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Compass (01/10/06)

1 – Dramatic Spike in Eritrea

Eritrea dramatically accelerated its imprisonment and torture of Christians even as the U.S. State Department designated it as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for the second consecutive year. By October the number of Eritrean Christians confirmed to be jailed for their religious beliefs had shot up to a total of 1,778, nearly double the documented count in April. At least 26 full-time Protestant pastors and Orthodox clergy were jailed and their personal bank accounts frozen by government order, causing severe suffering for their families. The regime of President Isaias Afwerki stripped Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios of his ecclesiastical authority on August 7, and the country’s only Anglican priest, the Rev. Nelson Fernandez, was abruptly ordered out of the country in early October. Since May 2002, the Eritrean government has outlawed all Christian meetings for worship except those of the officially registered Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran churches – but the regime began jailing and harassing key leaders of even the legally recognized churches this year. On September 23, Eritrea became the first nation ever sanctioned by the U.S. State Department under the 1998 Religious Freedom Act for failure to address severe violations of religious freedom.

2 – Hollow Promises in Vietnam

Vietnam Prime Minister Phan Van Khai’s historic visit to the United States in June, an equally historic (secret) human rights agreement between the two countries in May, and supposedly less restrictive religion legislation introduced in November 2004 all made headlines but had no effect on continued high levels of persecution of Christians. The Mennonite church continued to face the kind of harassment documented by missionary Truong Tri Hien, who submitted testimony to the U.S. Congress on June 20 showing how local officials have abused administrative powers to harass the denomination. The Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang, a Mennonite pastor convicted of an offense he denied having committed, was freed from prison on August 30 as part of Vietnam ’s National Day amnesty after enduring more than a year of harsh conditions and pressure to renounce his faith. While he was in prison, authorities destroyed a 16-foot section of his Mennonite center and home in a dispute over a building add-on permit. All attempts by the Vietnam Mennonite church to seek guidance on how to register, including appeals to the country’s prime minister, have gone unanswered. Typical of persecution elsewhere, authorities in Quang Ngai Province incited a mob to burn down the home of evangelist Dinh Van Hoang on August 21 because he would not sign a paper denying his Christian faith. Likewise, on July 26 and 31, authorities in the same province destroyed the homes of 10 ethnic Hre families because they would not renounce Christ. Understandably, house church leaders in Vietnam remained skeptical of Vietnam ’s supposedly liberalized religion laws inviting unofficial churches to register. In spite of the flurry of official activity, Vietnam remained on the U.S. State Department’s list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom in 2005.

3 – State-Sponsored Persecution in Iran

In Iran, an Islamic court on May 28 acquitted Christian lay pastor Hamid Pourmand on charges of apostasy and proselytizing, though he continued to serve a three-year jail sentence for “deceiving the Iranian armed forces” by not reporting his conversion to Christianity. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, a military tribunal had ruled him guilty, dishonorably discharged him and handed down the maximum three-year prison sentence. Though he has not suffered physical mistreatment since his acquittal for apostasy, the 48-year-old Pourmand has been subjected to repeated pressure to recant his Christian faith and return to Islam. Such government-sponsored persecution tends to pave the way for vigilante “religious police” and acts of violence among Muslim extremists; on November 22, an Iranian convert to Christianity was arrested from his home in Gonbad-e-Kavus and stabbed to death, his bleeding body thrown in front of his home a few hours later. The death of Ghorban Dordi Tourani, a 53-year-old house church pastor of Turkmen descent, came just days after Iran ’s new hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told an open meeting of the nation’s 30 provincial governors that the government needed to put a stop to the burgeoning movement of house churches across Iran . “I will stop Christianity in this country,” Ahmadinejad reportedly vowed. Before the end of November representatives of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security had arrested and severely tortured 10 other Christians in several cities, including Tehran .

4 – Massive Destruction in Pakistan

In Pakistan , some 2,000 Muslims armed with iron rods, axes and tins of kerosene ransacked and looted four churches, a convent, a mission-run school and several Christian homes in Sangla Hill on November 12 after the burning of the Quran led local mosques to appeal for Muslims to “teach the Christians a lesson.” The previous day Catholic Christian Yousaf Masih was gambling with his Muslim friend Saleem Sunihara near the Sangla Hill sports stadium. To avoid paying a large gambling debt, the Muslim set fire to old pages of the Quran kept in a nearby storage room and blamed the fire on Masih. Eyewitnesses told a joint fact-finding team from Jubilee Campaign and the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) that they saw Sunihara throw a burning match into the room. Several busloads of Muslim men arrived in Sangla Hill to join the mob the morning of November 12, and hundreds of Christian families, mostly poor farmers and laborers, fled the area during and after the attack. Police not only failed to protect the Christian places of worship but joined the crowd in vandalizing Catholic and Presbyterian churches. Sangla Hill police also arrested and tortured four of Masih’s six brothers, prompting the alleged blasphemer to give himself up in exchange for their release. Masih was held at the Sheikhupura jail. The homes of Masih and his brothers were burned to the ground, with no one able to confirm the whereabouts of his wife and three children. Addressing a crowd of 3,000 men at the Jamia Masjid Rizvia mosque in Sangla Hill on December 2, Muslim clerics flanked by government officials demanded the public execution of Masih.

5 – Sunday School Teachers Jailed in Indonesia

In a disturbing development for a country with a relative degree of religious freedom, Indonesian judges on September 1 sentenced three women to three years in prison for allowing Muslim children to attend a Christian Sunday school program. Rebekka Zakaria, Eti Pangesti and Ratna Bangun received the sentence after judges found them guilty of violating the Child Protection Act of 2002, which forbids “deception, lies or enticement” causing a child to convert to another religion. The Indramayu district, West Java Sunday school teachers had instructed the children to get permission from their parents before attending the program, and those who did not were asked to go home. None of the children had converted to Christianity. Muslim parents had been photographed with their children during the Sunday school activities, but when Islamic leaders lodged a complaint, the parents refused to testify in support of the women. No witnesses testified or provided evidence of the charges that the women had lied, deceived, or forced the children into changing their religion. The three defendants, described as “ordinary housewives,” were relieved that they had not been given the maximum five-year prison sentence but were devastated to be separated from their children, who range in age from 6 to one daughter in her 20s. As they have done throughout the trial, Islamic extremists made murderous threats both inside and outside the courtroom. Several truckloads of extremists arrived; one brought a coffin to bury the accused if they were found innocent. The defendants, witnesses and judges were continually threatened with death by hundreds of Islamic radicals if the women were acquitted.

6 – Sham Trial in Egypt

A Christian with dual U.S./Egyptian citizenship who retired and went to Egypt to begin a shelter for troubled young women – especially Coptic girls who are lured into marrying Muslim men with promises of escape from economic deprivation – was sentenced to one year in jail on October 20 after a teenager at the shelter lodged unsubstantiated accusations against him. Coptic Christian Shafik Saleh Shafik went into hiding in Egypt while his lawyers pursued an appeal over the controversial conviction of illicitly holding a minor at his shelter. Magda Refaat Gayed, then 17, had accused Shafik of beating and raping her as well, though a physician’s report refuted these charges. Her Christian parents had signed over custody of their daughter to Shafik in September 2004, after police recovered her from an Islamist group. She had fled her family two weeks earlier and was reportedly living with the Muslim religious leader of an Islamist group, learning Muslim rituals in hopes of converting and marrying a Muslim young man. Though Shafik was convicted on October 20, the verdict detailing charges against him were not revealed until November 13. Many of the Christian young women at Shafik’s shelter were brought there after their families recovered them from Muslim groups determined to spread Islam by abducting and converting them. The court initially ordered police to illegally transport the underage Gayed to an Islamic center to officially convert to Islam. Moreover, several witnesses threatened to kill Shafik if the court found him innocent.

7 – Pastor Cai Jailed in China

In China , a judge on November 8 found house church pastor Cai Zhuohua and three other relatives guilty of “illegal business practices” – a little more than eight months after new Regulations on Religious Affairs, effective March 1, strengthened a ban on illegal religious publications and increased the penalty for printing or distributing them without government approval. Judge You Tao sentenced Cai, 34, to three years, his wife Xiao Yunfei to two years and her brother to 18 months. Cai’s sister-in-law Hu Jinyun was found guilty of concealing illegally acquired goods but escaped prison because she had provided information to police. Cai’s mother, Cai Laiyi – now caring for Cai’s 5-year-old son – told Reuters that the prosecution had not found a single witness to testify that Cai had earned money from the sale of the books. Cai, who led six Beijing house churches, said the books were printed for free distribution within house church networks. The four were held for 10 months before the case finally went to trial on July 7. Defense lawyers acknowledged that the literature was printed without permission but argued that the defendants could not be charged with “economic crimes” since the Bibles were never intended for sale. Gao Zhisheng, a key lawyer on the defense team, received notice on November 4 to suspend his law practice for a year, making an appeal extremely difficult. (Gao said police have made attempts on his life and harassed his family, and he now faces imminent arrest after releasing two reports in late 2005 on the torture of Falun Gong members and the rights of minorities in Xinjiang province.) Moreover, a clerk from the court visited Pastor Cai to warn him that his sentence would be increased if he “annoyed” judges with an appeal. The defendants appealed anyway, which the court rejected on December 20 (leaving their verdicts and sentences unchanged).

8 – Legal and Physical Assaults in India

In a year of weekly incidents of violence against Christians and the introduction of a bill that could make Rajasthan the sixth state restricting religious conversions in India, the Supreme Court on November 28 deferred – for the third time – ruling on whether Dalit Christians (low-caste “untouchables”) can be denied job and education rights. Dalits belonging to Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh faiths qualify for a government plan that reserves 26 percent of jobs and educational places for them. Under current laws, Dalits who convert to Christianity or Islam lose their reservation privileges. Christian leaders said India ’s 16 million Dalit Christians are extremely frustrated and demoralized by the government’s position. In October, government attorneys had delayed a ruling by telling justices that a commission had been set up to study a broad range of issues surrounding government reservations for Dalits. That commission, which Christian leaders dismissed as a way of stalling the issue, is due to finish its work next year. Additionally, throughout 2005 police routinely refused to register complaints from Christians who were assaulted by Hindu extremists.

9 – Islamization in Northern Nigeria

Christians in Nigeria ’s northern quarters were frequent targets of violence in 2005 as the imposition of sharia in 2001 in 12 states continued to feed Islamic rage. A Muslim militant attack on the Christian community in Demsa village, Adamawa state, on February 4, killed 36 people and displaced about 3,000 others. In Niger state, where Christians make up half of the population, Islamic officials seized Christians’ property, discriminated against them in the public sector, and forced Christian girls to marry Muslims. As of October, nine cases of forceful conversions of Christian girls below the age of 14 were reported to the office of the Niger chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria; many other cases go unreported. State authorities found pretexts to force churches to relocate out of their towns. In Kano state, Christian children were denied admission into public schools, and those that were admitted were forced to study Arabic, Islam, and say Islamic prayers. Christians in Bari Dorayi village built a nursery and primary school for their children, but the government halted construction. The state has recruited 9,000 Muslims, known as Hisba, who have been trained as enforcers of sharia, acting as instruments of coercion, intimidation and harassment. Even in Christian-majority Plateau state, where sharia has not been imposed, Muslims worked for “Islamization” to break the state’s position as a launch point for missions to the north – destroying churches, appointing Muslims into political positions of power and denying Christians land to build churches.

10 – Gruesome Violence in Indonesia

A series of gruesome attacks showed all the signs of attempts by Muslim extremists to provoke Christians into religious war. A bombing on May 28 in the Christian market of Tentena left 22 dead and at least 49 injured. Two witnesses in the ensuing trial were shot dead in Poso district, as was a policeman involved in the investigation. On October 27, another bomb exploded in a Christian bus en route from Aplu to Tentena. In late October in Poso, four teenage girls were assaulted while walking to their Christian high school. Theresia Morangke, Alfita Poliwo and Yarni Sambue were beheaded while a fourth, Noviana Malewa, is still recovering from serious injuries. All three heads were found in plastic bags with a note stating in part, “We will murder 100 more Christian teenagers and their heads will be presented as presents.” Two more schoolgirls – one Christian and one Muslim – were shot on November 8. Machete-wielding assailants attacked three young people, killing one of them, on November 18, and a Christian couple was shot and seriously wounded on November 19. Finally, in Central Sulawesi in the early morning hours of December 31, a bomb explosion in a market of a Christian area of Palu killed eight people and left 56 others injured.