iraqi Christians, their spiritual unity, and their growth in wisdom, faith and prayer for the Holy Spirit to descend upon their nation.
As a relatively peaceful decade continues to take a sharp turn for the worse for believers in Islamic Republic of Iran, Iranian Christians are frightened, according to an international ministry to the persecuted church.
“The last 10 years were relatively calm,” said Open Doors staff worker Stefan Van Velde. “Between 1990 and 2004, Christian life wasn’t easy, but we counted fewer arrests and fewer incidents of torture than in the period before 1990.
“But in the last phase of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, the situation deteriorated for the Christian population,” he added.
The staff worker counted nearly 90 church leaders who were arrested in September 2004 with persecution worsening since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in June 2005.
“I heard that all mayors have been given the order to crack down on all Christian cell groups,” he said.
Human Rights Watch reported that respect for basic human rights in Iran deteriorated considerably in 2005, citing government uses of torture and ill-treatment for those in detention and serious human rights violations. The New York-based human rights group also noted the subjection of Iran’s religious minorities to discrimination and, in some cases, persecution.
Open Doors in addition reported that more Christians have been temporarily arrested and beaten since the summer of 2005.
“I fear more Christians will be murdered for their faith,” said Van Velde. “The civilians have not become radical, but the leaders are now extremists and they decide about life and death.”
Despite fears, Christians have the freedom to express their faith within their churches. There is greater fear, however, for the Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) whom the government wants to return to Islam, according to Open Doors.
“If you covert from the Muslim faith, you can be killed as Mr. Tourani was last fall,” said Open Doors USA President Dr. Carl Moeller, referring to the Iranian convert who was murdered in November by an unnamed group of fanatical Muslims that were reportedly “angry about his conversion.”
Forbidden from supporting the MBBs, ethnic churches have let their hands go of helping the new believers. Therefore, the MBBs secretly meet in small cell groups, making it harder for groups like Open Doors serving persecuted Christians to reach them.
“It’s increasingly difficult to perform our work. This is a problem, because most MBBs are new converts to Christianity. They have very little knowledge of the Bible. There is a big risk that false doctrines will arise,” said Van Velde.
The MBBs show no fear, however, and continue to practice their new belief and spread the gospel.
“Please join me in prayer for our brothers and sisters in Iran as the persecution increases,” said Moeller.
At least six Christians have been gunned down at their homes by alleged Muslim terrorists in the Philippines, reports the Voice of the Martyrs, a leading monitor of Christian persecution.
According to the report, at least five terrorists believed to be linked to al-Qaida murdered six or more Christians by gunfire after asking them if they believed in Christ on the front doorsteps of their homes.
The incident occurred on the morning of Feb. 2 in the village of Patikul on the small Philippine island of Jolo, which is predominantly Muslim. At least one witness said a baby girl was among the casualties. Five people were injured during the door-to-door questioning.
The Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, which means “Bearer of the Sword” is assumed responsible for the attacks, as well as for a series of kidnappings, murders and bombings in the southern Philippines over the past 15 years.
According to Voice of the Martyrs, five victims fatally shot were identified as 9-month-old Melanie Patinga, Selma Patinga, 45-year-old Itting Pontilla, 16-year-old Emma Casipong and Pedro Casipong.
A Christian former employee of Allstate has settled a lawsuit with the company he had filed claiming he was fired because of an anti-homosexual, anti-same-sex marriage column he wrote on his own time.
As WorldNetDaily reported, J. Matt Barber was a manager in Allstate’s Corporate Security Division, its investigative arm, at the Fortune 100 company’s headquarters in Northbrook, Ill. Besides working for the insurance provider, Barber was and is a professional heavyweight boxer, a jazz drummer and a Web commentator. His columns have appeared on TheConservativeVoice.com, MensNewsDaily.com and others.
The column in question was written and posted in December 2004. After being called into a meeting with two human resources officials who confronted Barber about the column, he was fired effective Feb. 3.
Though the original column’s bio line did not indicate Barber worked for Allstate, editors at one of the sites where it was posted added that information, and a complaint about the piece made its way to Allstate management.
With the help of the Christian Law Association and David Gibbs III, who represented Terri Schiavo’s family in the final weeks of her life, Barber sued Allstate in federal court. That suit has been settled out of court, and neither side, per a confidentiality agreement, are saying much about it.
“My family and I feel like a weight has been lifted,” Barber told WND. “We’re in a position now where we can move forward with our lives.”
Barber said he couldn’t reveal details of the settlement, which lawyers announced Thursday.
Christian advocacy groups got behind Barber in the battle, and eight members of Congress got involved as well.
“I think Allstate saw the writing on the wall,” Peter LaBarbera, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, told the Chicago Tribune. “I think they would have lost a lot of business over this.”
Barber now is working for Republican candidate for governor in Illinois, Jim Oberweis.
“I’m trying to do my part to get him elected March 21 in the Republican primary,” Barber said. “He’s the pro-life, pro-family candidate here in Illinois.”
Oberweis faces fellow Republican Judy Baar Topinka, whom Barber describes as a “liberal,” along with two other candidates. The winner will attempt to unseat incumbent Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Christians in India are facing more persecution now than any other time in their history, according to the head of a mission organization.
“Our leaders on the mission field tell me that it has become such a regular, daily event that they now report only the worst cases,” said Gospel for Asia President K.P. Yohannan.
Yohannan accounted a battle for economic power and control to be the cause of the growing wave of persecution with a group of extremists, holding the supremacist ideology “Hindutva” (Hindu-ness), attempting to control the low-caste majority.
Tracing the power rage back to the Crusaders who tried to control the Holy Land, Yohannan said “without Christ, the human heart never changes – it is always hungry for power.”
What is happening now in India is a radical minority attempting to “Hinduize” a nation of over a billion people, he continued.
Hundreds of thousands of activists recently attended the much-feared Shabri Kumbh festival in Dangs district, Gujarat, which ended peacefully last week. Christians all over the world had feared a reconversion festival that would result in violent attacks against the Christian population. While violence did not erupt, religious leaders and event speakers called for the reconversion of Christians and urged the Indian government to enact an anti-conversion law.
“It is nice that the Kumbh has passed off peacefully, but the inflammatory speeches delivered during the three days have sown seeds of possible conflicts,” said Sheela Shende of the Church of North India, according to the New Kerala news agency.
“Why persecute Christians?” asked Yohannan. “Because, just like in England and America in centuries past, believers in Jesus are the ones today working and praying toward the liberation of millions of ‘slaves’ (Dalits and other lower castes) on the Indian subcontinent.”
Christian missionaries from the Bible Society of India were recently forced to shut down their relief operations in the Jammu and Kashmir regions as villagers accused them of carrying out conversions. Recent reports also state that militant anti-social elements are seeking to prevent the graduation of over 10,000 Bible school and seminary students from the Emmanuel Theological Seminary in Kota, Rajasthan, according to Hopegivers International, a leading Indian Christian organization.
“Today, India is at a crossroads,” Yohannan said. “And we as believers in Jesus have the opportunity to help make an impact on this nation that will last for eternity.”
Christians around the world are being called to a prayer for peace and freedom in India throughout February and March. Dr. Samuel Thomas, president of Hopegivers International, marked Feb. 25-26 in Kota as an All India Day of Prayer in which Christians from every state of India and around the globe will gather to pray for the welfare of India.
“Our hope is in God to protect innocent people from a new wave [of] communal hatred and violence,” said Thomas.
“Let us pray with compassion, love and faith for these millions to understand Christ and His love,” said Yohannan.
Sectarian violence sparked by cartoons of Islam’s most revered figure spread to three more Nigerian cities before the end of last week, resulting in the burning of five churches and pushing the total death toll to more than 127.
Armed with machetes and clubs, Muslim youths in the northern Nigerian city of Potiskum on Friday attacked shops owned by mostly Christians and burned churches reported resident Ibrahim Dagbugur to the Associated Press. It took police several hours to subdue the riot that claimed the lives of four people.
The violence followed weeklong protests that began Feb. 18 when Nigerian Muslims demonstrating in the northern and predominantly Muslim city of Bauchi targeted Christians and killed 18 people.
Caricatures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad – first printed in September by a Danish newspaper and reprinted in European media and elsewhere – have sparked angry protests by Muslims worldwide who consider any depiction of Allah and their prophets to be blasphemy.
Recent fighting is the worst to hit Nigeria since 2004 when Muslim-Christians clashes in northern Nigeria killed more than 700 people. Nigeria is almost entirely split between a northern Muslim population and a predominantly Christian south.
Experts have pointed out that although on the surface the violence appear to be religiously motivated, many of the past “Christian-Muslim clashes” in Nigeria were linked to ethnic, economic, and political conflicts with religious overtones.
Beside Potiskum in northeastern Yobe state, Kontagora in northern Niger state and Enugu, capital of southeastern Enugu state were also sites of violence on Friday.
In Kontagora, ten churches were burned and two people killed a resident told AP.
The mainly Christian southeastern city of Enuga witnessed at least one person killed by mobs that attacked ethnic Hausa Muslims.
According to AP, out of the 127 people killed this week in sectarian fighting in Nigeria, 80 died in the southeastern city of Onitsha.
A Christian persecution watchdog released its annual list on Wednesday, ranking the top 50 countries according to the intensity of persecution.
The 2006 Open Doors World Watch List kept North Korea as the number one Christian persecutor for the fourth straight year, a ranking that is not a surprise among human rights groups. It also listed Saudi Arabia and Iran in the top three.
1. North Korea
“North Korea is the most repressive nation in the world,” said Open Doors USA President Dr. Carl Moeller. “It breaks my heart to hear some of the atrocities against our brothers and sisters there.”
Along with imprisonment and persecution, Open Doors’ staff estimates that hundreds of Christians were killed by the communist regime in 2005.
The “not free” country has remained a serious concern for U.S. leaders and human rights activists, who have recently urged the state department to implement key provisions of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004.
An earlier human rights report released by Freedom House - Freedom in the World 2006 - gave the communist nation the lowest rankings, specifically in political rights and civil liberties. Abuses and human rights violations in North Korea were also cited in a landmark study titled Thank you, Father Kim Il Sung, which was released by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in November.
2. Saudi Arabia
Tailing the oppressive nation for the past four years on the Open Doors persecution list was Saudi Arabia, where religious freedom does not exist.
In the latest International Religious Freedom Report, no change was recorded in the status of religious freedom last year for the country designated as one of eight “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC).
More than 70 expatriate Christians were arrested in 2005 during worship in private homes in what has been called Saudi Arabia’s largest crackdown on Christians in a decade, reported Open Doors. Most of the arrested Christians were eventually released.
The situation for Christians in Iran took a turn for the worse with the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Up from number five to the third spot on the World Watch list, Iran saw a new wave of persecution in 2005.
The New-York based Human Rights Watch reported a considerable deterioration of basic human rights in the Islamic state. Along with Christians, Muslim-background believers (Christians from Muslim backgrounds) have greater fear of being persecuted and even killed for their faith.
The top ten countries in the Open Doors report has remained relatively the same except for the inclusion of Yemen, which went from the eleventh rank to number eight. Afghanistan was pushed down to number 11.
Deterioration was seen in Uzbekistan, India and Bangladesh while improvements in the situation for Christians were noted in Vietnam, Laos, Afghanistan, Sudan, northern Nigeria, Colombia and southern Mexico.
The following is the complete list of the 2006 Open Doors World Watch List:
1. North Korea
2. Saudi Arabia
18. Myanmar (Burma)
28. Nigeria (North)
30. Sri Lanka
31. Russia (Muslim Rep)
42. United Arab Emirates
44. Colombia (Conflict Areas)
48. Mexico (South)
49. Philippines (South)
50. Kenya (Northeast)
Kabul, afghanistan (ap) - an afghan man who had faced the death penalty for converting from islam to christianity quickly vanished tuesday after he was released from prison, apparently out of fear for his life with muslim clerics still demanding his death.
Italy’s foreign minister gianfranco fini said he would ask his government to grant abdul rahman asylum. Fini was among the first to speak out on the man’s behalf.
Rahman, 41, was released from the high-security policharki prison on the outskirts of kabul late monday, afghan justice minister mohammed sarwar danish told the associated press.
“we released him last night because the prosecutors told us to,” he said. “his family was there when he was freed, but i don’t know where he was taken.”
Deputy attorney-general mohammed eshak aloko said prosecutors had issued a letter calling for rahman’s release because “he was mentally unfit to stand trial.” He also said he did not know where rahman had gone after being released.
He said rahman may be sent overseas for medical treatment.
On monday, hundreds of clerics, students and others chanting “death to christians!” Marched through the northern afghan city of mazar-e-sharif to protest the court decision sunday to dismiss the case. Several muslim clerics threatened to incite afghans to kill rahman if he is freed, saying that he is clearly guilty of apostasy and deserves to die.
“abdul rahman must be killed. Islam demands it,” said senior cleric faiez mohammed, from the nearby northern city of kunduz. “the christian foreigners occupying afghanistan are attacking our religion.”
Rahman was arrested last month after police discovered him with a bible during a custody dispute over his two daughters. He was put on trial last week for converting 16 years ago while he was a medical aid worker for an international christian group helping afghan refugees in pakistan. He faced the death penalty under afghanistan’s islamic laws.
The case set off an outcry in the united states and other nations that helped oust the hard-line taliban regime in late 2001 and provide aid and military support for afghan president hamid karzai. President bush and others had insisted afghanistan protect personal beliefs.
U.n. Spokesman adrian edwards said rahman has asked for asylum outside afghanistan.
“we expect this will be provided by one of the countries interested in a peaceful solution to this case,” he said.
Fini, the italian foreign minister who is also deputy premier, will seek permission to grant rahman asylum at a cabinet meeting wednesday, a foreign ministry statement said.
Fini had earlier expressed italy’s “indignation” over the case. Pope benedict xvi also appealed to karzai to protect rahman.
Italy has close ties with afghanistan, whose former king, mohammed zaher shah, was allowed to live with his family in exile in rome for 30 years. The former royals returned to kabul after the fall of the taliban regime a few years ago.
Asked whether the u.s. Government was doing anything to secure rahman’s safety after his release, state department spokesman sean mccormack said in washington that where he goes after being freed is “up to mr. Rahman.” He urged afghans not to resort to violence even if they are unhappy with the resolution of the case.
The international outrage over rahman’s case put karzai in a difficult position because he also risked offending religious sensibilities in afghanistan, where senior muslim clerics have been united in calling for rahman to be executed.
A monitor of christian persecution says two more afghan believers have been jailed in the wake of the case of abdul rahman, a convert to christianity who faced the death penalty under the nation’s shariah law.
According to compass direct, two other afghan christians were jailed in the past few days.
“because of the sensitive situation, local sources requested that the location of the jailed converts be withheld,” the organization said.
Compass direct also reports that this past weekend, one young afghan convert to christianity was severely beaten outside his home by a group of six men who eventually knocked him unconscious with a hard blow to his temple. He woke up in the hospital two hours later, but later was discharged.
“our brother remains steadfast, despite the ostracism and beatings,” one of his friends is reported to have said.
Today, a united nations spokesman said rahman had applied for asylum.
“mr. Rahman has asked for asylum outside afghanistan,” u.n. Spokesman adrian edwards told the associated press. “we expect this will be provided by one of the countries interested in a peaceful solution to this case.”
As worldnetdaily reported, charges against rahman were dropped yesterday with the court citing a lack of evidence. Last week, pressure came to bear on afghanistan from western nations decrying the fact that under islamic shariah law rahman could be executed for converting from islam to christianity.
Reuters reported today the u.s. State department announced rahman will be released from custody.
“he will be released,” state department spokesman sean mccormack told reporters. “i understand now that the details of his release and any potential onward travel are being handled as a private matter.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of people in afghanistan protested today against the court’s decision to drop the charges. Protesters chanted “death to bush!” And other anti-western slogans, while the police stood guard, the ap reported.
In the middle east, jordan is known as a tolerant country, but when a muslim man converted to christianity two years ago, a court convicted him of apostasy, took away his right to work and annulled his marriage.
Such prosecutions are rare—because they’re hardly ever needed. The law heavily discourages—or outright forbids—conversion by muslims in most nations in the region. But weighing against it even more heavily are the powerful influences of family and society.
The sensitivity of the issue is highlighted by the case of an afghan man who faced the death penalty for converting from islam to christianity—creating an outcry in the united states and other nations, which pressured afghanistan for his release.
After an afghan court dropped the charges against abdul rahman, 41, muslim clerics threatened to incite people to kill him and hundreds demonstrated against the court decision.
But afghanistan isn’t the only u.s.-allied government where muslim converts to christianity are threatened with execution.
Saudi arabia neither permits conversion from islam nor allows other religions in the kingdom. There are no churches and missionaries are barred. Regular criticism in u.s. State department reports on religious freedom have had no effect on saudi policy.
While islam accepts christianity as a fellow monotheistic religion, islamic sharia law considers conversion to any religion apostasy and most muslim scholars agree the punishment is death. Saudi arabia considers sharia the law of the land, though there have been no reported cases of executions of converts from islam in recent memory.
The only other nation in the region which carries the death penalty for apostasy is sudan. Though no executions have been reported recently, a sudanese man who allegedly converted was arrested in 2004 and reportedly tortured in custody, according to the state department.
In kuwait, a court convicted a shiite muslim man who publicly proclaimed his conversion to christianity, but didn’t sentence him since the criminal code did not set a punishment.
Other countries in the region, such as egypt, do not have laws criminalizing apostasy, but those who do convert can still face prosecution.
In may, an egyptian man who converted to christianity was arrested on suspicion of “contempt for religion,” a charge that entails a prison sentence of up to five years, said hossam bahgat, director of the egyptian initiative for personal rights. The man, who has not been identified, remains in custody without charge, bahgat said.
Authorities in egypt and most other arab countries will not recognize a conversion from islam in official documents, such as identity papers, which usually state a person’s faith.
Even if a convert is not prosecuted, “the issue is the pressure they are going to face from their families, the religious establishment, their friends and associates,” said fadi al-qadi, a middle east spokesman for york-based human rights watch. “it would be overwhelming. They would be really isolated.”
There are exceptions. In strongly secular turkey, a convert can walk into a demographic records office, sign a declaration saying they have converted from islam to christianity and leave an hour later with a new identity card reflecting the change. While islam is the religion of 99 percent of turkey’s 71 million people, it has no official religion.
“turkey is a democratic country and, according to law, you can choose whatever you want,” said soner tufan, himself a convert from islam, who runs a christian radio station, radio shema, in the capital, ankara.
But, he said, “if someone converts, they can suffer some problems from their friends, relatives and neighbors”—or face difficulties getting a job in the civil service.
In predominantly jewish israel, clerics of the three main religions—judaism, islam and christianity—frown on members of their flocks converting, but they welcome converts from the other religions. The state has laws against missionary activities among jews, but it does not punish converts.
In tunisia and algeria, the islamic authorities take a dim view of conversion but the secular governments do not prohibit it and it does occur.
Most often, the issue of conversion reaches the courts in the context of marriage. While islam accepts a muslim man marrying a christian woman—one of the prophet muhammad’s wives was christian—it does not tolerate a muslim woman marrying a christian man.
The november 2004 case of a jordanian man convicted of apostasy came after his wife—who remained muslim—and her family reported he had converted.
The man, whom the court records did not identify, appealed his conviction to a higher court but lost.
Often palestinian women seeking a divorce accuse their husbands of converting to prompt a court to nullify the marriage, according to sheik taissir tamimi, the head of the islamic court in the west bank and gaza. Usually, the husband pleads innocent and the case is dismissed, tamimi said.
In lebanon, where christians are estimated at about 35 percent of the population, the state does not forbid a change of religion, but the muslim authorities do, and they will not perform a wedding between christian men and muslim women.
Often muslim and christian lebanese have a civil wedding in cyprus and then register as married on their return to lebanon. This became so popular that in the 1990s the cabinet approved a bill that would have legalized secular marriage in lebanon.
But the bill was killed by opposition from the religious authorities.
The news that, despite the afghan parliament’s last-minute attempts to prevent him from leaving, abdul rahman has been given asylum in italy has drawn a global sigh of relief. But now is not the time to forget the issue. The case of rahman—an afghan christian tried for the capital crime of apostasy—is not the only one, even in afghanistan, and is unusual only in that, for once, the world paid attention and demanded his release. But there are untold numbers in similar situations that the world is ignoring.
Two other afghan converts to christianity were arrested in march, though, for security reasons, locals have asked that their names and locations be withheld. In february, yet other converts had their homes raided by police.
Some other muslim countries have laws similar to afghanistan’s. Apart from its other depredations, in the last ten years saudi arabia has executed people for the crimes of apostasy, heresy, and blasphemy. The death penalty for apostates is also in the legal code in iran, sudan, mauritania, and the comoros islands.
In the 1990s, the islamic republic of iran used death squads against converts, including major protestant leaders, and the situation is worsening under president mahmoud ahmadinejad. The regime is currently engaged in a systematic campaign to track down and reconvert or kill those who have changed their religion from islam.
Iran also regards baha’is as heretics from islam and denies them any legal rights, including the right to life: there is no penalty for killing a baha’i. On march 20, asma
Jahangir, the united nations special rapporteur on religious freedom, made public a confidential letter sent on october 29, 2005, by the chairman of the command headquarters of the iranian armed forces. The letter stated that supreme leader ayatollah khamenei had instructed the command headquarters to identify baha’is and monitor their activities, and asked the ministry of information, the revolutionary guard, and the police force to collect any and all information about them.
Other countries, like egypt, that have no laws against apostasy, instead use laws against “insulting islam” or “creating sectarian strife.” In 2003, egyptian security forces arrested 22 converts and people who had helped them. Some were tortured, and one, isam abdul fathr, died in custody. Last year, gaseer mohamed mahmoud was whipped and had his toenails pulled out by police, and was told he would be imprisoned until he gave up christianity.
While there has been no systematic study of the matter, and many punishments are not publicized, it appears that actual state-ordered executions are rarer than killings by vigilantes, mobs, and family members, sometimes with state acquiescence. In the last two years in afghanistan, islamist militants have murdered at least five christians who had converted from islam.
Vigilantes have killed, beaten, and threatened converts in pakistan, the palestinian areas, turkey, nigeria, indonesia, somalia, and kenya. In november, iranian convert ghorban dordi tourani was stabbed to death by a group of fanatical muslims. In december, nigerian pastor zacheous habu bu ngwenche was attacked for allegedly hiding a convert. In january, in turkey, kamil kiroglu was beaten unconscious and threatened with death if he refused to deny his christian faith and return to islam.
Meanwhile, on march 21, the algerian parliament approved a new law requiring imprisonment for two to five years and a fine between five and ten thousand euros for anyone “trying to call on a muslim to embrace another religion.” The same penalty applies to anyone who “stores or circulates publications or audio-visual or other means aiming at destabilizing attachment to islam.”
Converts and baha’is are not the only ones subject to such violence. Ahmadis, whom many muslims regard as heretics, suffer a similar fate throughout the muslim world. The victims also include many muslims who question restrictive interpretations of islam. In traditionally moderate indonesia, yusman roy is now serving two years in prison for leading prayers in indonesian and arabic instead of only in arabic.
Abdul rahman’s plight is merely the tip of the iceberg. Like the violence over the danish cartoons of muhammad, or the ayatollah khomeini’s demand that salman rushdie be killed for blasphemy, it reveals a systematic, worldwide attempt by islamists to imprison, kill, or otherwise silence anyone who challenges their ideology.
We need to go beyond the individual case of abdul rahman and push for genuine religious freedom throughout the muslim world. Especially we need to push for the elimination of laws against apostasy, blasphemy, heresy, and “insulting islam.” They seek to place dominant, reactionary interpretations of islam beyond all criticism. Thus—since politics and religion are intertwined—they seek to make political freedom impossible.
Paul marshall, a senior fellow at freedom house’s center for religious freedom, is the editor, most recently, of radical islam’s rules: the worldwide spread of extreme shari’a law.
In the midst of the whirlwind of protests by afghan clerics and their followers demanding the death of a christian convert and the opposing western calls for religious freedom, a former muslim turned seminary dean spoke up on the case that has caused a storm of criticism around the world.
Dr. Ergun caner of liberty baptist theological seminary in lynchburg, va., a converted sunni muslim and the son of a muslim scholar, spoke to the christian post on friday on the difficulties faced by muslim converts and what christians should understand when speaking to an islam follower.
Cp: growing up in a country where religious freedom is considered a basic right granted to every human being, american readers might find it difficult to understand why afghans are threatening to kill abdul rahman for being a christian. Could you explain the mindset or beliefs that muslims have that would evoke this kind of reaction?
Caner: islam never ever embraces religious freedom – ever. That is fundamental for understanding especially with all the arguments on iraq. If iraq succeeds – which i pray it does; it is a grand experiment – it will be the first time in 1,300 years of history that muslims have allowed for freedom of conscience, for freedom of beliefs. This has never been embraced so it is vital to understand this.
Secondly, in 30 countries around the globe, every friday, jumiat – the murder of converts – takes place. They are called apostates, but nonetheless they are converts from islam to anything else – buddhism, hinduism, shintoism, and any other religion.
What catches my attention is not that abdul rahman was being sentenced to death, but that this has caught people’s attention. I don’t know why this would catch anyone’s attention. In our world, a convert from islam to christianity is a reality of life; the average muslim who converts to christ [however] does not live very long.
Cp: rahman, as well as yourself, converted from islam to christianity through close contact with christians. What message of christianity was attractive to you? What aspect of christianity do you think made rahman decide to convert?
Caner: rahman is more brave than i would ever be. He is more than just a convert. He was saved 16 years ago, left the country and then came back. It is astonishing.
Christianity is an amazing thing for him as it is for me as for all of us. It was grace that got our attention, grace and unconditional love. There is no such thing in islam. There is no such thing as love without initiation. Koran teaches that allah loves those who convert, loves those who repent, loves those who do good things. But allah does not love you unconditionally.
Cp: do you think that it is difficult for a muslim to convert to christianity? If yes, why?
Caner: the mission groups are telling us that it takes an average of seven years for a muslim who has heard once of the gospel to come to faith in jesus christ. It is because for muslims you are not only talking about losing what you do on sunday. In the american system when you become a believer in christ it is more like “well now my sunday is gone.” In islam you lose your family, your home, your love ones, your food, your background, your heritage, your culture, you lose everything as well as your life. And so this is a major decision. I compare it to the anti-baptists of the reformation period because they lived 18 months after they accepted jesus. It is the same thing in our world.
Cp: what should christians know about people of the islamic faith that would help to facilitate discussion about christianity and invitation to church services?
Caner: most important thing to understand when you are sharing the gospel with a muslim is that he uses your words but he does not understand the concept. For instance, one of the name for allah is gracious beneficence, but they don’t know what that means. I never knew. We have no idea what vicarious death means. Muslims believe in atonement because we believe that our blood forgives us, but we don’t understand why someone else would die for us.
Cp: is there anything that you would like to add?
Caner: the muhammad cartoons – the thing that upsets me the most is not that it was an outrage to the muslims. First off it was not profane, it was provocative, but it wasn’t profane. What caught my attention the most was cnn’s report that there are bookstores that will not carry anything that has to do with the cartoons. They believe that is offensive. Well, that cracks me up because they are willing to run cartoons for da vinci code – that doesn’t offend anybody. But all of the sudden muslims burn something and all of the sudden everybody goes insane. We don’t burn anything. We protest and tell them that this is offensive to us but they don’t care.
BEIJING (AP) – A leader in China’s state-backed church defended government limits on religious freedom in China Tuesday, saying Christians are free to worship and spread their faith as long as they do so privately.
The Rev. Cao Shengjie, president of the China Christian Council, said that government regulations allow worship in authorized venues but not in public places in order to protect the rights of others.
“So we don’t have religious activities in public places because we don’t want to cause religious disharmony,” Cao said at a news conference.
Government controls on religion have attracted sharp criticism from Christians overseas and Chinese who refuse to submit to state authority. At issue, is what many feel is a duty for Christians: the right to propagate the faith.
Unauthorized Protestant churches, often called house churches because believers gather in private homes, are growing more rapidly than state-approved churches in part because of zealous proselytizing, according to Chinese and foreign religious scholars. The government has fought back by arresting some of China’s best organized and entrepreneurial evangelical preachers.
These divisive religious controls are now set to follow Beijing’s leadership to the United States. President George W. Bush is expected to raise religious freedom in summit Thursday with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington.
Cao’s Christian Council, which oversees administration of state-approved churches, hopes to dispel American misgivings by bringing an exhibit on the Bible in China to three American cities starting in late April. Former President Jimmy Carter and the Rev. Billy Graham are lending their names to the tour, giving China’s state-backed church a chance for greater legitimacy.
“We enjoy policies of religious freedom,” Cao said. “Many people don’t know the situation in China, especially Americans.”
Sometimes, she said, American Christians pray for Bibles for Chinese Christians, not realizing that council-backed Amity Printing Press publishes 2.5 million Bibles a year. With a network of 70 distribution centers nationwide, Bibles are reaching Christians in remote areas, she said.
Even as she defended government restrictions, Cao also offered a nuanced depiction of the controls, Christianity’s continued spread despite the limits and the state-backed churches’ role.
“We believe that every Christian has the responsibility to spread the Gospel,” said Cao. In authorized congregations, she said, believers were attracting converts by talking privately about their faith to friends and colleagues.
At Cao’s Huai’en Church in Shanghai, “every year we have 200 to 300 baptisms. These are people who are brought in by friends and relatives,” she said.
Cao stuck to the official estimate that China has 16 million Christians, rejecting higher estimates as “far-fetched.” Foreign scholars have estimated that there are 35 million Protestants and another 12 million Catholics.
Nevertheless, Cao rejected the notion that Chinese Christians were divided between approved and unofficial or underground churches. “I pray to the Lord that the number of believers in China will be great,” she said.
by Chuck Colson ( bio | archive )
This past Good Friday, a man entered Mar Girgis Church in Alexandria, Egypt, and stabbed one worshipper to death and wounded two others. He then went to another church and stabbed three other Christians.
The events in Alexandria were a reminder of the, at best, tenuous status of Christians in the Islamic world.
The Egyptian government immediately dismissed the possibility that animus toward Christians played a role in the attacks. Egypt’s Interior Ministry said that the attacker suffered from “psychological disturbances.” How convenient.
Egyptian Christians, known as Copts, did not buy it, and for good reason: Police officials had a different version, announcing that “three men had been arrested in four simultaneous church assaults.” According to the police, these assaults had killed one and injured another seventeen.
That sure sounds like a coordinated attack to me. CBS News put it this way: The Egyptian government has a history of “[playing] down incidents that can be perceived as sectarian in nature.” By “sectarian,” it means violence against Christians.
This isn’t the only manifestation of the Copts’ second-class status. Copts, who constitute at least 10 percent of Egypt’s population, are discriminated against in employment, especially in government. And to add insult to injury, they face “severe restrictions” when it comes to building or repairing their churches.
The Copts aren’t the only besieged ancient Christian community in the Islamic world. Iraq’s Christian community, often called Assyrians or Chaldeans, dates back to at least the second century. If any group has an historical claim to their part of Iraq, they do.
Yet sadly, an increasing number of Iraqi Christians have concluded that “there is no future” for them in Iraq. According to Lawrence Kaplan of the New Republic, “Sunni, Shia, and Kurd may agree on little else, but all have made sport of brutalizing their Christian neighbors.” Christians “routinely disappear from the sidewalks of Baghdad;” others are kidnapped and held for ransom. They are, as Kaplan puts it, “today’s victims of choice.”
Since, as one Christian put it, “we have no militia to defend us,” and neither Iraqi nor Americans officials are willing to protect them, Christians are leaving their ancestral home.
Christians in other Islamic countries are treated even worse. In countries like Saudi Arabia, Christians must practice their faith in secret. While being a Christian, in and of itself, isn’t illegal, saying or doing something that lets others know it is. And, as we recently witnessed with Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan, conversion from Islam to Christianity is a crime punishable by death, as it is in many parts of the Islamic world.
The Islamic world’s treatment of its Christian minority raises crucial questions for our effort to export democracy as a way to combat terrorism—an effort I support. But if democracy means anything, it means the protection of fundamental human rights like freedom of religion. So long as Christians remain targets of religious persecution in the Islamic world, not only will there be no future for Christians; there will be no future for true democracy, either. Our government and Christians must keep up the pressure.
JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) – Seven suspected Islamic terrorists have confessed to beheading three Christian schoolgirls on Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island, police said Wednesday.
The seven detained suspects confessed under questioning that they planned and carried out the Oct. 29 beheadings in the Sulawesi town of Poso, police chief Lt. Col. Rudi Sufahriadi told The Associated Press.
Another girl was wounded but spared by the assailants, he said.
Two of the suspects also say they have ties to Noordin Top, regarded as a key leader of the al Qaeda-linked group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), according to Central Sulawesi police chief Brig. Gen. Oegroseno.
Indonesia has arrested scores of militants belonging to the Jemaah Islamiyah group in recent years.
Jemaah Islamiyah has been blamed for a series of suicide bombings in Indonesia, including two separate strikes on the tourist island of Bali in 2002 and 2005.
Four suspected Islamic militants accused in the October 2005 Bali restaurant bombings appeared in court in Denpasar on Tuesday, accused of supplying and transporting explosives to be used in blasts.
Poso, a coastal town, is some 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) northeast of Jakarta. It was the scene of clashes between Muslims and Christians in 1999-2002 that claimed more than 1,000 lives.
Sporadic bombings and attacks, mostly targeting the Christian community, have continued and police suspect Jemaah Islamiyah involvement.
The governor of the northern India state of Rajasthan has refused to sign a controversial anti-conversion bill that was feared to intensify existing inter-communal tensions.
On Tuesday, Governor Pratibha Patil returned the Rajasthan Dharma Swatantrya (Freedom of Religion) Bill 2006 that was originally passed by the state assembly on Apr. 7. The governor’s decision is said to provide hope to religious minorities facing increasing discrimination and persecution. However, according to Indo Asian News Service, it is likely that the Rajasthan state cabinet will resubmit the bill to the governor on Wednesday after receiving legal advice.
“We are delighted to hear that Mrs. Pratibha Patil has taken the bold step of refusing to ratify the state’s anti-conversion bill,” said Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) on Tuesday. “This is a much-needed boost for religious minorities in Rajasthan and, most importantly, a clear statement of the incompatibility of anti-conversion legislation with India’s secular democratic values. We hope this leads to further challenges to anti-conversion laws in five other states in India.”
According to reports, Patil said that there were parts of the bill that would directly or indirectly affect the fundamental right of religion. She also said that the government could forward the bill to India’s president for his approval.
The bill prohibits conversion by “force,” “fraud” or “allurement” with punishment including immediate arrest of the offender even before the investigation of the offense; two to five years of imprisonment; and a fine of up to $1,100. According to CSW, there had been fears that the vague definitions might easily be used to jeopardize a wide range of religious activities.
The Christian human rights group reports that Christian have been the targets of widespread attacks by Hindu extremists in the Indian state. The extremists often accuse Christians of converting people by “force” or “fraud,” and laws such as the Freedom of the Religion Bill would make Christians more vulnerable to accusations and attacks, CSW asserted.
The bill has attracted widespread condemnation from human rights and religious groups in India and around the world. On May 18, Pope Benedict XVI called for a firm rejection of “the reprehensible attempt to legislate clearly discriminatory restrictions on the fundamental right of religious freedom.”
The opposition Congress Party in Rajasthan’s State Government also maintained that the bill was aimed at minorities in the state.
All India Christian Council (AICC), a partner of CSW, expressed their approval of the rejection of the bill. Dr John Dayal, Secretary General of the AICC and member of the Government’s National Integration Council, wrote a letter of thanks to the Governor of Rajasthan, saying, “We thank you for paying heed to the nationwide outcry … against the bill whose intention and nefarious motives were nothing less than to divide the people on religious lines and injure the secular polity of the state and the nation.”
This week, Montenegro voted to end its union with Serbia, the last remaining alliance of the former Yugoslav federation. News accounts of the vote frequently add matter-of-factly that Kosovo, the Serb province placed under the administration of the United Nations in 1999, is next in line to gain its independence and probably by the end of the year.
But anyone who cares about religious freedom, the rights of minorities, and the rule of law should be highly skeptical of an independent Kosovo. Since 1999, when a NATO bombing campaign drove out Serb military forces fighting an Albanian separatist movement, the Orthodox Christian minority in Kosovo has been under intense pressure from Albanian Muslim extremists.
In a Feb. 18 letter to President George Bush, the Serbian Orthodox bishop Artemije of Kosovo and Metohija – the ranking church official in the region – said that granting the province independence would hand terrorists “a significant victory” in Europe.
“Detaching Kosovo from democratic Serbia would mean a virtual sentence of extinction for my people in the province – the larger part of my diocese – who continue to face unremitting violence from jihad terrorist and criminal elements that dominate the Albanian Muslim leadership,” the bishop said.
Dozens of churches, monasteries and shrines have been destroyed or damaged since 1999 in Kosovo, the cradle of Orthodox Christianity in Serbia. The Serbian Orthodox Church lists nearly 150 attacks on holy places, which often involve desecration of altars, vandalism of icons and the ripping of crosses from Church rooftops. A March 2004 rampage by Albanian Muslim paramilitary forces resulted in 19 Serb deaths and the torching and demolition of holy sites, some dating to the 14th century.
All this happened despite the presence of UN peacekeeping forces. According to news reports posted by the American Council for Kosovo, Albanian separatists are opposing the expansion of military protection of Christian holy sites by UN forces. A main concern of Christians is the fate of the Visoki Decani Monastery – Kosovo’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Direct talks, under the auspices of the UN, are now underway. Serbia is resisting pressure from Western powers to amputate Kosovo, where the UN says Albanians outnumber Serbs and others 9-1. One of the thornier issues is the possible return of non-Albanians who have fled the province since 1999. Some estimates put their number as high as 250,000.
Western diplomats and Albanian independence groups are promising that a new independent Kosovo would allow the Serb minority to live in peace and enable the province – one of the poorest regions in Europe – to rebuild its economy.
The Alliance for a New Kosovo, a pro-independence group with former U.S. State Department and elected officials on its advisory board, has been lobbying for a split from Serbia. William Ryerson, a former U.S. ambassador to Albania who is one of the group’s advisers, wrote recently that Serbia had “lost any moral claim” to rule Kosovo following “its campaign of ethnic cleansing” in the 1990s. He predicted that an independent Kosovo, linked economically to the rest of Europe, would “much more likely be a source of stability in the Balkans than one denied that status.”
If that is to happen, the province will first have to clean up its act. For years, the region has been a center of activity for criminal gangs. “Kosovo has become a black hole of corruption and organized crime, including trafficking in drugs, weapons and slaves,” Bishop Artemije told President Bush. “All too often, these things happen under the noses of NATO soldiers, who fear to confront these criminals directly.”
Journalist Srdja Trifkovic, writing on Serbianna.com, said an independent Kosovo would lead to a “criminal state not seen since the defunct Taliban regime in Afghanistan” and right on Europe’s southern border. Although the international community understandably desires “closure” on Kosovo some seven years after the UN assumed control, an outcome that separates the province from Serbia would “make a mockery” of some the United States’ most important security concerns, he said.
“It would be hard to find another example of a place where governments professing the war on international terrorism as their first priority are helping a Muslim terrorist movement with a strong jihadist element to detach what is universally recognized as a part of another sovereign state and consigning the remaining Christian element to extinction,” Trifkovic said.
Given the record of Christian persecution in Kosovo while under the supervision and protection of the UN, what could be expected from an independent province administered by Albanian Muslim politicians and security forces?
As Bishop Artemije told President Bush in his letter, the only decrease in violence against Serbian Christians has come about because there are fewer of them in the province, and fewer churches, monasteries and cemeteries now to be demolished. He pleaded with Bush to work toward a Kosovo solution that “provides for the human dignity and respect for all people, whether Albanian or Serb or Roma or Turk, whether Muslim or Christian.” An independent Kosovo, he added, “is neither inevitable nor desirable.”
Christians who are troubled by the persecution of their Church should pay heed to the bishop’s warning. Without adequate legal protection and security, the Christian minority and the centuries-old legacy of the faith in Kosovo may soon become a mere memory.
John Couretas is director of communications for the Acton Institute.
A prominent Chinese house movement leader, Pastor Zhang Rongliang, has been sentenced to seven-and-a- half years in prison.
According to China Aid Association, the July 4 verdict was issued by Zhongmu County People’s Court, though CAA reported that neither Zhang’s wife nor other members of his immediate family received a formal notification. Zhang was arrested Dec. 1, 2004.
The China Aid Association was told by one of its sources that Zhang, 55, was arrested at Xuzhai village, Zhengzhou city, Henan province in a rented apartment. The apartment was searched and all of Zhang’s Christian DVDs, materials and photos revealing relationships with foreigners and foreign agencies were confiscated.
Zhang’s wife and their two sons have been deeply concerned for his welfare and safety, especially as he has suffered from serious diabetes for seven years. His disease was so serious that he was admitted to the Xinmi City People’s Hospital while at his detention center from Dec. 19, 2005, until Jan. 23, 2006, for emergency treatment. He was seen handcuffed and chained to his hospital bed while there.
The popular Christian pastor was charged with “attaining a passport through cheating” and with “illegal border crossing” for his international traveling including to the U.S., Australia, Egypt and Singapore for world mission conferences.
Zhang is the leader of the Fangcheng Mother Church, Henan, and the leader of the China for Christ Church, which is one of the largest house-church networks estimated to have more than 10 million members. He has been well known by the international community, CAA stated, as one of the house-church patriarchs.
He is a co-author of the book “House Churches of China’s Confession of Faith and Declaration” in 1999. He has been featured in a number of international articles and books, including “Jesus in Beijing” (2003) by former Time magazine writer David Aikman, Newsweek (May 12, 2004), Charisma and Christianity Today. Last year, the European Parliament passed a resolution demanding Zhang’s release.
Zhang has been wanted for many years since his last imprisonment in August 1999. He has already spent 12 years in prison for his faith since his secret baptism in 1969 during five separate detentions. CAA reported that he has experienced extreme torture, including electric shocks, during his prison terms.
Bob Fu, who is the president of China Aid and personally knows Zhang and his family, said in a news release: “We are deeply disappointed for this extraordinary harsh verdict given the fact that the Chinese authorities often deny passports and other travel documents to well-known religious leaders like Pastor Zhang.”
He added, “This is yet another case showing the Chinese government’s new tactic of religious persecution in the name of criminal charges.”
The Supreme Court in India has given police across the nation unlimited power to arrest and detain anyone who has been accused of talking to another person about Christianity.
The report comes from the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission, which issued the alert on its News & Analysis mailing list, and Assist News Service.
The WEA report by researcher Elizabeth Kendall said the ruling “opens the door for police with Hindutya sympathies to act as Hindu Taliban.”
Hindutya is a militant Hinduism that seeks political and religious dominance.
“Nuns, pastors, bishops and evangelists, as well as Christian aid workers, teachers and social workers, are all immediately at risk of arrest and imprisonment because of their Christian witness,” Kendall’s report said.
As WorldNetDaily has reported, India is moving up on the list of nations around the world where Christians are persecuted.
“In fact, every Christian, actively witnessing or not, is at risk from hostile elements that may exploit the opportunity to bring false charges against them, inspired by a variety of motives, in the same manner that the blasphemy law is exploited for person gain in Pakistan,” Kendall wrote.
The technical ruling from India’s Supreme Court was that police are not required to have warrants to file First Issue Reports and arrest and detain suspects.
According to the Times of India, the ruling relieves police and prosecutors of the requirement of “prior sanction” from the federal or state governments, or a local prosecutor.
The previous practice that protected religious leaders in their speech was found in the Criminal Procedure Code, which says, “no court shall take cognizance” of a complaint about proselytizing unless there was government approval for the arrest.
But the new court ruling from Justices G.P. Mathur and Dalveer Bhandari said the only requirement for an arrest on those charges is a complaint, relieving police of that “authorization” requirement that was set for the courts.
The decision, described by the IndLaw.com website, came in a case involving Pastor Paulrai Raju of Kanartaka state. He was beaten by Hindus last year and arrested on charges of trying to convert Hindus to Christianity. His wife petitioned on the basis there was no warrant, and a lower court quashed the case.
But the state government appealed and the case eventually ended up before the Supreme Court.
Kendall’s report said the Times of India noted the court explained that although a prior sanction would be required for a court to hear the case, that is not needed before someone could be accused by police, then arrested and detained, for proselytizing.
“Mere production of the arrested accused before the magistrate and the latter remanding him to custodial detention does not amount to taking cognizance of the offence, for which alone prior sanction is required,” the court’s opinion said.
A new program launched by Voice of the Martyrs is targeting restrictions imposed on Bibles by the Chinese government, allowing Christians to send packages directly to those who are seeking God’s word.
Officials for the Bibles Unbound outreach say while there actually are some Bibles printed in China, the numbers are controlled and never approach the demand. One expert estimate said at a publication rate of a million Bibles a year, it would take more than 100 years to meet the requests from the current population.
Shipments of the Bible into China also are limited, but VOM, an aid organization that helps persecuted Christians worldwide, said the new effort coordinates the names and addresses of those in China who are asking for Bibles with volunteers in the free world who are willing to buy a few each month, remailing them directly to homes and offices in China and other nations with Bible import restrictions.
The program counts on the fact that not even government efforts can catch every New Testament as they move through the mail system one at a time.
“Even as you read this, persecuted Christians are gathering names and addresses from their communities with a single request, ‘Please send Bibles,’” a description of the program announces. “Names and addresses are being collected from China to Colombia, and from Cuba to the Middle East and are being submitted to The Voice of the Martyrs to be included.”
The program works this way: volunteers in free nations sign up to receive five or more New Testaments per month, in the appropriate language, with all the needed packing and postage to mail them directly to a Christian in a restricted nation.
Right now the program is set up to mail Bibles into China or Egypt, but the procedures are being assembled for sending the Word into additional nations, VOM said.
Senders then will get an e-mail notification as those Bibles leave the United States.
“Watch your list grow each month as you view the Bibles Unbound website, reviewing all the people who have sent Bibles to and see a cross placed on the map for each country you have mailed Bibles to,” VOM said.
“This is an incredible opportunity to partner with today’s persecuted church in sharing the gospel in today’s highly restricted nations,” VOM said.
Costs are covered by monthly contributions from volunteers, officials said.
The name of the outreach comes from the New Testament message from Paul to Timothy, that, “Wherein I suffer trouble as an evil-doer, even unto bonds, but the Word of God is not bound.”
Ministry CEO Tom White said persecuted Christians even today are willing to risk being beaten and imprisoned for their faith, and VOM supports them in many ways.
“When they asked us to begin mailing individual Bibles into their communities, we immediately knew that was an incredible way to join forces with them,” he said.
By Chuck Colson
With the election season is full swing, I’m going to ask you to forget for a moment all the mud-slinging and scandal-mongering that is raging across your television set, coming from both sides. Instead, consider the really serious weighty issues before the American people this fall: the war on terrorism, Iraq, the sanctity of life, the definition of marriage, immigration, and so much more. Some politicians are talking about these critical issues—more need to. We need to know where our candidates stand on these questions.
But there’s another issue that Christians absolutely need to bring into the political discussion this election year: religious freedom—not only around the world, but also here at home.
Certainly the global outlook is grim. Just this past June, a pastor and members of the Full Gospel Church in the province of Than Hoa, Vietnam, were dragged outside by police and brutally beaten. Their only crime: gathering to worship Jesus. In Pakistan, a 7-year-old Christian girl was lured away from her home, raped, beaten, and left for dead in a ditch. She was targeted because of her faith. In China, Peter Xu Yongze, pastor of one of the largest underground Protestant churches there, was hung up across an iron gate during one of his five jail sentences. They then yanked open the gate, so that his chest nearly split in two.
As chilling as these reports are, even more chilling is the fact that the vast majority of religious persecution cases never make the news. While North Korea is in the headlines for testing a nuclear weapon, few Americans know that hundreds of thousands of Christians are penned up and tortured in grotesquely brutal North Korean concentration camps.
And lest we should think that Christians are the only ones subject to torture and death for their faith, consider the following cases:
Kurban Zakirov, a Jehovah’s Witness in Turkmenistan, was injected with psychotropic drugs while he was imprisoned for his faith. Farzad Kasiri, a Baha’i in Iran, was flogged for his faith. And in Uzbekistan, thousands of Muslims are imprisoned, denied due process, and subjected to torture.
So, what does America and the upcoming elections have to do with all of this? Let me put it this way: To whom much is given, much is expected. From the very early days of our republic, Americans recognized the truth that freedom of religion is a God-given right, in fact, the most basic of human rights. And, as the leading world power, the United States is in a unique position to help curb religious persecution around the world. To remain silent about religious persecution would be to betray all that we stand for.
As Christians, we must speak out and bring the issue of religious persecution to the forefront of the political debate this fall. And we must press candidates to find out where they stand on this life-and-death issue.
And be sure to visit our website for more information and links to organizations that fight religious persecution.
Some 180 Protestant Christians in Belarus have joined in a hunger strike to protest against the government’s repression of their faith and the country’s lack of religious freedom.
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Believers throughout Belarus are gathering to support members of the 1,000-membered New Life Church in Minsk which has battled with authorities for its right to worship, according to the World Evangelical Alliance - Religious Liberty Commission (WEA- RLC). The government has reportedly denied the group registration and obstructed its efforts to rent a meeting place.
“We are keeping cheerful,” said Uladzimir Matskevich, the head of the organizational committee of the Belarusian Christian Democratic party, to Radio Svaboda, according to the Belarus human rights group Charter 97.
“People understand more and more that the situation is complicated, that some urgent actions are possible, and we are getting ready for them,” he continued. “We are also getting ready for the situation to last for many months, and we know what to do in this situation as well. People are taking part in the protest more and more consciously.”
Matskevich has been on a hunger strike since Oct. 6, the first day of the protest.
Belarus, which is a republic by name but in fact a dictatorship, abides to a law that makes it nearly impossible for Protestant fellowships to obtain registration. One of the requirements is that the group must have at least 10 separate registered groups, of which one must have existed in 1982 – at the height of Soviet repression. If a denomination is not registered then it cannot train clergy, invite foreigners to work as staff, or run schools or media.
The church was in a long dispute over the church property involving the technical definition of the building which led to the subsequent forced sales of the property at a significantly lower price in July.
New Life Church has refused to sign the act of giving over the property to authorities which means it is still the legal owner of the land. However, New Life was ordered to vacate the premise before Oct. 8.
“They are treating us worse than in Communist times,” New Life pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko told The Associated Press on Oct. 10. “We are ready for the worst - a forcible occupation of the building.”
Beginning on Oct. 6, 17 New Life members moved into the New Life property and began a “fast-strike” (hunger strike) to protest the government’s action against the church, according to WEA-RLC.
Upon hearing the plight of New Life Church, believers across Belarus have given support with many traveling to Minsk and often staying overnight in the property with the hunger strikers.
On Oct. 9, 500 believers attended a prayer service for New Life Church and on Oct.13 there were 214 New Life believers participating in the hunger strike.
As the hunger strike enters its 11th day on Oct. 17, the situation is becoming more serious with some senior citizens among the strikers giving up both food and water, according to Charter 97.
POSO, Indonesia (AP) - A church was set on fire Tuesday in a central Indonesian region plagued by sectarian violence since last month’s executions of three Roman Catholic militants, police said. No one was injured in the blaze.
The arson attack in the town of Poso on Sulawesi island apparently followed rumors that an Islamic school had been torched, said police spokesman Lt. Col. Muhammad Kilat, urging residents to be on alert for “a campaign to fuel unrest.”
An investigation was being carried out, he said, adding that “arsonists were behind the Eklesia church blaze.”
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation, with 90 percent of its 220 million people practicing the faith, but large section of Sulawesi have roughly equal number of Christians and Muslims.
Poso was the center of hostilities between the two religions in 1998-2002, when more than 1,000 people died.
Violence flared anew following the Sept. 22 executions of three Christian men convicted of leading a militia that carried out a 2000 attack on an Islamic school, killing at least 70 people seeking shelter.
Critics say the Christians did not get a fair trial and questioned the role religion played in their sentencing, noting that few Muslims were punished for four years of bloodshed, and none to more than 15 years in jail.
Mobs in Sulawesi have killed two Muslim traders and a Christian priest in recent weeks, and there have been at least seven bomb blasts, most targeting empty buildings.
Security forces opened fire on a gang of rock-wielding Muslim youths in Poso over the weekend, killing one after they went on a rampage, torching police vehicles and homes.
Islamic leaders protested the slaying Tuesday, and demanded that national troops withdraw from the area, threatening to disrupt the activities of the local government, markets and people’s lives if they refused.
“We will paralyze activities in Poso,” said Sugiyanto Kaimudin, a representative of a Muslim association, though he provided no details.
National police chief General Sutanto told reporters in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, that his men had acted in self-defense and said they were needed in Sulawesi to maintain order.
Christians are being increasingly attacked and murdered by Muslim extremists in Ethiopia as political and religious tension rise in the region, according to a report on Friday.
Muslims in the small Ethiopian village of Dembi had reportedly told Christians they would not let them celebrate Meskel, an annual Orthodox festival beginning in mid-September, reported the World Evangelical Alliance – Religious Liberty Commission (WEA-RLC). According to Reuters, Muslims in the area rioted when Orthodox Christian celebrated Meskel, resulting in four days of sectarian violence in early October that left three religious centers and some 800 houses burned, more than 100 displaced, numerous people injured and 10 dead.
Resumed religious conflicts in Dembi from Oct. 14 to Oct. 15 resulted in five deaths.
“This is a very worrying situation for us,” said an Orthodox church official to the Sudan Tribune in an Oct. 5 report. “These things never used to happen but they seem to be starting now.”
International Christian Concern (ICC) reported on Thursday that it had just been informed of a brutal attack on Christians on July 20 in Henno, Ethiopia. Seven Muslim clerics in southern Ethiopia angry over the conversion of two prominent Muslims in 2005 brutally attacked at least 50 Christians, seriously injuring twelve.
The Christian persecution group reported that “H” was formerly a well-known Muslim leader and “M” was the son of a well-respected Muslim tribal leader. On July 20, “M” hosted a worship service and Muslim leaders using gangs in the area carrying knives, stones, and metal rods attacked the worshippers. “H” was badly beaten by the mob, receiving five deep wounds to the head from an iron rod and also had missing teeth as a result. He suffered deep lacerations to his legs where several ligaments protruded from the skin, according to ICC.
The daughter-in-law of “H,” who was also present and pregnant at the time, lost her baby from severe beatings.
The district government administrative office upon hearing the report warned Christians not to worship in predominantly Muslim region, according to ICC. The officers who heard the case were all Muslim.
However, many Muslims in the region have condemned the violence against Christians and some have refused to go to Mosques. According to ICC, 47 Muslim leaders became Christians and renounced Islam stating, “If Islam means killing innocent brothers and sisters – we do not want to follow it!”
“Please pray for the Christians in Henno, Ethiopia, who are in need of your support in the midst of persecution from Muslim leaders who want to annihilate them,” urged the persecution watchdog group. “ICC encourages all concerned parties to contact the Ethiopian embassy in the United States, to respectfully express concern that the freedom of Christians in Ethiopia is not being sufficiently protected.”
By Chuck Colson
If I were to ask you to name the most Baptist state, you would probably guess Georgia, Alabama, or somewhere else in the South.
The correct answer is the Indian state of Nagaland. More than 90 percent of its two million inhabitants are Christians, and more than 80 percent are Baptists. And there’s nothing nominal about their Christianity. Church attendance is “very high” in Nagaland.
What makes these numbers even more remarkable is that, as recently as 125 years ago, many Nagas were head-hunters! They were converted to Christianity through the work of courageous Baptist missionaries in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Christianity not only transformed individuals, but Naga society, as well: Nagaland’s literacy rate is four times that of the rest of India; they have “created effective health care programs”; and their goal is to send 10,000 missionaries to India, Burma, and the rest of Asia.
It will come as no surprise that the Nagas’ relationship with the rest of India is tense. Ethnic and religious differences led to what has been called India’s “dirty little war” in which at least 200,000 Nagas were killed during the last half of the twentieth century. Indian troops “burned entire villages, raped women in churches, and then burned the churches.”
Even after a cease-fire, Indian troops continued to show “disdain for the Nagas’ churches and religion,” prompting the Christian Century to compare India’s treatment of Nagaland to China’s treatment of Tibet.
Recently, the Nagas, like the rest of India’s 23 million Christians, have experienced discrimination, even violence, from Hindu nationalists. The former ruling party, the BJP, as part of its “Hinduization” program, enacted laws aimed at preventing conversions to Christianity; and its followers burned churches and even killed pastors and parishioners.
While the BJP’s surprise defeat at the polls two years ago temporarily derailed the most aggressive aspects of Hinduization, India’s Christians are by no means secure. The BJP lost power because of economic conditions, not because of its treatment of religious minorities. And the Hindu majority is out of power only for a season.
Religious freedom is far too important to be so vulnerable to the whims of this or any other majority. Ending this vulnerability is one of the goals of the “International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church,” which will be observed this Sunday, November 12.
In addition to the vital task of intercessory prayer, the sponsors hope to “increase awareness of the persecuted Church worldwide” and “promote ongoing and appropriate action on behalf of the persecuted Church.” That means using international pressure.
The need for awareness is urgent. While the Nagas’ situation is better than that of other persecuted Christians, if it can happen in a democracy like India, it can happen almost anywhere.
The Nagas are living proof of the Gospel’s power to transform lives and even whole societies. We need to do what we can so that they will add more chapters to an already-remarkable tale.
North Korea’s city of Pyongyang, a mission field for Voice of the Martyrs
A report from a worldwide ministry whose leaders focus their attention on persecuted Christians say the lies missionaries in the restrictive nation of North Korea are facing aren’t changing, but their impact is.
An extended report by P. Todd Nettleton about the work of The Voice of the Martyrs has described the repressive circumstances under which Christians in North Korea live.
The report told of the faith of a teen-ager who was caught teaching about Christ, and died in a North Korean prison camp to leave behind a witness that continues there even today. It also reported on the stunning change in a prison guard who watched that teen’s final days and sought out what made the teen strong.
It also reported how a veteran of more than 100 missions inside the restrictive nation works to help other Christians worship, and told the story of a woman who had lost her parents to starvation in North Korea but was given a vision to return and teach the Gospel.
Now comes confirmation of the aggressive campaign North Korea conducts to mislead its own people.
“Western missionaries eat Korean children… North Korea is an earthly paradise … other nations of the world are worse off than us … Kim Il Sung was a divine being, and his spirit guides the Korean people … Kim Jong il was born on a holy mountain, and his birth was greeted by rainbows and flowers bursting into bloom.”
“The North Korean government lies to its own people, and to the rest of the world,” the conclusion of the report said. “For more than 50 years it has promoted Juche, (Korean for ‘self-reliance’) a false trinity consisting of Kim Il Sung, the dead dictator and ‘father,’ his son Kim Jong il, the current dictator and ‘son,’ and the ‘holy fire’ of the Juche ideology,” the group said.
But it’s not working any more, even though the charades continue, with two large church buildings in Pyongyang showplaces for tourists – but sharing the same “choir” of professional singers, the report said.
“More and more, people are rejecting the idea of Juche … and relying on the salvation promise in the blood of Jesus Christ,” the report said.
In house after house, where Christians meet under the mandatory portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong il, “many come to know Christ,” VOM said.
“We are committed and privileged to stand with our brothers and sisters as long as the brutal regime of Kim Jong il stands against them,” the organization said. “As we equip, encourage and support them, we know we will also stand with them in front of the throne in eternity. The recipe for victory in this eternal battle will not involve tanks, planes or guns. All that is needed is more Pencils.”
“Pencil” was the pseudonym adopted by one of the missionaries profiled by VOM, a teen who feared for his life, but nevertheless went into North Korea carrying a Bible and testifying about his Christian faith.
His actions earned him a terminal sentence to a North Korean prison camp, where after his death a guard sought out some local Christians to obtain what had made that teen so strong.
“The courageous believers we work with in North Korea all have something in common – even when they have an opportunity to be free, they choose to take true Freedom to others inside the hermit kingdom,” the report said.
VOM is a non-profit, interdenominational ministry working worldwide to help Christians who are persecuted for their faith, and to educate the world about that persecution. Its headquarters are in Bartlesville , Okla., and it has 30 affiliated international offices.
It was launched by the late Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand, who started smuggling Russian Gospels into Russia in 1947, just months before Richard was abducted and imprisoned in Romania where he was tortured for his refusal to recant Christianity.
He eventually was released in 1964 and the next year he testified about the persecution of Christians before the U.S. Senate’s Internal Security Subcommittee, stripping to the waist to show the deep torture wound scars on his body.
The group that later was renamed The Voice of the Martyrs was organized in 1967, when his book, “Tortured for Christ,” was released.
Saddam Hussein’s execution has led to increased anger, demonstrations and violence in Iraq, fueling a source for the departure of churches in the country.
Sunni Muslims in Iraq demonstrated in the thousands against the manner of Saddam’s execution, calling it an “act of crude vengeance,” reported ABC News on Tuesday.
The intensified tension between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has raised concern on the situation of Iraqi Christians.
Carl Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, said the rise in violence following Saddam’s execution is a cause for the continued emigration of the church.
“That creates a huge problem because the church is fleeing in large numbers and that is creating an increased vacuum of buffer between the Sunni and Shia factions throughout Iraq,” said Moeller, according to Mission Network News on Wednesday. “That is only increasing the violence as those two factions are dedicated to each others’ destruction.”
There have been reports of attacks against churches in Iraq including some burned to the ground, according to MNN.
Open Doors, a Christian persecution ministry, reports, however, that there is improvement in efforts to spread the Gospel in Iraq.
“During the regime of Saddam Hussein there was not much Christian literature available,” said an Open Doors book distributor, according to MNN. “After the war in 2003, it is slowly improving; so every book and Bible is welcome in the country.”
The ministry operates several Christian cultural centers in Iraq to support the country’s minority Christian population through skill-building courses such as in the areas of computers, music, and English. The centers also engage in religious dialogues and occasionally hold conferences to show movies like the Jesus Film or discuss Christian cultural topics.
“The absolute truth is that many Iraqis are turning to Christ when they are given the opportunity to hear clearly the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the hope, the love and the peace that is offered within a relationship with Christ,” Moeller told The Christian Post in November 2006. “So we are seeing that despite the violence and despite the opposition, Christians are reaching out to their Muslim neighbors and their Muslim neighbors are turning to faith in Jesus Christ.”
Open Doors has distributed 22,000 copies of the Children’s Bible in Iraq.
“We pray that those who hold power in Iraq now and in the future will create a new heritage of government for its people,” said the Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, the World Council of Churches’ General Secretary, on Saturday. “May Iraq’s leaders pursue reconciliation and mutual respect among all its communities.”
Eight Christians from the mega house church destruction incident in China earlier this year will begin trial Friday.
More than four months after the destruction of the Dangshan church building in Xiaoshan district, Zhejiang Province in eastern China, eight Christians will stand trial on charges of inciting a crowd to resist law enforcement, reported China Aid Association.
According to eyewitness reports to the Christian religious freedom organization, thousands of anti-riot police, government workers and 300 military vehicles surrounded the church building on July 29 while 10,000 house church Christians were praying inside the building. Hundreds of people were wounded and arrested as police used electric shock batons and anti-riot shield to disperse the Christians.
The government had accused the house church of being “illegal” because it was built without government permission and ordered the Christians to destroy the church. However, according to CAA sources, the local government had repeatedly denied the Christians’ request to build the church.
The Chinese House Church Alliance said that the Christian churches in Xiaoshan district, including the destroyed church, resulted from the missionary work of “China Inland Missionary,” an evangelical organization founded by the famous Britain missionary, Hudson Taylor, who preached the Gospel in Xioashan in 1867.
Over 300 house churches have been destroyed in Zhejiang province since 2003, according to CAA.
Four prominent Christian attorneys and human rights activists had agreed to represent the house church members in court. However, according to Bob Fu, president of China Aid Association, attorneys Dr. Fan Yafeng, Dr. Li Baiguang and Zhang Xingshui have been prevented by the Chinese authorities from appearing at the trial. Beijing authorities threatened the attorneys with arrest if they were to enter the trial district.
Li was among the three Chinese Christian activists that met with President Bush in May to discuss religious freedom in China, in particular, oppression of Chinese house churches.
An expert on Chinese human rights violations, in particular religious freedom, reported on Tuesday that the communist government continues to persecute unregistered house churches, but has modified its strategies.
In the China Aid Association’s first Annual Report on Persecution of Chinese House Churches by Province, the organization’s president, Bob Fu informed that incidents of raids on house churches has decreased in 2006 compared to previous years. CAA’s sources accounted for government detention of over 600 Christians in 2006, down from more than 2,000 reported arrests in 2005.
However, the figure reflects a change in the government’s tactics more than a direct decrease in persecution.
According to the report, Public Security officials interrogate church members during a raid rather than officially arresting them. Most of the reported arrests in 2006 were church leaders.
“Given the population of geographical size of China as well as the desire of Public Security Officials to keep such arrests hidden from the outside world, it would be impossible to measure the exact number that have occurred,” said Fu in a statement released Tuesday.
In comparison, though, 2006 saw the closures and demolition of more house churches than in 2005. Three house churches – including a mega-house church where some 10,000 Christians were praying during the invasion - were destroyed in Zhejiang province in 2006.
The report also pointed out the new trend of targeting house church leaders with criminal accusations, according to the CAA report. Well-known house church pastors are convicted of illegal business practices for printing and distributing Bibles and Christian literatures. Other leaders are charged with inciting subversion and threatening national security.
Zhejiang and Henan provinces, where the protestant house church movement is strong, suffered from the worst persecution, according to the report. From January to December 2006, 246 pastors and believers were arrested in nine raids, ten leaders sentenced to imprisonment, three churches destroyed, and many reports of abuse during detention.
“Zhejiang and Henan province should be put on notice having the worst religious persecution record,” said Fu. “It is morally imperative for any conscientious foreign investors in Henan and Zhejiang to address this serious issue.”
The CAA president will testify before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on the condition of in China on Wednesday.
WASHINGTON – Amid China’s preparations to host the 2008 Olympic Games, a panelist of witnesses and experts half a world away testified before the U.S. government’s religious freedom agency about China’s intense persecution of religious bodies and people it deems subversive to its control.
Testimonies of heads of organizations supporting the underground church in China were presented before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on Wednesday.
Bob Fu, the president of China Aid Association, reported on China’s continuous crackdown of protestant Chinese house churches. He said that the Chinese government has changed its tactics against house churches. The government is now placing greater pressure on church leaders, effectively lowering the numbers of reported incidents of house church raids and arrests.
Another new development in Chinese persecution strategies involve labeling house churches as cults, thus allowing the government to justify its repression of unregistered Protestant churches.
“The changing strategies and tactics of Public Security Officials - interrogations on the spot, accusing church leaders of criminal activities and banning protestant movements as cults – suggest that the Chinese authorities are becoming increasingly concerned about appearing more tolerant of Christians in the eyes of the international community,” commented Fu.
“However there seems to be less evidence of a genuine change in their broad policy.”
China’s communist government only officially recognizes churches that have registered with government-run, designated Protestant and Catholic groups. Many churches have refused to register arguing that Christ is the head of the church, and not the Chinese government. Moreover, many Catholic churches refuse to register with the government run Catholic association because it does not recognize the authority of the Pope.
Joseph Kung, president of The Cardinal Kung Foundation, testified to the Commission about the arrest, torture, imprisonment, or disappearance of underground Catholic bishops in China.
Kung emphasized the case of Bishop Su Zhimin, who was a prominent leader of the underground Roman Catholic Church in China, leading several hundred thousand of underground Catholics. Su was arrested in October 1997 and at one time beaten to the point he suffered extensive hearing loss. His current whereabouts and whether he remains alive are still a mystery.
Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, concluded the panel discussion by emphasizing that the United States and western governances should not back down on pressing and promoting human rights in China.
“Chinese government is now using human rights language,” said Hom. “So if they are using the language and they signed onto human rights treaties we should not be backing down in 2007 to say, ‘They might get nervous if we say human rights,’” she argues.
“We should say, ‘Didn’t you sign all these documents that say human rights, so let’s talk about how to promote human rights?,’” added Hom. “So I want to say we should really push it and not back down.”
Others who spoke on the panels included Michael Green, Japan Chair for the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former senior director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council; Erping Zhang, president of Association for Asia Research; Bhuchung Tsering, vice president of International Campaign for Tibet; and Kamila Telenbidaeva, wife of Huseyin Celil of Uyghur Canadian Association.
How difficult is it for Christians to practice their faith in the Islamic nation of Iran?
Unbelievably hard! Let me relate just a few examples of the growing persecution of believers.
According to Compass Direct News, last September Iranian secret police arrested a Christian couple in the northeastern city of Mashhad, forcing them to leave behind their 6-year-old daughter. Authorities released Reza Montazami and his wife Fereshteh Dibaj by order of a Revolutionary Court in Mashhad only after Montazami’s elderly parents posted bail – turning over a title deed of property worth $25,000.
In December, Iranian secret police raided and arrested leaders of an indigenous house church movement in Tehran and the cities of Karaj, Rasht and Bandar-i Anzali. Several detained Christians were released, but four of eight jailed Christians remained in custody until Christmas, facing accusations such as “evangelization activities” and “actions against the national security of Iran,” according to Compass Direct News.
In November, 2005, Ghorban Dordi Tourani, a 53-year old Muslim convert to Christianity, was arrested by police. A few hours later, his stabbed and bleeding body was thrown in front of his home in Gonbad-e-Kavus, where he lived with his wife and four children.
A year before his death, Tourani wrote this prayer: “Lord Jesus, please let me glorify your holy name in every moment of my life on this earth. I am willing to give my life that belongs to you, for the sake of you and your church.”
Within days of Tourani’s murder representatives of Iran’s dreaded secret police – the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) – arrested and severely tortured 10 other Christians in several cities and raided the homes of all known Christians in Tourani’s city.
Over the past two years, Iran’s harsh Islamic regime has targeted various Christian groups known to use literature and other means to spread their faith among the majority Shiite Muslim population. Under Iran’s strict apostasy laws, any Muslim who leaves Islam to embrace another religion faces the death penalty. Islam is the official religion in Iran, and all laws and regulations must be consistent with the official interpretation of Shariah, which is strict Islamic law.
While in jail, prisoners face strong psychological pressures, including threats to kill their family and other Christian believers, in order to force them to recant their Christian faith and return to Islam. Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji, imprisoned for six years, says that many prisoners of conscience are kept in solitary confinement on no legal grounds with no access to books, newspapers or telephone, legal representation or their families.
Christians have also lost their jobs, had their shops shut down or had their livelihoods removed. Depriving converts to Christianity of their means of employment is the government’s way of “trying to asphyxiate the church,” one Iranian source told Compass Direct. “A lot of believers lost their jobs after the intervention of the security police.” The officials’ objective, he said, is to force Christians to leave Iran permanently.
About 99 percent of the 68 million Iranians are Muslims. There are an estimated 200,000 Christians.
Last fall Iran was among eight countries re-designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” for severe violations of religious freedom by the U.S. Department of State. Iran ranks No. 3 on the Open Doors World Watch List of countries where Christians suffer the most severe persecution for their faith.
Still, a large group of Christians with a Muslim background continue to practice their belief. One Christian worker said of the Muslim background believers: “They aren’t intimidated by the government and continue to spread the gospel. Muslims who came to the Lord in the past few years fear nothing and no one.”
Last June Iranian church leaders issued a joint statement which says in part: “We cannot express how deeply encouraged and thankful Iranian Christians are that so many are standing with us in prayer. We believe the Lord will hear the cries of His people, so we urge everyone to carry on praying and spreading the word about this prayer effort. Let’s see millions praying for Iran and let us witness together how God can transform a nation.”
Please come along side our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ inside Iran. They are asking us to pray for:
• Strength in the midst of persecution. Pray for protection, wisdom and boldness.
• Openness for Christians to worship in freedom.
• For Muslim background believers and secret believers. They face tremendous pressure to return to Islam.
Two men who are members of Gideons International, the Christian organization that is famous for, among other ministries, placing Bibles in motels and giving them to children, have been arrested after trying to hand out Bibles on a public sidewalk in Florida, according to a law firm.
Officials with the Alliance Defense Fund have confirmed they will be representing Anthony Mirto and Ernest Simpson, who were arrested, booked into jail and charged with trespassing.
Jeremy Tedesco, one of the ADF’s lawyers on the case, confirmed to WND that the organization’s clients were on a public sidewalk when they were handing out Bibles and school officials summoned police.
“The First Amendment protects the right to engage in religious speech on a public sidewalk,” ADF Senior Legal Counsel David Cortman said. “Members of the Gideons have been highly respected for decades as peaceful providers of free Bibles to those who want them.”
The arrest happened Jan. 19, when Mirto and Simpson were on the sidewalk outside of Key Largo School in Key Largo, Fla., and were distributing copies of the Bible to those interested.
“Neither man entered school grounds,” the law firm said. “After the school’s principal called police, a Monroe County sheriff’s officer asked the men to leave immediately or face trespassing charges. As the men prepared to leave, the officer decided to arrest both individuals.”
A hearing is scheduled March 5 in Monroe County Court in the cases, and ADF attorneys are preparing motions to dismiss the charges.
“Officials cannot use fear of arrest as a means of bullying law-abiding Christians into silence,” Cortman said. “These men broke no laws when they decided to communicate their message on a public sidewalk.”
Tedesco noted that sometimes school officials have a misconception about whether they can control activities on school grounds and adjacent public sidewalks. But the First Amendment does provide a protection for speech on those parcels of ground that are public, he said.
“There’s no reason why they should be put in jail,” he said.
The ADF is a legal alliance defending the right to hear and speak the truth, through strategy, training, funding and litigation.
The Gideons, a group founded in the late 1800s, has as its “sole purpose” the goal “to win men, women, boys and girls to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ through association for service, personal testimony, and distributing the Bible in the human traffic lanes and streams of everyday life.”
Members of the Gideons, who pay their own expenses so 100 percent of the donations to the group go toward Bible purchases and distributions, have placed the Bible in 181 nations in 82 different languages over the years.
The organization focuses on hotels and motels, hospitals and nursing homes, schools, colleges and universities, the military and law enforcement and prisons and jails.
“The demand for Scriptures in these areas far exceeds our supplies that we are able to purchase through our donations. Much more could be done – if funds were available. However, we are placing and distributing more than 1 million copies of the Word of God, at no cost, every seven days in these areas…” the group said.
The organization only gives away the Bibles with the Gideon logo on the covers, but plain Bibles are available for consumers to purchase at its distribution center at P.O. Box 140800, Nashville, Tenn., 37214-0800. Information about the products is available on the group’s website.
The Gideons serve as an extended missionary arm of the Christian church and are the oldest Christian business and professional men’s association in the United States.
Open Doors released its annual “World Watch List” on Wednesday, red-flagging countries with intense persecution of Christians.
“If we are going to make a difference for the church in these oppressive areas, the first step is awareness, which makes the World Watch List an extremely important tool,” said Johan Companjen, president of Open Doors International, in a statement. “Then we must pray and act to bring about change.”
There was little change over the past year, however, as all but one of the countries from last year’s list was still included in this year’s top 10 list.
This year, six of Open Doors’ ten worst Christian persecution countries are ones where Islam is the dominant religion. They include: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Somalia, Maldives, Yemen and Afghanistan. Afghanistan moved up a rank (last year No. 11) to take spot 10.
North Korea again tops the persecutor list for the fifth straight year. The reclusive communist state is known to execute Christians found with a Bible, imprison and torture believers and ban all forms of worship.
“It is certainly not a surprise that North Korea remains No. 1. There is no other country in the world where Christians are being persecuted in such a horrible and systematic manner,” said Dr. Carl Moeller, president/CEO of Open Doors USA.
According to Open Doors, more Christians in North Korea were arrested in 2006 than in 2005. Between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians are currently suffering in prison camps where torture is regularly implemented.
Open Doors is sponsoring a Prayer Campaign for North Korea and helping to organize North Korea Freedom Week on Apr. 22-29.
Saudi Arabia, which again ranked second among the worst persecutors, also prohibits Christians and all non-Muslims from public worship. The country also bans conversion to Christianity, which can be punishable by death.
The Open Doors list includes three countries with communist governments: North Korea, Vietnam and Laos. Bhutan is the only Buddhist country in the top 10.
Other noteworthy countries include Uzbekistan, Eritrea, Comoros, Iraq, northern Nigeria Algeria, Mauritania, Turkey, Ethiopia and northwest Kenya where the situation for Christians is deteriorating. [KH: predominantly Muslim]
Iraq’s Christian population is estimated to have dropped below 450,000, half the size in 1991.
Meanwhile, conditions improved in other parts of the world including Morocco (from No. 20 to 33), Nepal (No. 34 to 48) and Tunisia (No. 32 to 46).
“When you realize hundreds of Christians are imprisoned for their faith in one country alone – Eritrea (No. 13) – it should cause us to redouble our prayers and efforts to help,” said Companjen.
2007 Top 10 Persecutors:
1. North Korea
2. Saudi Arabia
Evangelical Christians are increasingly attacked by “traditional Catholics” in a southern Mexican state, according to a persecution watchdog group.
In the indigenous region of Chiapas state, traditional Catholics – a blend of Catholicism and native religious practices – are more frequently being accused of various acts of religious intolerance against protestants, such as “threats, intimidation, and robbery or expulsion from their communities, or death,” reported Alfonso Farrera, director of the National Bar of Christian Lawyers, to Compass Direct News.
In total, the bar says it has records of 200 cases of unresolved religious intolerance against evangelical Christians in Chiapas state, while incidents of persecution are “accelerating daily in the indigenous regions.”
Many of the conflicts arise from community leaders demanding evangelicals pay quotas for Catholic festivals, according to Compass. Some Evangelicals have said that though they are willing to cooperate in community projects, they refuse to fund religious festivals involving drunkenness and immoral behavior.
Common complaints by Evangelicals include local leaders cutting off the water supply or being denied benefits from government programs because of their faith.
Evangelical families are also often threatened with expulsion from their properties because they do not share in the faith and lifestyle of the town.
The Roman Catholic bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Felipe Arizmendi, has denied ties with the “traditional Catholics.”
Arizmendi declared that the “so-called traditional Catholics, who do not depend on our diocese, do not take into account the Bible nor the laws of this country, but are governed by their own agreements and traditions,” according to Mexico City’s La Jornada newspaper on Feb. 8.
Protestant Christians in other states besides Chiapas have also reported persecution by indigenous groups and by traditional Catholics. Christians living in indigenous regions in the central state of Hidalgo are among those who have reported harassment because of their faith.
According to the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission, persecution of protestant Christian is likely the result of Mexico’s association of Protestantism religion with America. Traditional Mexicans view Protestant Christianity as a threat to their culture, tradition, and Catholic faith, especially given the number of Mexicans in recent decades that have changed to evangelical Christianity after reading the Bible.
Mexico is composed of 89 percent Roman Catholic and only six percent Protestant.
WASHINGTON - The misunderstanding of religious freedom is widespread, noted a senior fellow at the Family Research Council.
Many share the view that religion is a problem, a source of conflict, or something to be managed, said Bill Saunders during a recent lecture at the faith-based pro-family group’s headquarters in Washington. The FRC senior fellow argued, however, that religious freedom is still the most basic of human rights.
The “absolutely fundamental nature of religious belief” is that “human beings are made to desire to worship God,” said Saunders, who also serves as FRC’s Human Rights Counsel and directs the Center for Human Life and Bioethics. But thousands across the globe suffer under persecution for their religious beliefs, or this “problem” as many view it. If people were not viewing religion as a problem, then others, including Christians, were simply neglecting it.
“The importance of religion was simply not ‘on their radar screens,’” said Saunders at the lecture.
The human rights advocate has worked with persecuted Christians in Sudan, where he founded an organization to provide relief to the believers there in 1999. For over a decade he has fought not for any “special rights” for the persecuted Christians, but for their basic human rights.
While at that time Saunders found much of the secular human rights community indifferent to religious freedom and moreover the Christian community unaware of the religious persecution, today he commends evangelicals for getting the issue on America’s radar screen.
“It was chiefly through evangelicals that the issue of religious freedom made it onto the American foreign policy agenda,” he said. “It’s Christians paying attention to Christians.”
Saunders credited evangelicals for the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 and the formation of the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which helps produce reports on the state of religious freedom around the world.
“While reports do not solve problems, they do shed light on problems,” he said. “And, speaking in the vernacular, if you don’t know something is broke, you can’t fix it.”
As the U.S. Department of State produces reports annually to track religious freedom, Saunders warns that religious persecution should not be ruled out in the United States.
“There are political streams of thought that would deny the church the freedom to speak the truth as it understands it,” he said. The loss of the religious voice in the states could happen, he commented. “If the Christian voice is stifled, it will have a negative impact” on the world.
Saunders’ lecture last Wednesday came one day after the First Freedom Project was introduced by the Justice Department to one of the largest Protestant groups in the nation - the Southern Baptist Convention. The project highlights the department’s commitment to defend Americans’ religious freedom rights and to increase education about religious discrimination.
“Before free speech, before freedom of the press, before all of these other crucial rights, we put freedom of religion,” said U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Saunders also highlighted religious freedom as being at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of human rights.
“Put more broadly, and as Pope John Paul II put it, religious freedom is the ‘first freedom.’ It is ‘the premise and guarantee of all freedoms that ensure the common good,’” he said.
WASHINGTON - Thirty-four Chinese house church leaders and three Christian leaders from South Korea were arrested in a central province in China – a region notorious for its persecution of Christians.
Local police raided a house church Bible study in Nanyang city, Henan province on Tuesday around 2 p.m. (local time), according to China Aid Association (CAA). Participants were from the Chinese House Church Alliance and were meeting in the home of Pastor Dong Quanyu, vice president of Chinese House Church Alliance.
The term Chinese House Church refers to congregations in China that refused to join the officially recognized Three-Self Church. House churches are independent and usually operate underground.
Henan has a history of Christian persecution and was named by the CAA as the province with the worst persecution record with at least 823 known arrests of pastors and believers and 11 raids from July 2005 to May 2006.
“Henan province should be put on notice having the worst religious persecution record,” said the Rev. Bob Fu, president of CAA, last June. “It is morally imperative for any conscientious foreign investors in Henan to address this serious issue.”
Henan along with Zhejiang provinces are noted for their strong Protestant house church movement as well as severe religious oppression by the government.
One of the main functions of China House Church Alliance is to provide Biblical education to emerging church leaders and young believers in an environment where there are significant challenges to receiving systematic and comprehensive theological education.
The hunger of Chinese Christians for Bible studies was highlighted by the Rev. Ron Pearce, executive director of Empower Ministries, at MissionFest Toronto last week.
Pearce relayed stories of “underground” church leaders meeting by the hundreds in fields under ginseng nets to conduct 24-hour Bible studies for four consecutive days with several pastors taking turns to teach Christians. The ginseng nets muffle voices and shield people underneath it from snow and frost, according to Pearce.
Although persecution of house church leaders and believers continue to be reported, several human rights and government bodies have noted the improvement of religious freedom in China.
Open Doors’ World Watch list this year dropped China from its tenth spot in 2006 to the 12th rank. The list was released in January 2007.
The International Religious Freedom Report 2006, issued by the U.S. Department of State, also observed that although the Chinese government has continue to repress unregistered Protestant churches, there is greater freedom to participate in officially sanctioned religious activities. The report also acknowledged that there is an increased availability of Bibles and religious text in most parts of China.
However, house churches – many of which refuse to join the officially sanctioned protestant organization because they argue God and not the government should be the head of the church – have reported increased government repression of the church and inadequate Bible distribution in rural areas.
Despite improvements in religious freedom in some aspects, China was re-designated as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for severe violations of religious freedom last November by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The People’s Republic of China has been designated a CPC every year since 1999.
By Doug Bandow
The People’s Republic of China is on the move. Four decades ago the impoverished, backward country was convulsed by a veritable civil war, the Cultural Revolution. Two decades ago, impoverished, backward China embarked upon economic reform.
Today China is becoming an economic and geopolitical power. Serious pitfalls remain along its path toward superpower status, but the People’s Republic of China seems likely to overtake the American economy in two or three decades, and to match U.S. military power later in the century.
In short, the Chinese people have much to celebrate.
Yet even as the PRC grows in international confidence, its Communist party remains paranoid, fearful of the very diversity encouraged by the ongoing reform process. Human rights remain limited. In particular, notes a new report, religious liberty remains restricted.
Even as Europe seems to slip further from its religious moorings, Christianity is growing rapidly elsewhere in the world, including in the PRC. The Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs estimates that there now are 130 million Christians in China, roughly 10 percent of the population.
The number of Christians in China is increasing despite sustained state repression. Bob Fu, president of the China Aid Association (CAA), notes that “the unprecedented growth of the Chinese church has happened under ceaseless persecution.”
When Fu speaks of persecution, he is not referring to something mild. Some American Christians use the word to mean cultural hostility. Nasty as Hollywood can be, it cannot arrest and jail. Beijing can.
The CAA reports that, in 2006, “the Chinese government continued its general crackdown on unregistered house churches.” What is notable is Beijing’s change in strategy:
Although Public Security Officials still held church leaders detained in the raids for extended periods, church members were released after short interrogations on the spot. This strategy effectively decreased the number of arrests, but had the effect of transferring the pressure onto the church leaders, who were sometimes held for weeks or months. There is clear evidence that a number of these leaders were tortured and physically abused during the time they were held.
The CAA estimates that more than 600 Christians were detained in 2006, down from about 2,000 the year before. But most of those arrested last year were church leaders. Moreover, “local officials closed and demolished more house churches in 2006 than 2005.” China also targeted congregations as cults. “After being classified as a cult, House churches in Langzhong city, Sichun province were severely persecuted in 2006.”
Local authorities have raided meetings between Chinese Christians and overseas believers. CAA goes on to list episodes of arrests, detentions, and imprisonments of Christians, as well as church closings and building demolitions. Nor is that all. In addition, “homes of Chinese Christians have been searched, crowds of peaceful protestors have been charged with electric shock batons, and access to Bibles and teaching has been restricted.”
Amid all this misbehavior is some good news. For instance, persecution varies dramatically by province, which means that believers are left largely unmolested in some areas. As Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute has noted, “everything you hear about China is true”—that is, persecution and tolerance coexist in the same nation, as different local authorities react differently to growing religious diversity.
Moreover, the overall trend is good. Compared to 40 or even just 20 years ago, the PRC is much freer. Despite the effects of Tiananmen Square, personal autonomy is on the rise. The non-governmental sector is growing. China is moving in the right direction.
The question, then, is how to promote further progress?
Washington should use its influence to encourage Chinese officials to respect the human rights of their citizens. The bully pulpit can be useful, since Beijing aspires to a leading international role. Democratic states in Asia and Europe should join the U.S. in informing the PRC that it will gain in influence when it respects the lives and dignity of its people. So long as Beijing fears the deepest beliefs of its people, nations around the world will fear the actions of the Chinese government.
Indeed, the point bears repeating: Authoritarian states may gain power internationally, but rarely can they sustain their influence. The Soviet Union was reviled by its own people, hated by its satellites, and distrusted by its adversaries. There was nothing to sustain the USSR as its economic crisis deepened.
It is oft-said that Beijing takes a long view towards politics. It therefore is in China’s interest to win the support of its people rather than to punish them for believing that there is a transcendent, something above the Communist Party, Chinese state, and other human institutions.
Beyond that, individuals, businesses, and other organizations should use whatever opportunities they have to press for greater freedom in China. Companies should seek to protect their employees when they exercise basic freedoms, such as religious worship. And they should make it clear to Chinese officials that religious liberty matters.
China has come far in a short time. The Chinese people are right to be proud of the nation that they are building. But their ultimate goal should be a strong society rather than a strong state. And that requires respecting individuals as they worship God.
— Doug Bandow is vice president of policy for Citizen Outreach. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
A Nigerian church was burned by Muslim extremists in the same town and only two days after the “gruesome” murder of a Christian teacher by her Muslim students.
The Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA) in the northern town of Gombe in Nigeria was set on fire by a large number of Muslim extremists on Mar. 23, according to the persecution watch group Compass Direct.
Although the church was not completely burned down, enough damage was done that the 500 church members are forced to hold church worship and services in the open air, said the Rev. Rakun Gaius, chairman of the Gombe district of the ECWA, to Compass.
The ECWA claims some 15,000 members and 57 local congregations in the Gombe district.
According to Gaius, who is also the vice chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), reports reveal that the Muslim militants in the area plan to burn 15 more churches in the region.
Church leaders complain that the state government – the majority of which are Muslim – makes no effort to protect Christians even though they compose half the state’s population. The government has also adopted and imposed Sharia, or Islamic laws, upon non-Muslims.
Only two days prior to the church burning, a Christian teacher administering an Islamic Religious Knowledge exam was beaten by Muslim students and others in the area for “desecrating the Koran.” The mob also set the female teacher, along with three blocks of the school building, on fire.
Although attackers accuse the teacher of desecrating the Koran, her defendants say that she had no knowledge that there was a Koran in the pile of books she threw out of the classroom when she suspected a student carrying the books into the exam hall would use them to cheat.
Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is about evenly split between Muslim in the north and Christians in the south with minorities of both religions living where the other faith is dominant. Since democracy was restored in 1999, there have been at least 15,000 deaths due to religious, communal or political violence, according to BBC.
The most populous country in Africa will witness its first civilian-civilian democratic handover of the presidency on Saturday when the outgoing Christian president of Nigeria will likely be succeeded by one of three Muslim candidates in the country plagued by years of Christian-Muslim strife.
President Olusegun Obasanjo’s election in 1999 ended 15 years of almost completely military rule. There are no Christian candidates among the current presidential front-runners, but Christians are said to favor Umar Musa Yar’adua of the People’s Democratic Party who is thought to be more sympathetic than the other candidates, according to Open Doors USA.
The other candidates are vice president Atiku Abubakar of the Action Congress and former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari of the All Nigeria Peoples Party.
Christians in Nigeria and abroad have raised concern about the effect of a new Muslim president on religious freedom in the country, especially after recent shocking persecution events.
“If there’s a Muslim-elected president – and the two leading candidates are both Muslim - Christian rights in that country will continue to suffer,” Open Doors USA president Car Moeller told Mission Network News. “We know that Nigeria is the home to some of the largest and fastest growing churches in Africa. However, there’s also a great deal of persecution going on in the northern states.”
A Christian teacher was recently brutally beaten and burned alive by her students in a Muslim dominated northern town. Two days later in the same town, an evangelical church was burned.
Nigeria’s population of 135 million is nearly equally divided between Muslims and Christians, with Muslims primarily settling in the north and Christians in the south. Since democracy was restored in 1999, there have been at least 15,000 deaths due to religious, communal or political violence, according to BBC.
Yet Obasanjo remains hopeful that Saturday’s election will move Nigeria one step closer to setting up a strong democratic nation. The president along with the country’s citizens hope the federal election on Saturday will turn out better than last week’s state election where accusations of vote-rigging, fraud and violence marred the event. At least 21 people were killed throughout the country last weekend and many fear a similar scenario will take place on Saturday, according to The Associated Press.
“Let us seize the high tide of history,” said Obasanjo, according to AP. “Never have we progressed this far in our democratic journey.”
“I appeal to all Nigerians to exercise their civic responsibility of voting peacefully, diligently and without indulging in any malpractices.”
The Nigerian federal election will be keenly watched by the world which depends on the country’s oil being that it is the world’s sixth biggest oil exporter and Africa’s biggest oil producer, according to Agence France-Presse.
“The world is watching us and we cannot afford to disappoint ourselves, our friends and the world,” said Obasanjo on Friday, according to AFP.
Nigeria’s 61 million registered voters will elect their next president and more than 300 lawmakers in Nigeria’s federal legislature at 120,000 polling centers on Saturday.
The new government will take power on May 29.
MALATYA, Turkey — Police detained five more suspects Thursday in the deaths of three men who were found with their throats slit in a publishing house that prints Bibles, the latest in a string of attacks targeting Christians in the mostly Muslim country.
The arrests brought to 10 the number of suspects in custody, all people in their late teens or early 20s, said Halil Ibrahim Dasoz, governor of Malatya, the city in central Turkey where the killings took place.
Malatya is known as hotbed of Turkish nationalism and as the hometown of Mehmet Ali Agca, the gunman who tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981.
Local media said five suspects detained Wednesday were college students who were living at a residence that belongs to an Islamic foundation. Some of those suspects told investigators they carried out the killings to protect Islam, a Turkish newspaper reported.
“We didn’t do this for ourselves, but for our religion,” Hurriyet newspaper quoted one suspect as saying. “Our religion is being destroyed. Let this be a lesson to enemies of our religion.”
Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country bidding for EU membership, has been criticized for not doing enough to protect its religious minorities and to check rising Turkish nationalism and hostility toward non-Muslims.
The three victims — a German and two Turkish citizens — were found with their hands and legs bound and their throats slit at the Zirve publishing house.
All were employees of the publishing house, which printed Bibles and Christian literature, had been targeted previously in protests by nationalists who accused it of proselytizing in this officially secular country.
The German man had been living in Malatya since 2003, the mayor said. Anatolia identified him as 46-year-old Tilman Ekkehart Geske.
“Nothing can excuse such an attack that comes at a time of great need for peace, brotherhood and tolerance,” President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the attack as “savagery.”
The five suspects detained Wednesday had each had been carrying copies of a letter that read: “We five are brothers. We are going to our deaths. We may not return,” according to the state-run Anatolia news agency.
Police said one suspect underwent surgery for head injuries after he apparently tried to escape by jumping from a window.
Making up less than 1 percent of Turkey’s 70 million people, Christians have increasingly become targets amid what some fear is a rising tide of hostility toward non-Muslims.
In February 2006, a teenager fatally shot a Catholic priest as he prayed in his church, and two more Catholic priests were attacked later in the year. A November visit by Pope Benedict XVI was greeted by nonviolent protests, and early this year a gunman killed Armenian Christian editor Hrant Dink.
Authorities had vowed to deal with extremist attacks after Dink’s murder, but Wednesday’s assault showed the violence was not slowing down.
“The killing is a result of provocations in Turkey against minorities,” said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a lawyer for one of the victims, Necati Aydin. “Intolerance in general has been rising sharply in Turkey.”
The attack came ahead of presidential elections next month, a contest that highlights fears among Turkey’s secular establishment that a candidate from Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted party, or even Erdogan himself, could win the job and strengthen Islamic influence on the government.
Last weekend, hundreds of thousands of pro-secular protesters demonstrated in the capital, Ankara. Erdogan has rejected the label of “Islamist,” citing his commitment to the EU bid.
The Vatican’s envoy to Turkey, Mons. Antonio Lucibello, told Italian daily Il Messaggero that he thought the attack was a “sporadic event.”
“We are not afraid. I’m not afraid,” he said.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier condemned the attack “in the strongest terms,” and said he expected Turkish authorities would “do everything to clear up this crime completely and bring those responsible to justice.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat Party — which opposes Turkey’s bid to join the EU — said the attacks showed the country’s shortcomings in protecting religious freedoms.
A group of 150 lit candles and unfolded a banner that read “We are all Christians” in downtown Istanbul but the numbers were far less than with Dink’s murder, which was followed by widespread protests and condemnations. More than 100,000 people marched at Dink’s funeral.
Christians and human rights groups condemned the Eritrean government – infamous for Christian persecution – for what they claim is the government’s orchestration of the appointment of the new Eritrean Orthodox head.
Controversy is building over the fourth Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC), His Holiness Abune Dioskoros, who Eritrea claims was unanimously approved by the Holy Synod, according to Eritrea’s Ministry of Information.
The appointment on Apr. 19 came 16 months after the ordained and recognized pontiff was removed from office for unknown reasons.
“This is yet another low in the sad litany of Eritrean government interference in church affairs,” said Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, in a statement on Tuesday.
Eritrean opposition and human rights groups claim that government-appointed Yoftahe Dimetros, a lay-person who assumed the role of general secretary of the Holy Synod in violation of the Church’s constitution, was behind the selection of the new Patriarch. Dimetros is also accused of being instrumental in the removal of the former Patriarch.
In January 2006, Patriarch Abune Antonios, 79, was illegally removed from his position for his criticism of the Eritrean government’s interference in church activities and their persecution of evangelical churches, according to prominent human rights group Amnesty International.
Since his removal, Antonios is said to be under stringent house arrest.
“In addition to the appalling mistreatment of the legitimate pontiff, who continues to be held without charge or trial, the Eritrean authorities appear determined to usurp the authority to appoint a leader for a church with a 17-century history,” said Thomas. “Such an unprecedented level of state interference in church affairs is wholly unacceptable in this day and age.”
Despite his absence, Antonios is still recognized as the church’s legitimate head by the Coptic Orthodox headquarters in the Egyptian city of Alexandria.
Eritrea has long come under international criticism for severe religious freedom violations with the U.S. Department of State designating it for the third straight year as a “Country of Particular Concern” – the worst religious freedom violation label.
Reports indicate that government officials disrupt private worship, conduct mass arrests during religious weddings and prayer meetings, and detain Christians without trial or specific charges.
Among the most severely persecuted are the country’s newer Christian groups such as the Protestant Evangelicals and Pentecostals.
The historic Orthodox Church – with roots back to the 4th century – formerly had a close relationship with the government. However, the government has increasingly cracked down on the Church as it undergoes a revival in evangelism efforts, according to the Voice of the Martyrs.
It is estimated that some 2,000 Christians are currently detained without trial or charge in Eritrea.
According to Eritrea’s Ministry of Information website, Dioskoros’ official convocation ceremony is planned for May 27-28.
“The hijacking of the church by the government that has been underway for quite sometimes is now completed,” said a statement by opposition priests, monks and deacons of the Church, according to Middle East Times.
WASHINGTON – A new report on the world’s worst religious freedom violators remained primarily unchanged since last year’s recommendation by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The commission’s recommendation to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this year on “countries of particular concern,” or CPC’s, was entirely the same as last year’s list of eleven countries categorized as having governments that engage in or tolerate systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom.
USCIRF’s CPC recommendations for 2006 and 2007 are: Burma, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
In most of the recommended CPC countries, there is some form of religion or religions allowed by the government. However, the government severely cracks down and persecutes beliefs that are not in line with the permissible faith.
For instance, China’s government officially recognizes a wide range of religion but demands that believers register with the officially sanctioned religious bodies and adhere to the religious laws set by the government. Unregistered Protestant Christians, for example, are imprisoned, abused and harassed while their registered Protestant Christian counterparts for the most part enjoy freedom of worship.
In Saudi Arabia and Burma, the governments support Sunni Islam and Buddhism, respectively, but squashes all other religions.
The Burmese junta has been accused of sending its military and Buddhist monks to tear down churches and crosses and build Buddhist worship structures in their place. Christian women are also reportedly raped by Burmese military with impunity.
Meanwhile, North Korea has a unique situation where there is absolutely no religious freedom or human rights in the country. The government bans all forms of public and private religious activities and promotes a personality cult centered on the late Kim Sung Il and his son Kim Jung Il, who is currently head of the country.
“The issue of religious freedom is now understood to have a profound impact on our own political and national security interests as well as on political stability throughout the world,” said USCIRF Chair Felice D. Gaer, in a statement.
Other countries whose situations have not risen to CPC designation but are on the Commission’s Watch List include: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Iraq – which was added to the list this year for close monitoring.
The CPC and Watch List are part of the 2007 Annual Report which was released on May 2 and includes recommendations on U.S. policy for the president, secretary of state, and congress concerning CPC countries and in other nations the United States can help to promote freedom of religion or belief.
Christians in Nigeria, who make up about half the population, are expressing fears Islamic law already being enforced in northern states will expand nationwide with the inauguration this month of a new “devout Muslim” president, according to a report from the Voice of the Martyrs.
Musa Yar’ Adua was governor of Katsina state in northern Nigeria, where he and nearly a dozen other governors over recent years have imposed Islamic religious law as the law of the government, officials said.
As a result, Christians have lost basic rights such as having a location to meet and meeting there, officials have confirmed.
“We have not been allowed to worship freely, as churches have been denied places of worship. In the Government Reservation Area, for example, it is not possible to get land for places of worship by Christians,” Rev. Canon Williams said in a Voice of the Martyrs report.
As WND has reported, Muslim rioters in Nigeria in 2006 were incensed over cartoons of Muhammad published in Denmark, and more than 130 Christians in the Nigerian cities of Maiduguri and Onitsha were slaughtered.
The reports documented six children burned to ashes in front of their father, VOM said.
WND also has reported nearly 1,000 homes of Christians and many churches have been destroyed in those regions, and documentation of Islamic law is everywhere.
“If you go around villages, you will see people missing one hand or one foot,” explained Rev. Obiora Ike. “Do you think that’s the result of an illness? That is the result of sharia law.”
More than 10,000 Christians have been martyred in the region since the Islamic law was imposed in the region in 1999, and Voice of the Martyrs has helped surviving family members through its Families of Martyrs Fund with Care Packs, Village Outreach packs and words of encouragement to believers who stand for their faith “amidst volatile, uncertain conditions.
“The election of Yar’ Adua will aggravate the problems of Christians in northern Nigeria. Our fear is that under a Muslim president, religious liberty will be eroded,” another pastor said in the VOM report.
Under Yar’ Adua’s supervision in Katsina, the government set up a system to deliberately deny permission for any Christian churches to acquire land or build. “Government agencies [also] arbitrarily closed some churches,” according to the report.
In just recent weeks and months, persecution of Christians has increased there. Alhassan Adamu, the secretary of the board of an evangelical Christian school, said persecution now is commonplace.
“There is persecution of converts from Islam to Christianity, destruction of churches, discrimination against Christians and denial of admission of Christian students in public schools, to name a few,” he said.
Yar’ Adua is a former chemistry teacher whose political pedigree dates to the 1960s when his father was minister in the post-independence administration. His late brother also was an army general under President Olusegun Obasanjo during the 1970s.
Political analysts in Nigeria confirm that he is not known for his tolerance of opposition, and his critics there describe him as totalitarian.
He has told reporters that the government must “earn” its “moral authority.”
Voice of the Martyrs is a non-profit, interdenominational ministry working worldwide to help Christians who are persecuted for their faith, and to educate the world about that persecution. Its headquarters are in Bartlesville, Okla., and it has 30 affiliated international offices.
It was launched by the late Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand, who started smuggling Russian Gospels into Russia in 1947, just months before Richard was abducted and imprisoned in Romania where he was tortured for his refusal to recant Christianity.
He eventually was released in 1964 and the next year he testified about the persecution of Christians before the U.S. Senate’s Internal Security Subcommittee, stripping to the waist to show the deep torture wound scars on his body.
The group that later was renamed The Voice of the Martyrs was organized in 1967, when his book, “Tortured for Christ,” was released.
Chinese officials buckled under international pressure and reportedly apologized and returned all confiscated items to two house church pastors in an east coast province in China on Friday.
The Public Security Bureau (PSB) in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province, told Pastors Cui Chengnan and Liu Riguo that international pressure and the fear of negative impact on foreign investment in the area have caused them to return the items, according to China Aid Association (CAA), whose report has been credited for sparking the pressure.
Officials also reportedly apologize to the church privately and even pledged to reimburse the cost of the church pew and offering box damaged during the PSB raid.
“This is certainly a welcoming first step in the right direction,” said Bob Fu, president of CAA, in a statement.
The two house churches were raided separately by the Kunshan Municipal Public Security Bureau on Apr. 29 when the officials declared their meetings as “illegal assemblies” and confiscated their notebook computers, projectors, DVD players, stereo, microphones, Bibles and other items. They also took away the church offering boxes.
In response, the two house church pastors filed an application for administrative reconsideration to the Kunshan Municipal People’s Government on May 9 and demanded that they rule against the administrative measure taken by the PSB as illegal. The pastors also demanded that the PSB return all the confiscated items and donated money from the raid to the church.
The pastors, however, decided to withdraw their legal actions after the return of the church items.
“The Chinese house church is not seeking confrontation with their government,” said Fu. “The action that Jiangsu authority has taken demonstrated that reasonable approach like this could be found in its interaction with the house churches and we highly commend this approach.”
Hindus have confronted a group of Christian evangelists, forcing them into a nearby village temple to perform a ritual to “reconvert” them to the Hindu religion, according to a new report from the Voice of the Martyrs which is documenting some of the increasing persecution by Hindus around the world.
While this most recent physical attack was reported by VOM sources inside the Indian state of Orissa, other attacks – albeit verbal – also have reached into the United States.
WND recently reported that Hindus have been launching a series of attacks against Christian organizations dedicated to promoting the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
A report from the Hindu American Foundation accused a long list of Christian organizations, including some providing aid in India, of promoting hatred.
“The proliferation of websites promoting religious hatred is an unfortunate consequence of the universality of access to the internet,” said Vinay Vallabh, the lead author of the report.
Among those targeted verbally included the Southern Baptists’ missions board, Gospel for Asia and the Minnesota-based Olive Tree Ministries, which aims its ministry at teaching Christians about their beliefs.
“We must vigorously identify, condemn and counter those who use the Internet to espouse chauvinism and bigotry over the principles of pluralism and tolerance,” Vallabh said.
While the attacks in the United States have so far remained verbal, those within India almost always result in physical violence, according to VOM.
In Orissa, more than 15 Hindus stopped a small number of Christian evangelists on a village road, verbally abused them, and then forced them into the local temple for the ritual, the report said.
Sources within India told VOM that the evangelists were witnessing and handing out New Testaments and Gospel tracts.
“When chaos broke out, the extremists took the evangelists to the police who put them in jail and confiscated more than 30 New Testaments and Gospel tracts,” the report said.
A short time later, in Andra Pradesh state, a mob of Hindus attacked a pastor and a team of women evangelists, VOM sources reported.
“As believers completed distributing literature, Hindu extremists first started beating [Pastor David] and then assaulted the ladies sitting in the car,” the sources said. “Some Muslim women joined the attack and started verbally abusing the women.
“They asked Sister Sarita why she was working to convert people to Christianity and yet she looked Muslim,” the sources said. The Christian literature was burned, they reported.
In yet another recent violent attack, VOM sources said two Christian leaders were attacked and beaten by Hindus in Maharashtra state. Local media reports said they were accused of converting Hindus to Christianity before they were attacked.
“It’s highly shameful. It’s as if the [extremists’ organization] just does not understand the concept of law and order,” Congress leader Rajiv Shukla told area media.
There have been many other reports of pastors and leaders being beaten for representing Christ in India. Voice of the Martyrs Canada noted just a few:
* A Christian worker identified as Pawar was attacked in his home.
* Rev. P. Abraham and a college professor were seriously hurt while returning from a church meeting.
* Evangelists from Salem Voice Ministries were attacked and beaten by militants in Kerala state.
The incidents are being reported even as Indian states adopt various pieces of “freedom” legislation concerning religion.
“Rajasthan State has a so-called ‘Freedom of Religion Bill’ that is used as a tool in the hands of fundamentalists to harass Christians,” said VOM contacts, who report on the various attacks, discriminations and persecutions of Christians because of their beliefs.
“The cases of anti-Christian attacks in this area keep increasing, and the State Administration turns a blind eye to the persecution,” they said, according to The Voice of the Martyrs.
“The situation for our brothers and sisters in India is deteriorating,” VOM spokesman Todd Nettleton said. “But God is faithful, and even in these difficult times with so much persecution, the church there is growing. We are thankful for the courageous example of Indian Christians.”
Voice of the Martyrs is a non-profit, interdenominational ministry working worldwide to help Christians who are persecuted for their faith, and to educate the world about that persecution. Its headquarters are in Bartlesville, Okla., and it has 30 affiliated international offices.
It was launched by the late Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand, who started smuggling Russian Gospels into Russia in 1947, just months before Richard was abducted and imprisoned in Romania where he was tortured for his refusal to recant Christianity.
He eventually was released in 1964 and the next year he testified about the persecution of Christians before the U.S. Senate’s Internal Security Subcommittee, stripping to the waist to show the deep torture wound scars on his body.
The group that later was renamed The Voice of the Martyrs was organized in 1967, when his book, “Tortured for Christ,” was released.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) - Christians in a Pakistani town beset by pro-Taliban militants sought government protection Wednesday, the eve of a deadline for them to convert to Islam or face violence.
About 500 Pakistani Christians in Charsadda, a town in the North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan, received letters earlier this month telling them to close their churches and convert by Thursday or be the target of “bomb explosions.”
Several Christians, a tiny minority in the predominantly Muslim country, have fled town and others are living in fear, community leaders said.
Some complained that police were not taking the threat seriously.
“Police say someone is joking with us by writing these letters,” Chaudhry Salim, a Charsadda Christian leader, said during a news conference in Islamabad. “They have deployed only two policemen at our churches ... this is the kind of security we are getting now.”
Shahbaz Bhatti, a prominent Christian leader and head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, said the provincial government, which is controlled by a coalition of pro-Taliban religious parties, would bear blame for attacks after the deadline.
Bhatti also urged Muslim religious scholars to condemn the threats and said the federal government should take “concrete steps to provide protection” to Christians.
Asif Daudzai, a spokesman for the provincial government, asked Christians not to panic, saying authorities were doing all they could to ensure their protection.
“Christians are our brothers and sisters, and we will not allow any one to harm them,” he told The Associated Press.
Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and other religious minorities make up about 3% of Pakistan’s 160 million residents.
Most live peacefully alongside the Muslim majority, although the groups have been targeted repeatedly in attacks blamed on extremists since the country allied itself with the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Islamic radicals trying to impose Taliban-style social edicts in northwestern Pakistan are growing bolder, bombing shops selling Western films, threatening barbers for trimming beards and warning hotels to remove televisions from guest rooms.
Minorities and secular opposition parties say the government is doing too little to counter the “Talibanization” of growing swaths of the country.
PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia (AP) - Malaysia’s top civil court on Wednesday rejected a woman’s appeal to be recognized as a Christian, in a landmark case that tested the limits of religious freedom in this moderate Islamic country.
Lina Joy, who was born Azlina Jailani, had applied for a name change on her government identity card. The National Registration Department obliged but refused to drop Muslim from the religion column.
She appealed the decision to a civil court but was told she must take it to Islamic Shariah courts. Joy, 43, argued that she should not be bound by Shariah law because she is a Christian.
A three-judge Federal Court panel ruled by a 2-1 majority Wednesday that only the Islamic Shariah Court has the power to allow her to remove the word “Islam” from the religion category on her government identity card.
“She cannot simply at her own whims enter or leave her religion,” Judge Ahmad Fairuz said. “She must follow rules.”
Judge Richard Malanjum, the only non-Muslim on the panel, sided with Joy, saying it was “unreasonable” to ask her to turn to the Shariah Court because she could face criminal prosecution there. Apostasy is a crime punishable by fines and jail sentences. Offenders are often sent to prison-like rehabilitation centers.
Joy was not present at Wednesday’s hearing.
About 60 percent of Malaysia’s 26 million people are Malay Muslims, whose civil, family, marriage and personal rights are decided by Shariah courts. The minorities — the ethnic Chinese, Indians and other smaller communities — are governed by civil courts.
But the constitution does not say who has the final say in cases such as Joy’s when Islam confronts Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions.
The founding fathers of Malaysia left the constitution deliberately vague, unwilling to upset any of the three ethnic groups dominant at the time of independence from Britain 50 years ago, when building a peaceful multiracial nation was more important.
The situation was muddied further with the constitution describing Malaysia as a secular state but recognizing Islam as the official religion.
Joy, who began going to church in 1990 and was baptized eight years later, has been disowned by her family and has said she was forced to quit her computer sales job after clients threatened to withdraw their business.
She and her ethnic Indian Catholic boyfriend went into hiding in early 2006 amid fears they could be targeted by Muslim zealots, Joy’s lawyer has said.
Joy’s case sparked angry street protests by Muslim groups and led to e-mail death threats against a Muslim lawyer supporting her.
Leonard Teoh, a Malaysian Catholic lawyer, expressed disappointment at Wednesday’s ruling, saying the verdict failed to protect religious rights.
“People like Lina Joy shouldn’t be trapped in a legal cage, not being able to come out to practice their true conscience and religion,” Teoh said.
Muslim Youth Movement President Yusri Mohammad said Wednesday that “we fully believe justice has been served.”
“We praise Allah for the decision taken by the court,” Mohammad said. “It should be seen as a rejection of attempts by certain individuals, certain parties, to deconstruct and radically revamp our current formula” for religious issues.
Joy’s case is the most prominent in a string of recent religious disputes, some involving custody of children born to parents of different faiths, and one involving a deceased Hindu man who converted to Islam without his family’s knowledge and whom Islamic authorities ordered to be buried as a Muslim.
A large scale rally against increasing Christian persecution in India was staged on Tuesday to demand greater intervention by the government.
More than 4,000 protestors took to the streets of New Delhi, marching towards the Indian Parliament in response to two recent attacks against Christians which were televised on several news channels.
Christian leaders fear that if the government fails to condemn the attacks, similar incidents will take place in the future – likely with impunity.
“The diversity of protestors from several religious communities, different Christian denominations, and even civil society groups, show that India’s citizens want a truly secular India,” said Dr. Joseph D’souza, president of All India Christian Council, in a statement.
The protest was organized by the All India Christian Council (AICC), the All India Catholic Union, Truth-Seekers International, the Christian Lawyers Association and the All India Confederation of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Organizations.
In addition, Muslim, Buddhists and Hindu representatives as well as women and student groups joined the thousands of Christians from across the denominational lines in the rally.
“People should be able to practice their faith without violent attacks,” said D’souza. “The government’s silence in the face of recent anti-Christian incidents is not only an injustice, it is dangerous.”
Earlier this month, two Christian missionaries were attacked by Hindu extremists who accused them of forceful conversion in western India. Although initially the missionaries refused to press charges, the police investigated the case after television footage showed a group of Hindus kicking and punching the missionaries, according to The Associated Press.
“This protest illustrates the strength of feeling within India that violent attacks against religious minorities must not go on,” said Stuart Windsor, national director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
“We urge the international community to now reinforce the message to the India Government that they have a duty to protect their citizens from such attacks regardless of their religious background.”
Hindus compose 84 percent of India’s more than 1.2 billion population; Muslims, 13 percent; and Christians, 2.4 percent, according to AP.
An unprecedented legal battle involving a Christian convert has sparked national uproar in Egypt with the convert and people involved in the case facing multiple death threats, raids on their homes, and intense interrogation by the government.
Christian convert Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy is in hiding – sleeping in different places each night – after Muslims mounted death threats against him for suing Egypt for refusing to accept his application to officially change his religion from Islam to Christianity on his identification papers.
His first lawyer – Mamdouh Nakhla, director of the Al Kalema Center for Human Rights – withdrew from the case Tuesday after claiming his decision was base on “national unity” and alleging that Hegazy did not give him the documents that proved Egyptian authorities rejected his application.
“If you add the state of alert in Egyptian society, and to protect the feelings of our Muslim brothers, and to protect our national unity…we decided to abandon this case,” said Nakhla, according to Reuters.
However, some reports have claimed that the lawyer was threatened by Egypt’s security police who said he would be killed if he continued the case.
During a press conference at Nakhla’s office, one of the staff members at Al Kalema Center reportedly shouted, “He is being threatened, he is doing this under pressure,” according to Compass Direct News.
Furthermore, the Christian convert’s new lawyer – Dr. Adel Fawzy Faltas, president of the Middle East Christian Association (MECA) in Egypt – is said to be detained by the Egyptian police after holding a high-profile online chat with Hegazy, according to Compass.
Faltas, 61, was arrested from his Cairo home Wednesday afternoon. His home was reportedly raided Thursday by officials who confiscated two laptops and a desktop computer.
“They cut up the mattresses, tore everything up and took all the books as well,” said Nader Fawzy, head of the Canada-based MECA, who has close contact with various leaders of MECA’s Egyptian branch, according to Compass.
Fawzy said that Faltas had been blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back when he was arrested.
The rest of the members of the Christian rights group is said to be in hiding.
A third lawyer, Ramses Raouf el-Nagar, has now taken up Hegazy’s case.
In addition to the death threats and arrests, several Muslim clerics have countered Hegazy’s lawsuit by filing their own petition against his first lawyer on charges of causing sectarian strife.
The case has garnered national attention with some Egyptian newspapers giving it front page coverage, according to Reuters.
When asked why he has chosen to fight for legal Christian status, Hegazy explained that his wife was four months pregnant and he wanted his son to be raised openly as a Christian.
“My wife is pregnant. I want my son to be born within my own religion and for the fact that he is Christian to be written on official papers,” said Hegazy, according to Agence France-Presse.
In Egypt and in many Middle Eastern countries, the parents’ legal religious status determines their children’s official religion on their identification papers.
The couple understands that only if their child is officially Christian will he be able to enroll in Christian religious classes at school, wed in a church, and attend church services openly without harassment.
Hegazy, who was jailed and tortured in 2002 when police discovered his conversion, noted that he had converted four years ago to Christianity but never sought to change his status legally because of all the obstacles.
Other Egyptian Muslims who have converted to Christianity are said to do so quietly and there has not been known of a case of someone seeking official recognition, according to AFP.
Hegazy’s case has put the media spotlight on the inequality of religious conversion in Egypt. Although it is close to impossible for Muslims to legally change their status to Christianity, Christians are free to convert to Islam.
Between 2000-2006, some 7,000 Christians legally became Muslims, according to a statement last year by Egypt’s top Muslim cleric, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Muhammad Sayed Tantawi.
In September, the country will confront another convert case when Egypt’s Supreme Court hears the case of 12 former Coptic Christians who want to legally revert back to Christianity.
BEIJING (AP) – Authorities have increased arrests on Christian groups operating outside China’s sole official government church following a crackdown ordered last month, an overseas monitoring group reported today.
At least 15 leaders in the unofficial church have been detained in recent days across six provinces and regions, according to the China Aid Association, based in Midland, Texas.
They include seven church leaders arrested during a worship service in Inner Mongolia on Tuesday and six others detained for up to 10 days in the neighboring provinces and Shandong and Jiangsu. In another case, Christian businessman Zhou Heng was arrested while picking up an order of two tons of Bibles at a bus station, the association said.
Those actions follow a crackdown on unauthorized religious activity ordered July 5 as part of a drive against crime and economic chaos at the village level.
“Strike hard against illegal religious and evil cult activity; eliminate elements that affect the stability of village governance,” said the directive.
The text was derived from remarks issued by Vice Public Security Minister Liu Jinguo at a nationwide teleconference and posted on the ministry’s Web site. Other crimes targeted ranged from kidnapping and gang activity to production of fake products and exploitation of the millions of children left behind in villages by parents who migrate to work in cities.
The association said some of those arrested had been conducting worship services or vacation bible camps, including Kong Lingrong, who was running a Bible study class for young people on July 14 when it was interrupted by local officials.
Determined to make her stop, they cut water and electricity to her home, the association said.
Authorities have demanded Kong guarantee in writing that she would not conduct such classes in future, warning that until she does so, they would also cut power and water to the homes of anyone found meeting with her, it said.
Calls to local governments and police stations in the areas where arrests were reported either rang unanswered or answered by people who said they had no knowledge of the arrests.
China allows Christians to worship only in Communist Party-controlled churches, although millions of others risk harassment, fines and terms in prison camps by worshipping in independent congregations usually hosted in private homes.
Pakistan authorities have arrested two people in connection with the murder of a Christian bishop and his wife in Islamabad.
Bishop Arif Khan and his wife were shot dead at their home on Wednesday evening, according to police reports.
In connection with the murders, another man and wife appeared in court on Thursday, and were remanded in custody following the hearing.
It is believed that in addition to the two suspects, a third male is also being sought after by the country’s police.
Police have told reporters that all three suspects come from the town of Wana in the tribal region of Waziristan near the Afghan border.
The killing took place just weeks after thousands of people, including leaders of religious minority groups, unanimously accepted a “Charter of Demands” at a rally in Lahore on Aug. 11 – three days before the country celebrated its 60th anniversary.
The Charter of Demands called on the government of Pakistan to ensure equal rights for religious minorities, including revising the school syllabus to remove religious bias, creating a National Commission on Religious Tolerance, and establishing other government mechanisms to promote religious tolerance.
The charter also calls for all groups involved in promoting hatred, intolerance, extremism and terrorism to be banned and argues for the repeal of the blasphemy laws which it says causes many religious minorities to live in “perpetual fear.”
Beheadings, forced apostasy, burning alive, churches demolished—these are not just incidents reported from the pages of early Church history. This is the shocking fate of Christians and non-Muslim minorities in Iraq today.
In a recent article in the Washington Post, Nina Shea, the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, paints a bleak picture for the future of non-Muslims in Iraq. She explains how some 60 years ago, Iraq’s Jewish population fled due to coordinated violent attacks against them. Very few Jews remain in Iraq today, though they had once made up one-third of Baghdad’s population. As Shea comments: “Unless Washington acts, the same fate awaits Iraq’s million or so Christians and other minorities. They are not simply caught in the crossfire of a Muslim power struggle; they are being targeted in a ruthless cleansing campaign by Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish militants.”
As I have told you before on The Christian Post, there are 600,000 to as many as one million Christians in Iraq. They are called the “Assyrians” or “Chaldeans”—as their names suggest, tracing to biblical times. Indeed, they are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. If any group has an historical claim to their part of Iraq, it is they.
Yet increasing numbers of Iraqi Christians have concluded that “there is no future for Christians” in Iraq. As one Christian put it, “We have no militia to defend us.”
That matters because, as the New Republic put it, “Sunni, Shia, and Kurd may agree on little else, but all have made sport of brutalizing their Christian neighbors.” Since neither Iraq nor American officials are willing to protect them, Christians are leaving their ancestral home. According to the UN High Commissioner of Refugees, Christians, who represent only 4 percent of the population in Iraq, make up 40 percent of its refugees.
Their flight is not only heart-breaking because of their ancient connections to the land, but also because of the loss of their stabilizing effect on the area. Shea cites Lebanese Christian scholar Habib Malik, who writes that the Middle East’s Christians and other minorities have historically served as moderating influences. As Shea says, “Their very presence highlights pluralism, and they are a bridge to the West and its values of individual rights.”
Yet, according to Shea, “the United States has no policies designed to protect or rescue” religious minorities. “Worse, it has carried out policies heedless of their effect on Iraq’s most vulnerable.”
I agree with Nina Shea: The United States needs to grant asylum to those religious minorities most at risk and to help those who choose to stay. Many Iraqi Christians, for example, are resettling in northern Iraq’s Ninevah plain, the traditional home of Assyrian Christians. It is prudent and right for the United States to protect these refugees.
Yes, the situation in Iraq is terribly difficult, but you and I need to let our representatives know, as they debate the issue this month, that they must not forget the minorities. They must work for a solution that includes protection for the Christians in Iraq.
While these minorities do not have a voice, we do. And we need to raise it in their defense.
Two christian girls who were kidnapped from their families in faisalabad, pakistan, were forcibly converted to islam and later married off to strangers.
After kidnapping the girls, the muslim men reportedly delivered distorted marriage certificates to their families.
According to one of the certificates, 16 year-old shamaila tabassum was married 12 days before her disappearance. Her lawyer, however, has asserted that the dates mentioned in the marriage certificate are falsified as tabassum was still at home at the time.
The other certificate distorts the age of zunaira rasheed as 18, while her actual age is 11.
Abida, rasheed’s mother, after being informed of her daughter’s kidnapping readily paid 12,000 pakistani rupees ($200) to men who promised to help trace her daughter.
“since my daughter was engaged, i didn’t want the police and relatives to know the matter,” she said. “unfortunately, i found out too late that those men who offered help only wanted my money – which i got with great difficulty, selling all i have.”
Because the police have reportedly been negligent and slow to act, the girls’ lawyer decided last week to file a case against the officers in punjab city of faisalabad.
Khalil tahir, a well-known christian lawyer and chairman of a free legal aid organization “adal trust,” pointed that christians in the country are unceasingly abused and tortured.
“although we try to aid the victim’s families, offering legal and practical help, the government must curb and stop the issue using,” he said.
Muslims make up about 97 percent of pakistan’s people, while hindus make up 1.5 percent, and christians 1.7 percent. According to u.s.-based international christian concern, christian girls are frequently kidnapped, raped, molested, converted, and in some cases killed by muslims. Although complaints have been registered with the police, they reportedly do not take effective action against the assailants.
Lucknow, india – a pastor and his family were attacked by 150 hindu activists as they were traveling to their church in bhadwadi village.
After accusing pastor virendra singh, 50, of converting people to christianity and severely injuring him, the attackers – believed to be affiliated with the vishva hindu parishad (world hindu council) and the rashtriya swayamsevak sangh (national volunteers’ organization) – burnt their church, which had gathered more than 500 believers at the time of the incident.
“the 500-600, who were present in the church, ran out panicked, crying with fear. They somehow managed to help the sick believers escape from the church,” reported the global council of indian christians (gcic), a human rights advocacy group based in bangalore.
Religious books, bibles, christian literatures, musical instruments, and other items, however, were completely destroyed.
Singh – who had been traveling sunday with wife bhavana singh, 45, and daughter rushali singh, 14 – told gcic that he was thankful to god for saving them from the attack, which left them with just few injuries and scars.
After sunday’s attack, the pastor will for the second time be registering a case against the activists. On sept. 7, singh had requested police protection after receiving death threatens from the same activists.
Christians are being urged to pray this month for believers in Nigeria after they were badly hit by anti-Christian rioting in the northern state of Kano.
At least nine Christians were killed by Muslims in a wave of violent attacks in Kano between Sept. 28 and 29.
A number of churches were also burned to the ground while the homes and businesses of non-Muslims were destroyed. One witness told U.K.-based Barnabas Fund that as many as 126 Christian homes were attacked by rioters.
While the trigger behind the riots remains unclear, there are rumors that they were prompted by a picture that offended Muslims. The exact details of the picture, however, are unclear.
There is also speculation that authorities removed many of the bodies to obscure the actual death toll.
The Barnabas Fund, which serves and supports persecuted believers worldwide, has appealed to Christians to support with prayer the appeal of Samuel Salifu of the Christian Association of Nigeria. The Nigerian Christian leader has asked the government to take action against those who regularly stir up anti-Christian violence in the country.
“Praise God for the patience of Christians in Kano who turned the other cheek and did not retaliate against those who attacked them and destroyed their property,” the Barnabas Fund added. “Pray that they will continue to respond with Christ-like forgiveness. Pray for those who were bereaved in the latest rioting that they will find comfort and hope in the Lord.”
Hundreds of Muslims and Christians attended a memorial service Sunday for a prominent Palestinian Christian who was found stabbed and shot on a Gaza City street earlier that day.
At Gaza’s Greek Orthodox church, Palestinian mourners gathered around the body of Rami Khader Ayyad, the 32-year-old director of Gaza’s only Christian bookstore who hospital officials say was shot in the head and stabbed numerous times.
Ayyad’s family and neighbors said Ayyad had regularly received anonymous death threats from people angry about his missionary work and was abducted late Saturday afternoon by unknown assailants near his home.
His murder came six months after the religious store he managed, the Teacher’s Bookshop, was bombed, apparently by Muslim extremists.
“We hope he was not killed because he was Christian,” said Nicholas Issa, a Christian, according to The Scotsman. “That is what worries Christians in Gaza now. Today is a black day for Gaza.”
Kamal Juda, a Muslim, added that the killing showed Hamas has not yet gained full control over the security situation after its takeover of Gaza in June.
The latest incident came as Christian leaders in Gaza have called on Hamas officials to make greater efforts to protect Christians in light of the instability and lawlessness in Gaza following the Islamic group’s takeover.
Previously, Christians were respected citizens and considered part of Gaza’s elite as they ran schools, hospitals and businesses. The late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, assigned Christians to top positions in the government and the Fatah movement.
Even after Hamas wrested control of Gaza strip in mid-June, the Hamas-led coalition government consisted of a prominent Gaza Christian, Hussam Tawil. Moreover, Hamas forces had protected Gaza’s Greek Orthodox Church from angry Muslims after Pope Benedict XVI’s comment on Islam.
Yet Muslim-Christian relations are reportedly unraveling as attacks against Christians continue despite Hamas’ promises to protect the community.
Last month, an 80-year-old Christian woman in Gaza City was attacked by a masked man who, during the course of the robbery, beat her hands with a club and also hit her head with a tool causing her to bleed.
“As soon as I opened the door, he pushed me inside and shouted: ‘Where is the money, you infidel?’ I shouted back: I’m not an infidel – I’m a proud Palestinian Arab,” Claire Farah Tarazi recalled to the Jerusalem Post.
The assailant then locked her in her bedroom as he searched for money, but Tarazi was able to escape through another bedroom door and went to a neighbor for help.
Tarazi’s relatives pointed out that she was attacked because of her faith.
“The fact that the attacker called her an infidel speaks for itself,” a relative, who was not identified, told the Post. “He clearly knew that this was a Christian woman living alone. He would not have dared to do the same thing to a Muslim woman.”
About 3,000 Christians live in Gaza among 1.5 million Muslims and relations between two communities have generally been good.
“Muslim and Christian relations are very strong and will not be affected by such crimes committed by criminal elements,” expressed Hamas in a statement Sunday, calling Ayyad’s death a “murderous crime.”
According to reports, a large delegation of Hamas leaders visited Ayyad’s family and delivered condolences on behalf of the prime minister, Ismail Haniya. In a statement, Haniya condemned the killing and said Hamas “would not allow anyone to sabotage” Muslim-Christian relations.
“We are one people waging a single struggle for independence and freedom,” expressed Haniyeh, according to Reuters.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a faction that enjoys broad support among Gaza’s Christians, also issued a statement, calling the killing “a desperate attempt to sabotage the good social relations in Palestinian society and the friendly relations between Christian and Muslims.”
And the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, which said the crime “will not pass unpunished,” said it had launched an investigation and promised to bring Ayyad’s killers to justice.
So far, there has been no claim of responsibility, but suspicion has been focused on Islamist extremists who have also previously targeted internet cafés and video stores.
In April, Ayyad’s bookstore was firebombed during a wave of attacks by a shadowy Muslim “vice squad” on Internet cafes, music shops and other targets associated with Western influence.
The bookshop, which opened in 1999, sells Bibles and Christian literature despite a spate of threats and attacks against it. It is run by a Baptist group, the Holy Bible Society, dedicated to projecting a Christian presence in the Muslim region.
“We can’t express the shock,” said Suhad Massad, director of the society, according to The Scotsman. “We don’t know who is behind this attack.”
Palestinian lawmaker Hussam Tawil, who represents Gaza’s Christians, said the Christian community and all of Gaza society are “feeling deeply shocked because of this awful, ugly crime.”
He also said it’s “too early” to talk about the motive of the crime, adding that doing so “might be dangerous.”
Simon Azazian, a spokesman at the Bible Society’s head office in Jerusalem, however, told AP that the organization felt Ayyad was killed for his Christian faith.
Issa, a 24-year-old Christian who went to pay his respects at Ayyad’s home, echoed that sentiment, saying, “He paid his life for his faith, for his dignity, and the dignity of the Bible and Jesus Christ.”
“I am terrified and cannot believe this has happened in Gaza,” added Issa, declining to give his last name because of the tense atmosphere.
Ayyad reportedly left two young children and a pregnant wife.
Over the weekend at least nine Christians were killed, churches were set on fire, and businesses and homes destroyed in the Tundun Wada area of Kano State, Nigeria, according to reports.
The violence, allegedly committed by Muslim youths, followed unspecified claims that Christians had blasphemed the Islamic prophet Mohammed.
According to sources on the ground, not a single Christian church, house or business had been left undamaged and an unknown number of people were injured and displaced during the violence, reported U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), which monitors persecution of Christians internationally.
The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), meanwhile, has received reports indicating that the authorities in Tundun Wada, in an attempt to disguise the true extent of the violence and injuries, have evacuated Christians and other non-Muslims to neighboring Bauchi State.
Kano is a notoriously volatile state where regular bouts of anti-Christian violence have at times resulted in massacres.
More recent tensions have reportedly been rising throughout northern and central Nigeria following allegations of blasphemy. These include two differing stories on the publication of a new cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammed, reports that a Christian youth left the name of Jesus written on a school blackboard, and rumors that a dispute between school pupils was related to religion.
Speaking on behalf of the Christian community following the violence, CAN National Secretary Eng. Samuel Salifu said: “We are pleading for the government to step in. I am directly telling President Yar’Adua because this may be a very good litmus test for his administration.”
Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), meanwhile, said, “We are saddened and outraged by what has happened over the past weekend in Nigeria.
“It is vital that the both state and federal authorities act decisively to bring the perpetrators to justice and to compensate the victims for their losses,” he added.
Responding on behalf of the government, Federal Vice President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan has pledged that the new regime would soon convene a national religious conference to address the cycle of religious violence that has affected Nigeria in recent years.
Thomas said CSW welcomed the federal government’s plans “as a starting point” and hopes that the debate will lead to “effective action to end the religious violence and discrimination that has had such an adverse affect on this key African nation.”
An Eritrean Christian gospel singer who was tortured and imprisoned without charge for two years by her government was recently granted asylum in Denmark.
Helen Berhane, 32, arrived in Denmark on Friday almost a year after she was freed by the Eritrean government in December 2006.
Previously, she was held inside a metal shipping container and beaten in an effort to force her to recant her faith and promise not to participate in church-related activities. Berhane repeatedly refused to denounce her faith and as a result was severely beaten and tortured leaving her legs permanently injured and wheelchair-dependent.
More than 90 percent of Eritreans belong to one of four recognized religions – Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran Churches and Islam. However, an estimated 2,000 Eritrean are members of unregistered “illegal” evangelical church groups that the Eritrean government has increasingly cracked down upon in recent years.
Berhane is a member of the unregistered Rhema Pentecostal Church and had just released a gospel music recording when she was arrested in the Eritrean capital in May 2004.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s chief executive, Mervyn Thomas, who has advocated on her behalf, said he was happy that Berhane had “finally” found refuge after “so many years of suffering.”
“The profile of her case made it impossible for Helen to remain in Eritrea, and in Sudan she faced the constant threat of being sent back,” Thomas said. “She was forced to move house on several occasions as delays in the asylum process left her in an increasingly vulnerable position, yet her courage and faith throughout her ordeal has been deeply inspiring.”
Although Berhane’s legs were badly injured, she was able to escape to Khartoum with her sister in order to escape being killed by the government, which allegedly wanted to cover up her story. Berhane is one of the most high-profile former prisoners from Eritrea. Her daughter Eva joins her in Denmark.
Thousands of Eritreans flee their country each month, according to CSW. The Eritrean government reportedly executes publicly anyone found to be assisting those who escape, including the man who helped Berhane’s daughter. The man’s body reportedly was placed in a sack after execution and placed in front of his parent’s home, according to CSW.
“We are relieved that Helen and Eva are finally safe and would like to thank everyone who has supported them,” said Dr. Berhane Asmelash, director of Release Eritrea.
“We hope that Helen will now have the peace and space to recover her health and rebuild her life.”
CSW’s Thomas added, “We urge the international community to stop watching this situation develop and start intervening to create a brighter future for the people of this overlooked country.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in May recommended that Eritrea be re-designated by the State Department as one of the 11 “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for 2007. The U.S. Department of State for three straight years has designated Eritrea as a CPC – the worst label for religious freedom violators.
While much of the world considers India a populous and vibrant democracy, All India Christian Council secretary general John Dayal says freedom of religion is steadily on the decline in the country.
“Many of the rights have been systematically diluted over the years by governments, courts and fundamentalist forces,” said the journalist turned Christian activist, speaking to Ecumenical News International (ENI) in an interview about his recently released book on religious freedom in India.
“A Matter of Equity: Freedom of Faith in Secular India” is a critique of religious freedom in the country and Dayal says that this freedom, or lack of it, ranges from the steady dilution of constitutional guarantees to harsh treatment meted out to Christians and minorities in every corner of the country.
The newly released book contains a collection of articles on the plights of Christians in India and was written when Dayal was a journalist. Since then, the AICC head has become an expert on issues concerning India’s microscopic Christian community.
“Even before the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party ) came up, religious freedom had been facing curbs both by the government and the judiciary,” said Dayal, who lists several documents in his book to support his claim.
He further asserted that Christians enjoyed “better religious freedom three decades ago than now” and that several lower courts in the country have been hostile to Christian grievances.
Expressing sadness over the scrutinizing and control of Christian missionaries in entering the country, Dayal told ENI, “Christian missionaries who have done exemplary service to the nation have been unceremoniously packed off by the government denying them visa extensions on one pretext or other.”
Dismayed over the rising atrocities in the country against Christians, Dayal pointed that even the state system has been used to harass Christians and their institutions.
“In this context, one will wonder what religious freedom spelt out under fundamental freedom in our constitution means.”
The recent incidents of deliberate violence against Christians – including the murders of priests, rapes of nuns, and brutal assaults on missionaries – saddened Dayal, who urged Church leaders to demand from the government what has been taken away over the decades.
Dayal also noted that church leaders have failed to provide strong leadership for the 26 million Christians in India.
The new book by Dayal, priced at 800 Indian rupees, was be published by New Delhi-based Anamika Publishers and Distributors Pvt Ltd.
An evangelist in the North Indian state of Madhya Pradesh was killed by Hindu priests suspected of seeking human sacrifices for a Hindu “goddess” in the latest in a series of attacks against Christians in the country.
According to the Global Council of Indian Christians, Vipin Mandloli, 27, was shot dead near Aamkut village in the Jhabua District, Madhya Pradesh.
Mandloi, who works as a shepherd in his spare time, left his home on Oct. 14 to a nearby mountain to graze his sheep near a Hindu temple.
“There was a new temple of Kali, the ‘goddess’ of the Hindus, and he was in its premises,” reported GCIC president Sajan K. George. “Three ‘Pujaris,’ or Hindu priests, came there and they shot and killed Vipin Mandloi with a … pistol.”
GCIC alleged that the Hindu priests were angry that Mandloi had become a Christian after falling victim to alcohol abuse and a failed marriage. According to the advocacy group, Mandloi transformed to a very devoted Christian and even supported the churches and evangelists in the locality.
“The ‘goddess’ Kali is a bloodthirsty ‘goddess’ and she is even given human sacrifice,” said George, “so it is suspected that the priests found this an opportune time to kill the evangelist as they were already upset with his decision of accepting Christ.”
There has been growing concern about attacks against Christians in the same region. With an investigation in the process, GCIC hopes justice will be rendered to the family.
Two Bible college students have been lauded for their Christ-like response to the savage beatings they endured from a mob of anti-Christian extremists in India’s Haryana state earlier in the month.
On Nov. 4, students Vijay and Soman were ministering in Haryana during a school break when they went into a shop to witness to the owner.
According to mission agency Gospel for Asia, the man acted as though he was interested in what they had to say and told them to wait while he found some friends who would also be interested in their literature. Some time later, a crowd of extremists gathered outside of the shop. It later came to light that the shop owner was the leader of a local anti-Christian extremist group.
According to Gospel for Asia, the extremists questioned the two boys about their reasons for wanting to preach a “foreign religion,” and accused them of being anti-nationalistic and of forcing people to convert.
Although the students responded by explaining that they were only distributing literature on how to be freed from sin, the extremists began to beat them and dragged them into the street.
The group accused them of trying to convert people by offering large sums of money and had their literature burned. According to Gospel for Asia, they were also threatened with death by burning.
The mob reportedly grew to 600 people as Vijay and Soman were dragged around the town and beaten for four hours. Eventually the police broke the crowd and took Vijay and Soman into protective custody.
The mob also went to the home of the two students, beating the owner for letting the students stay there. They also burned $600 worth of the student’s belongings.
One other student living with the two victims was ministering elsewhere on the day of the incident and was also taken into custody.
All three were released the following day but will be required to return for a trial on the charges brought against them by the mob of performing forced conversions. The two students have received treatment in hospital for their wounds.
A Gospel for Asia correspondent praised the students. “They are amazed that they are alive after having been beaten for four hours,” the correspondent said. “They consider it joy to have the privilege to suffer for Christ.”
Gospel for Asia leaders have requested prayer for the ministry in Haryana, the state where persecutions occur most regularly.
A pastor and members of his church in Eastern India were attacked and beaten by Hindu radicals aided and abetted by police officers, according to an advocacy group based in Bangalore.
The Global Council of Christians (GCIC) alleges that Pastor Siddarama Gokhavi, 60, and church members were attacked by over 20 Bajrang Dal (Army of Hanuman) activists during a Sunday worship meeting in Ananda Nagara, Bihar.
“A slogan-chanting mob, led by Raghavendra, the local goon, came to the church and destroyed worship equipments and unleashed [a] riotous attack,” reported GCIC.
In response, the Karnataka police, who were alerted of the incident, dragged Gokhavi and six others to physically torture and injure them, the advocacy group added.
“The highly motivated radicals burnt Bibles and Christian literatures. In the savage attack, Pastor Gokhavi and his wife, Rekha Gohavi, were taunted and injured,” claimed GCIC.
The pastor and his family were accused of persuading Hindus to convert to Christianity – the same reason why they have been threatened and detained.
Although the conditions of the pastor and believers are stable, GCIC said it is dismayed and shocked to discover that even senior police officers, including the deputy commissioner of police (DCP), were directly involved with the radicals in what it labeled as a hate crime.
At least four cases of Christian persecution in India were reported in the average week this year, according to statistics recently revealed by the president of the All India Catholic Union and others actively monitoring the situation.
AICU leader Dr. John Dayal, who is also a renowned journalist and member of the National Integration Council, said the statistics gathered from Jan. 1 to Nov. 16 show that the number of atrocities against Christians this year, 190, has surpassed the marks of recent years.
The victims include members of almost every church denomination in the country - Catholics, Protestants, and Evangelicals. They include priests, nuns, pastors, wives of pastors, believers, seminarians and Bible school students, and lay persons.
Violence includes attempted murder, armed assault, sexual molestation, illegal confinement and grievous injury.
Dayal noted, however, that the figures “do not include cases that have not come to the notice of the All India Christian Council, the All India Catholic Union, the GCIC, the Evangelical Fellowship of India and the Christian Legal Association.”
The list also does not include widespread incidents that were simply categorized as “violence” but which Dayal said certainly bore signs of religious intolerance, bigotry, social discrimination and ostracization.
Nor does it include violence in which Christians are victims together with others, such as the displacement of Tribals due to government action, Dayal added in a statement.
In reality, leaders of the Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party and its mother organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (National Volunteers’ Organization), continue an almost daily harangue against the Church while militant frontal organizations such as the Bajrang Dal (Army of Hanuman), the Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and other Hindu nationalist groups peak the anti-Christian hate campaign at a feverish rate, said Dayal.
Most recently, a pastor and members of his church in Eastern India were reportedly attacked and beaten by Hindu radicals with the aid of police officers.
The Global Council of Christians (GCIC) alleges that Pastor Siddarama Gokhavi, 60, and church members were attacked by over 20 Bajrang Dal activists during a Sunday worship meeting in Ananda Nagara, Bihar.
“A slogan-chanting mob, led by Raghavendra, the local goon, came to the church and destroyed worship equipments and unleashed [a] riotous attack,” reported the Bangalore-based advocacy group.
In response, the Karnataka police, who were alerted of the incident, dragged Gokhavi and six others to physically torture and injure them, GCIC added.
“The highly motivated radicals burnt Bibles and Christian literatures. In the savage attack, Pastor Gokhavi and his wife, Rekha Gohavi, were taunted and injured,” the advocacy group claimed.
The pastor and his family were accused of persuading Hindus to convert to Christianity – the same reason why they have been threatened and detained.
Although the conditions of the pastor and believers are stable, GCIC said it was dismayed and shocked to discover that even senior police officers, including the deputy commissioner of police (DCP), were directly involved with the radicals in what it labeled as a hate crime.
A senior Hamas leader is suspected of torturing and killing a prominent Palestinian Christian, new reports revealed.
The central Gaza chief of Hamas’ military wing, Ashraf Abu Layla, is accused of murdering the manager of the Gaza Strip’s only Christian bookstore.
Bookstore manager Rami Ayyad’s body was found last month riddled with bullets and displaying visible signs of torture.
“The most disappointing aspect of this discovery is that not only is this a Hamas person who committed this crime, apparently, but also that despite the assurances right after the murder that they had nothing to do with it, they haven’t distanced themselves from him and in fact have sent him on a pilgrimage to Mecca,” said Open Doors USA president Carl Moeller to Mission Network News.
Hamas leaders have previously promised to provide protection to the strip’s small Christian community.
Following Ayyad’s murder, Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, in a statement, condemned the killing and said Hamas “would not allow anyone to sabotage” Muslim-Christian relations.
Hamas also released a statement, calling Ayyad’s death a “murderous crime” and claiming that Muslim-Christian relations “are very strong and will not be affected by such crimes committed by criminal elements.”
Meanwhile, the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, said it had launched an investigation and promised that the crime “will not pass unpunished.”
Prior to Ayyad’s death, Islamic groups in Gaza had for months accused the bookstore manager of engaging in missionary activities and sent him multiple death threats. The Christian bookstore, owned by the Palestinian Bible Society, was also firebombed in April.
Ibrahim Ayyad, brother of Rami, estimates that up to 70 percent of the Christians in Gaza would leave when given the opportunity, according to MNN. There are about 3,000 Christians in the Gaza Strip, which has a population of over 1 million.
Ayyad left behind a pregnant wife and two young children.
A prominent Chinese Christian leader has written an open letter to China’s president, calling him to listen to the suffering of country’s innocent persecuted Christians.
In the letter, released Wednesday by the China Aid Association (CAA), Pastor Zhang Mingxuan, president of the Chinese House Church Alliance (CHCA), tells the story of how he became a house church leader and leader of CHCA. He also lists incidences of persecution against Christians such as beatings, imprisonments and tortures.
Despite the contribution of the CHCA to charitable causes – particularly to aiding orphans and the homeless – the organization has been subject to more persecution in the time before and after the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Local police reportedly asked Zhang and his family to close down his house church along with his school and a nearby orphanage.
In his letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao, Zhang said, “It is my belief that this persecution is a result of the corruption of officials subordinate to the central government, failure to enforce the law in a strict way, distortion of facts and evildoings and collusion between the local despots and the officials.”
Zhang urged the president “to seriously consider the misery of the common people and urge the officials subordinate to you to stop persecuting Christians and implement their promises in the Constitution on religious freedom.
“We can have a harmonious society when we build it on the foundations of love, friendship, fairness and justice,” he added.
Zhang said that the desire of Chinese Christians is “to win justice for the common people in China so that the Chinese society is full of love and care and that China can become free, prosperous, and a real powerful country in the 21st century in both soul and in social system.”
He finished by saying, “We sincerely pray to the Lord to punish the evil and promote the good so that the common people can receive blessings and that China will have real religious freedom. I believe this is also the wish of President Hu. I hereby pray to God to bless you and all the officials in power, to give them more wisdom in ruling China.”
In related news, the CAA reported that a house church led by Pastor Gao Wendong in Linyo City, Shandong Province, has won a legal battle against the local police.
The church was represented by Beijing Christian lawyer Ms. Wu Chenglian and was helped by Zhang. On Nov. 17, the church won its legal battle and had its confiscated property returned.
Local authorities in Indonesia are blocking a Catholic priest from celebrating mass in a bid to avoid “social tensions” after a group of Muslims challenged the legal status of his 4,000-member megachurch.
Last week, local Catholic leaders met officials from the West Jakarta District and the Tambura Sub-district, who insisted on canceling the activities of Christ’s Peace Church in South Duri, West Jakarta.
Father Matthew Widyalestari told the Catholic news agency AsiaNews that the reason given by the officials was for “public order” and fear of sectarian clashes.
Although he signed an agreement that forced him to end all activities at the church, the priest still expressed his desire to celebrate Sunday mass for his 4,000 parishioners.
“The faithful want their spiritual needs fulfilled,” Widyalestari said. “They feel like they are on a most wanted list, forced underground to find another place to practice their religion.”
Christ’s Peace Parish has used the same building since 1968, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that the Cooperation Forum for Mosque, Prayer Rooms (Musholla) and the Koranic Recital Group (Majlis Taklim) of the Duri Selatan subdistrict challenged the legal status of the church, saying that they do not have the correct permits needed for places of worship.
“Technically it is difficult to find the right place,” Father Lestari, another priest, pointed out to AsiaNew. “Some parishioners go to mass at the Provincial House of the Missionary of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but that place is not big enough for thousands of people.”
The Interior and Religious Affairs Ministries issued a joint decree in 2005 that was meant to end violence against “illegal churches” and also make it easier to get building permits.
Despite the decree, attacks have not stopped, and Christians often are not protected and are at risk of having to cease the public practice of their faith.
An investigation has been launched in Turkey to look into possible conspiracy between Turkish police and at least one of the suspects in the brutal murder of three Christians in a publishing house earlier this year.
An Interior Ministry official said that a pair of senior police inspectors have been given the task of finding out if any officers assisted the suspects, according to Fox News.
In April, three Christians were tied up, repeatedly stabbed and had their throats cut in a Protestant publishing house. The trial of five men accused of the murders began last month but was adjourned until Jan. 14 as defense lawyers requested more time to prepare their arguments.
The investigation was launched after some newspapers alleged that police had conspired with the killers.
Two suspects, Abuzer Yildirim and Salih Guler, reportedly claimed that another suspect, Emre Gunaydin, had told them that he had met with police officials who gave him the locations of Christian churches in the city.
According to the Turkey-based Radikal newspaper, Yildirim said, “I asked him (Gunaydin) who are the police chiefs that you are speaking to, he said: ‘Don’t ask, take it easy.”‘
Allegations of a police conspiracy also arose following the murder in January of Hrant Dink, an ethnic Armenian who roused the ire of Turkish nationalists when he described the killings of Armenians in the early 20th century as genocide. Turkey has denied such claims.
According to Fox News, some believe the authorities failed to act on reports of a plot to kill Dink, although no evidence has linked any government or police officials to Dink’s murder.
There are fears that a “deep state” may exist in which a network of informers and ex-officials are linked to organized crime that sometimes targets reformers and other “enemies” of Turkish nationalism.
Furthermore, Christian leaders in the country have expressed concern that nationalists are promoting hostility against non-Turks and non-Muslims by exploiting the uncertainty of Turkey’s place in the world, FoxNews reported.
Coptic Christian shops were burned and attacked by an angry mob of Muslims in the Egyptian city of Isna, south of Cairo, early Sunday morning.
At least 13 shops were destroyed and the windows of a church damaged, according international news agencies. Although the motivation behind the destruction remains unclear, Reuters claimed the riot started after a Muslim girl was suspected of having sexual relations with two Christian boys.
This was followed by another report that a Muslim woman had her veil forcefully removed by two Coptic Christians in a car parking lot on Saturday, reported the Canadian Press.
Currently, police have upgraded security and imposed a curfew on the town.
Coptic Christians account for 10 percent of the total population of Egypt and often face persecution from the Egyptian government. They claim that their rights in particular are being curtailed through requirements such as needing a license to build a church whereas Muslims can build mosques anywhere as they please.
Egypt officials arrested 13 Christians earlier this week for collecting donations to rebuild a church without a permit, their lawyer said Wednesday.
The group of believers, who work in a church in the southern city of Assiut, had been collecting money to rebuild a church in another southern town called Saqulta, according to Agence France-Presse.
They had raised suspicion in Saqulta when they asked a local resident where the nearest church was. The resident had then called the local police out of fear that the strangers were terrorists plotting to attack the church, said their lawyer Hani Hanna Soliman.
“They were arrested on Monday and now face the charge of collecting donations without a permit,” Soliman told AFP.
Security authorities had arrested eight men and five women and deployed troops to surround local churches. After hours of interrogation, the group was cleared of any terror related charges but continued to be imprisoned because they collected donations without a valid permit, according to their lawyer.
Authorities are on high alert for suspicious activities near churches after seven Muslims in the southern town of Isna set fire to a church and shops owned by Christians on Sunday. The attack was retribution for the alleged rape of a Muslim girl.
Christians in Egypt remain a small and largely powerless minority that often complains about discrimination – which ranges from social to economic to religious oppression – in the Muslim-dominated society.
One of their main complaints is about the requirement to obtain a license to build or rebuild churches when Muslims can build mosques anywhere and without requesting a permit.
Another growing debate is over the right of Egyptian Muslims to convert to Christianity and have their religion changed on their official documents. It is nearly impossible for a convert to legally change his religion to Christianity, which means that the person cannot marry a Christian and their children must be raised as Muslims.
In recent months, converts to Christianity have for the first time challenged the Egyptian system. But as a result, their lawyers and their families have received numerous death threats and in the end were forced into hiding.
Officially, Egypt has no law banning conversion from Islam, but the country’s Muslims look upon apostasy very negatively with some even calling for punishment by death.
Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million. Although they are the minority in Egypt, they represent the largest Christian population in the Middle East.
Chinese police forces recently arrested 270 Protestant house church pastors in an eastern province, reported a Chinese Christian human rights organization.
The pastors were gathering in the district of Hedeng in Shandong province when about 50 policemen from 12 different towns raided the meeting place, blindfolded and handcuffed attendees and took them to the local police station for questioning, according to U.S.-based China Aid Association (CAA.).
CAA’s president, the Rev. Bob Fu, told The Christian Post that 70 Christian leaders remain in prison as of Thursday morning.
The massive arrest took place last Friday at around 1:30 p.m. local time when the clergymen were gathering for a Bible study, according to AsiaNews. A police squad arrived in armored trucks and arrested participants for engaging in an “illegal religious gathering,” recalled an eyewitness, who noted the raid was “violent and swift.”
Some 120 pastors had been released early on after paying 300 yuan (US $40) as an “interrogation tax,” according to AsiaNews.
“Obviously, the detention of these pastors illustrates China’s insincerity in moving toward a culture of religious tolerance,” commented Washington-based Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins in a statement Tuesday.
“While the regime tries to project itself as progressive, the reality is that China has no intention of abiding by international law or abandoning its hostility to Western religious ideals,” noted Perkins, an influential conservative Christian leader.
FRC issued a letter on Tuesday to the U.S. State Department urging Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to broker the remaining pastors’ quick release.
China allows protestant Christian groups to exist but requires them to register with the government-sanctioned Three Self-Patriotic Movement. There are about 10 million members within the state-approved Protestant church group.
According to CAA, there is a campaign to “normalize” underground Protestant churches by giving them two options: either join the Three Self-Patriotic Movement or be oppressed by government forces.
House church worshippers refuse to join the TSPM because they argue God should be the head of the church and not the government. They also believe that requiring government-approval to hold religious gatherings is a violation of their religious freedom.
China has been under greater scrutiny by the international community for its human rights conduct as it prepares to host the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Although it claims to be a country of religious tolerance, human rights groups have reported a secret campaign to crackdown on unregistered church activities before the Olympics.
Many house church pastors in Beijing have been visited and “requested” to leave the city before the Games, according to Open Doors’ contacts in China.
“These crackdowns on Chinese house church believers and others is not unexpected as the communist government of China tries to put its best foot forward to the world in preparing for the Olympics,” commented Dr. Carl Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors USA – a Christian persecution watchdog.
In a widely publicized event, over 100 foreign missionaries were expelled from China and some even blacklisted earlier this summer. The massive expulsion was the largest of its kind since 1954 after the communist government took power in 1949.
Some U.S. human rights groups have urged a boycott of the Beijing Olympics if China does not improve its human rights record before the Games.
China has an underground Christian population estimated to be as high as 100 million, although experts are quick to point out the difficulty in obtaining the real count.