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Compass Direct News’ Top Stories of 2008

1/9/09 India, Nigeria, Eritrea, Somalia, Laos, Iran, China, Pakistan, Egypt, Algeria(CompassDirect)

1 – Hindu Extremists Terrorize Christians in India

In August the murder of a Hindu leader by Maoist militants became the pretext for weeks of terror unleashed on the Christian community in Kandhamal district, in India’s eastern state of Orissa. At least 500 people, mostly Christians, were estimated to have been killed, according to a report by a Communist Party fact-finding team. More than 4,500 houses and churches in the district were destroyed, and 50,000 people were rendered homeless as Hindu extremists slashed and burned through the Christian community, leaving mutilated corpses and charred human remains. From the outset police suspected non-Christian Maoist militants of killing Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and four associates the night of Aug. 23, and on Sept. 1 the Marxists claimed responsibility for the assassinations, but Hindu nationalist groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) blamed local Christians, stoking sentiments that led to the worst anti-Christian violence in modern India.

Saraswati, who had run a campaign against Christian missionaries for several decades, was allegedly behind a spate of anti-Christian attacks in Kandhamal district during the 2007 Christmas season. The violence lasted for more than a week, killing at least four Christians and resulting in the burning of 730 houses and 95 churches.

On Oct. 6 Orissa state police confirmed that Maoists killed Saraswati, a day after the chief of the Orissa unit of the banned Communist Party of India-Maoist, Sabyasachi Panda, told NDTV 24X7 news that his organization was behind the murder. “We left two letters claiming responsibility for the murders. But the [Chief Minister Naveen] Patnaik government suppressed those letters,” Panda said. The Indian Express had reported that three Christians had confessed their involvement – after police tortured them into confessing a crime they did not commit, according to a representative of the Christian Legal Association. Asked if he condemned the violence against Christians, VHP Orissa State President Gauri Prasad Rath told Compass that he categorically did not. “You should ask me to condemn the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and his associates with AK-47s by Christians,” he said. By year’s end, thousands of impoverished Christians remained in squalid conditions in refugee camps, as Hindu extremists continued to threaten followers of Jesus with an ultimatum to convert back to Hinduism or be killed.

2 – Muslims Attack in Jos, Nigeria

Murderous rioting sparked by Muslim attacks on Christians and their property in Jos, Nigeria on Nov. 28-29 left six pastors dead, at least 500 other people killed and 40 churches destroyed, according to church leaders. More than 25,000 persons were displaced in the two days of violence. What began as outrage over suspected vote fraud in local elections quickly hit the religious fault line as angry Muslims took aim at Christian sites rather than at political targets. Police and troops reportedly killed about 400 rampaging Muslims in an effort to quell the unrest, and Islamists shot, slashed or stabbed to death more than 100 Christians.

In the Nov. 27 elections, Muslims in Jos North who suspected vote fraud – specifically, the late arrival of election materials to polling sites – raised a lament, and by 1 a.m. on Nov. 28 Muslim youth had begun burning tires, schools and churches. The killing of non-Muslims followed in the early morning. Commands to defy authorities and join the “jihad” blared from a mosque loudspeaker in the Dilimi area, including instructions to ignore a night-time curfew and attack anew. Christians tried to defend their lives and properties, and non-Muslim youths reportedly began retaliatory attacks on Muslims, mosques and Muslim houses in the early morning. The Nigerian military arrived before noon to try to rein in the mayhem, which continued into the night.

The Most Rev. Ignatius Kaigama, Roman Catholic archbishop of Jos Archdiocese and Plateau state chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), said in a statement that the attacks were carefully planned and executed. “We strongly feel that it was not political but a pre-meditated act under the guise of elections,” Kaigama said. Abuja and northern state chapters of CAN charged that hired terrorists were used to spark the attacks in Jos. In a statement from Archbishop Peter Jatau and Elder Saidu Dogo, CAN said that the terrorists were in police and military uniforms and armed with sophisticated weapons, and that more than 500 of them ended up in police detention cells. “We further discovered that many of these terrorists are non-Nigerians,” they said. “We are equally shocked that the killings and wanton destruction of property were carried out spontaneously in different places. This is an indication that the riot was premeditated and pre-planned and that the perpetrators just hid under the guise of local government elections to execute their long-term plan.” Nigerian authorities confirmed only that 500 persons had been arrested in connection with the violence.

*** Photos of Jos victims and Christian leaders are available electronically. Contact Compass Direct News for pricing and transmittal.

3 – More Suffer in Eritrean Prisons

Imprisoned and tortured for her faith since December 2007, a 37-year-old Christian woman died of malaria in Eritrea’s Wi’a Military Training Center in July after authorities refused to provide treatment for her. Weakened by ongoing torture, Azib Simon contracted malaria only a week before she died. She had attended one of the independent evangelical churches that have been targeted by the country’s Marxist-leaning authoritarian regime. Simon’s death made a total of five Christians confirmed to have died in Eritrean prisons after being tortured for refusing to recant their faith, with at least one other Christian dying of illness in prison later in the year.

On June 8 Compass learned that eight Christians held at the Adi-Quala prison were taken to the medical emergency facilities as a result of torture by military personnel at the camp. Eritrean officials have routinely denied religious oppression exists in the country, saying the government is only enforcing laws against unregistered churches. In May 2002, Eritrea closed down all independent religious groups not operating under the umbrella of the government-sanctioned Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim faiths. The government has denied all efforts by independent Protestant churches to register, and subsequently the Eritrean Orthodox Church and its flourishing renewal movement has also been subject to government raids.

People caught worshipping outside the four recognized religious institutions, even in private homes, suffer arrest, torture and severe pressure to deny their faith, and Eritrean authorities continued large-scale round-ups of Christians throughout the year. On Aug. 5, authorities locked up eight high school students at a military training school in metal shipping containers for objecting to the burning of hundreds of Bibles. The eight male students from the Sawa Defense Training Centre in Sawa were incarcerated after military authorities confiscated more than 1,500 personal Bibles from new students arriving for the academic year. “During the time that the Bibles were set on fire, the chief commander of Sawa, Col. Debesai Ghide, gave a warning to all the students by telling them that Sawa is a place of patriotism, not a place for ‘Pentes’ [Pentecostals],” said one source. Reading the Bible privately, discussing the Christian faith with other students and praying before or after meals alone or in groups is forbidden at the center, the source said. The U.S. Department of State has again designated Eritrea as a Country of Particular Concern, a place on the list of the worst violators of religious freedom, since 2004.

More than 2,000 Christians, including pastors and priests from both Protestant and Orthodox churches, are now under arrest in police stations, military camps and jails across Eritrea because of their religious beliefs. Although many have been incarcerated for months or even years, none have been charged officially or given access to judicial process.

4 – Somali Christians Killed

Among at least 24 aid workers killed in Somalia this year was one who was beheaded for converting from Islam to Christianity, among other charges. Muslim extremists from the al Shabaab group fighting the transitional government on Sept. 23 sliced the head off of Mansuur Mohammed, 25, a humanitarian aid worker, before horrified onlookers of Manyafulka village, 10 kilometers (six miles) from Baidoa. The militants had intercepted Mohammed and a driver, who managed to escape, earlier in the morning. Eyewitnesses said the militants gathered the villagers of Manyafulka, telling them that they would prepare a feast for them. Five masked men emerged, carrying guns, wielding Somali swords and dragging the handcuffed Mohammed. One recited the Quran as he proclaimed that Mohammed was a “murtid,” an Arabic term for one who converts from Islam to Christianity. The Muslim militant announced that Mohammed was an infidel and a spy for occupying Ethiopian soldiers, while the captive remained calm with an expressionless face, never uttering a word. As the chanting of “Allahu Akbar [God is greater]” rose to a crescendo, one of the militiamen twisted his head, allowing the other to slit his neck. When the head was finally severed from the torso, the killers cheered as they displayed it to the petrified crowd.

Unconfirmed reports indicated that a similar incident took place in Lower Juba province of Somalia in July, when Christians found with Bibles were publicly executed. Their families fled to Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, but Christians were hardly safe at such camps. A Somali Christian put in a Dadaab refugee camp police cell for defending his family against Islamic zealots was released in December only after Christians helped raise the 20,000 Kenya shilling fine (US$266) that a camp “court” demanded for his conversion dishonoring Islam and its prophet, Muhammad. On Oct. 13, five Muslim youths had knocked on Salat Sekondo Mberwa’s sheet-iron gate, threatening to kill him as an “enemy of the Islamic religion.” He and his son managed to fight them off, for which he was jailed. After his release, as he was resting at home on Nov. 26, Islamists in the camp returned, shot him in the shoulder and left him for dead. He and other refugees told of hired Muslim gangs in Somalia raping and killing converts, denying them access to water and, in the refugee camp, burning their homes. Another refugee in Dadaab, Binti Ali Bilal, recounted an attack in Lower Juba, Somalia. The 40-year-old mother of 10 children was fetching firewood with her 23-year-old daughter, Asha Ibrahim Abdalla, on April 15 in Yontoy when a group from al Shabaab approached them and asked if they were Christians. “We openly said that we were Christians,” she said. “They began beating us. My son who is 10 years old ran away screaming. My daughter then was six months pregnant. They hit me at the ribs before dragging us into the bush. They raped us repeatedly and held us captive for five days.” The Muslim extremists left them there to die, she said. Found by her husband, Bilal and her daughter were taken to the Dadaab refugee camp in May, where her daughter gave birth to a baby in ill health. The mother still suffers after-birth related diseases, with pain in her abdomen and chest. She was weak and worried that she may have contracted HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus.

5 – Mass Arrests in Laos

Authorities in Laos detained or arrested at least 90 Christians in three provinces in June, July and August, including an arrest on Aug. 3 of a pastor and two other believers from a house church in Boukham village, Savannakhet province. Arrests were reported in the southern provinces of Saravan and Savannakhet and in Luang Prabang province in the north. In one incident on July 21, Compass sources said officials detained 80 Christians in Katin village, Saravan province, after residents seized a Christian neighbor identified only as Pew and poured rice wine down his throat, killing him by asphyxiation. When mourning family members buried the Christian and put a wooden cross on the grave, village officials accused them of “practicing the rituals of the enemy of the state” and seized a buffalo and pig from the family as a fine.

On July 25, according to Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom, officials rounded up 17 of the 20 Christian families in the village – a total of 80 men, women and children – and detained them in a local school compound, denying them food for three days in an attempt to force the adults to sign documents renouncing their faith. Laotian officials had arrested 15 Hmong Christian families in Bokeo district on February 22, a day before a court sentenced nine area Hmong church leaders to 15 years in prison for conducting Christian ministry and meetings that had grown beyond acceptable levels. The day before the sentencing, Laotian authorities arrived in Ban Sai Jarern village in Bokeo district with six trucks in which they hauled away eight Christian families. Authorities also arrested at least seven families from Fai village three miles away. “It seems they are rounding up all Hmong Christians from Vietnam to send them back to Vietnam,” said one Christian source. “What will happen to them is greatly feared and unknown.” The nine church leaders sentenced for conducting prominent Christian ministry and meetings had been rounded up during a police and military sweep of suspected rebels in July 2007 that left at least 13 innocent Christians dead.

In October Lao officials released three prisoners from Boukham village after several weeks of detention, but restrictions on Christian worship in the village were still in force. Pastor Sompong Supatto, 32, and two other believers, Boot Chanthaleuxay, 18, and Khamvan Chanthaleuxay, also 18, were released on Oct. 16 after they were held in handcuffs and wooden foot-stocks. Police initially said they would not release the men until they renounced their faith.

6 – Iran Threatens Mandatory Death for ‘Apostates’

With the Iranian Parliament considering a new penal code that would mandate capital punishment for “apostates,” or those who leave Islam, Christian converts detained in waves of arrests awaited their fates with heightened anxiety. In September an Iranian judge ordered the release of two pastors charged with apostasy, but the defendants said the ruling was based on the court’s false claim that they confessed to having never converted to Christianity. Mahmoud Matin Azad, 52, said he and Arash Basirat, 44, never denied their Christian faith and believe the court statement resulted from the judge seeking a face-saving solution to avoid convicting them of apostasy. Azad and Basirat were arrested May 15 and acquitted on Sept. 25 by the Fars Criminal Court in Shiraz. A court document obtained by human rights organization Amnesty International stated, “Both had denied that they had converted to Christianity and said that they remain Muslim, and accordingly the court found no further evidence to the contrary.” Azad vehemently denied the official court statement, saying the notion of him being a Muslim never even came up during the trial. Upon his release, Azad said that no reason was given for the court freeing him and Basirat. Disputing the court’s claim, Azad said that he told his attorney, “Two things I will never say. First, I will not lie; second, I will not deny Jesus my Lord and my Savior.”

Observers speculated that the court misstating that the two men said they were Muslims likely resulted from political pressure. International condemnation of Iran’s apostasy law and of the proposed mandatory death penalty for those who leave Islam came as Iran faced new rounds of U.N. economic sanctions for uranium enrichment. On Sept. 9 the Iranian Parliament had approved the new penal code calling for a mandatory death sentence for apostates by a vote of 196-7, but the individual section of the penal code containing the apostasy bill had yet to be passed for it to go into law.

The two released men said they worry that their acquittal could be a tactic by the Iranian government to wait for them to re-engage in Christian activity and arrest them again. There is another concern that the government is relying on forces outside the law to punish them, as some believe has happened in the past. The last case of an apostasy conviction in Iran was that of Christian convert Mehdi Dibaj in 1994. Following his release, however, Dibaj and four other Protestant pastors, including converts and those working with converts, were brutally murdered.

*** A photo of Mahmoud Matin Azad is available electronically. Contact Compass Direct News for pricing and transmittal.

7 – Olympics Spotlight China’s Human Rights Abuses

As the Olympics drew to a close in August, new evidence of religious freedom abuses in China surfaced. While hiring religious clerics to provide services and publishing a special bilingual edition of the Bible for distribution to athletes and official churches during the event, Chinese officials asked house church leaders in Beijing to sign documents agreeing not to hold services during the Games. In the lead-up to the Games, officials asked a number of house church pastors to sign a document agreeing to forego any activities at “Christian gathering sites” or meeting points during the athletic events, according to China Aid Association. Under this agreement, house churches were banned from gathering from July 15 to October 15, a total of 17 weeks. Those who broke the agreement would face “disciplinary action.” The agreement asked that house churches “refrain from organizing and joining illegal gatherings and refrain from receiving donations, sermons and preaching from overseas religious organizations and groups that have a purpose.”

The Union of Catholic Asian News confirmed in a report on August 7 that officials had forbidden bishops and priests in unregistered Catholic churches to administer sacraments or do pastoral work during the Games. Officials placed several underground bishops under house arrest and forbade them to contact their priests, the report added. In Wuqiu village of Jinxian county, Hebei, police erected a small “house” in front of the cathedral presided over by underground Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo in order to provide a facility for 24-hour monitoring of the bishop.

Prior to the Games, police banned several Christians from meeting with visiting U.S. government officials and asked others to leave Beijing for the duration of the event. Police in July repeatedly asked house church pastor Zhang Mingxuan and his wife Xie Fenlang to leave Beijing. When they refused, police on July 18 entered a guesthouse where they were staying and drove them to Yanjiao in neighboring Hebei province. When Zhang granted an interview to BBC journalist John Simpson, police detained Zhang and Xie before the interview could take place. On August 10, police seized house church pastor and activist Hua Huiqi when he attempted to participate in a service at the government-approved Juanjie Protestant church in Beijing, where U.S. President George Bush was scheduled to appear. Hua, still in hiding, wrote a letter to Bush later that day, pleading for prayer for his personal safety and for freedom of belief for all Chinese people.

8 – Pakistan Kidnapping Turns into Custody Battle

Muslim men in Pakistan kidnapped and forcibly converted two girls, 10 and 13, in Chawk Munda, a small town in south Punjab, resulting in a bizarre custody battle under the country’s sharia (Islamic law)-influenced legal system. One of the men married 13-year-old Saba Masih a day after the June 26 kidnapping of her and her younger sister, Aneela. The girls had been abducted while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Muhammad Arif Bajwa and the man who married Saba Masih, Amjad Ali, registered a case with police on June 28 for custody based on the girls’ alleged conversion to Islam. Local residents regarded the men as serial kidnappers with connections to a human trafficking ring. “They are in the business of prostitution and only wanted to use these girls for their business,” said Akbar Durrani, attorney for the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement.

In a July 12 ruling, District and Sessions Court Judge Main Naeem Sardar awarded custody of the girls to the kidnappers based on Saba Masih’s testimony that she was 17 and had converted to Islam. According to a strict interpretation of Islamic law, a non-Muslim cannot have custody of a Muslim child. In a July 29 hearing, Judge Saghir Ahmed said he did not believe the girls converted to Islam of their own volition and ordered them to be sent to a government women’s shelter. On Sept. 9 a judge allowed Saba Masih to choose whether or not she would return to her family, even though Pakistani law prohibits underage girls from either marrying or changing their religion.

Mysteriously dismissing Saba Masih’s birth certificate and baptismal record that showed her age as 13, the judge determined that she was 17 based on her testimony and a report by a medical board, which had inflated her estimated age after receiving threats from Muslim groups. Under the kidnappers’ threats that they would harm her family if she left, Saba Masih declined to return, insisting that she was a Muslim. The older sister has not been willing to meet with any of the family members or her parents, said Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “It’s normal behavior,” he told Compass. “She was tutored and brainwashed by the family of her husband Ali, and naturally they made up her mind that her parents will hurt her and treat her inhumanely. In fact that will never happen.”

In a partial victory, however, on Sept. 9 Aneela Masih was returned to her family, claiming that the kidnappers threatened to kill them and their family if they did not do everything asked of them. Kidnapping of Christians in the Muslim-majority nation of 170 million is not uncommon, as many captors believe they will not be convicted if caught due to the penal code’s reliance on sharia, which grants non-Muslims second-class status in society. At year’s end lawyers for the Christian parents were still battling for custody of the 13-year-old girl.

*** Photos of Aneela Masih are available electronically. Contact Compass Direct News for pricing and transmittal.

9 – Unprecedented Bid to Officially Convert in Egypt Fails

In a blow to religious freedom in Egypt, a Cairo court ruled against a Muslim convert to Christianity who requested that his religious affiliation be changed. Judge Muhammad Husseini said in a verdict on Jan. 29 that it was against Islamic law for a Muslim to leave Islam, a legal representative for convert Muhammad Hegazy said. “He can believe whatever he wants in his heart, but on paper he can’t convert,” Husseini told the administrative court, according to the member of Hegazy’s legal team. Husseini based his decision on Article II of the Egyptian constitution, which makes Islamic law, or sharia, the source of Egyptian law. The judge said that, according to sharia, Islam is the final and most complete religion and therefore Muslims already practice full freedom of religion and cannot return to an older belief (Christianity or Judaism).

“What happened is a violation of my basic rights,” Hegazy told the US Copts Association following the hearing. “What does the state have to do with the religion I embrace?” Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information whose lawyers represented the convert, said, “The judge didn’t listen to our defense, and we didn’t even have a chance to talk before the court.”

Death threats have forced Hegazy, his wife and their baby daughter into hiding since the trial hit news headlines in 2007. Though a number of Muslims convert to Christianity each year, the social stigma of leaving Islam has forced most to conceal their decision. The religious designation of “Muslim” on their official ID compels these converts to lead double lives, marrying under sharia and receiving Islamic religious instruction in school. Hegazy’s open declaration of conversion last August, the first of its kind in modern Egypt, caused public outcry. In January, Hegazy’s father told an Egyptian paper that he would kill his son if he did not return to Islam. “When I see my son, I will give him a chance to return to Islam,” the Muslim told Al-Masry al-Youm on Jan. 25. If his son refused, he said, “I will kill him with my own hands, I will shed his blood publicly.”

*** Photographs of Muhammad Hegazy and Gamal Eid are available electronically. Contact Compass Direct News for pricing and transmittal.

10 – Algeria Enforces Law Choking Religious Freedom

In 2008 Algeria stepped up enforcement of a February 2006 presidential decree that restricts religious worship to government-approved buildings and outlaws any attempt to convert Muslims to another faith. Known as Ordinance 06-03, the law resulted in the closures of churches and criminal charges against Christians for practicing their faith. Algeria’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but loose terminology in its penal code – such as Article 144, which calls for up to five years of prison for “anyone who offends the Prophet [Muhammad] and denigrates the tenets of Islam” – allowed judges to give Islamic practice the force of law. The 2006 law appears to contradict Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Algeria is a signatory and which provides the right to manifest one’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching. Algerian media produced a wave of articles decrying “evangelization campaigns” said to undermine Algeria’s political unity.

On June 6, some 30 U.S. congressmen sent a letter to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika addressing human rights violations resulting from Ordinance 06-03, and by the end of the year negative international media attention and government condemnations appeared to have softened the zeal and scale of the Algerian government’s crackdown. A court in Ain El-Turck in northwestern Algeria on Oct. 29 acquitted three Christians charged with blaspheming Islam and with threatening a member of their congregation who re-converted to Islam. The defendants said the judge’s decision to acquit was due to the spurious evidence against them and international pressure. Algerian courts handed several suspended sentences to local evangelicals in 2008 under the 2006 law against proselytizing Muslims, but no Christian served prison time on religious charges.

Youssef Ourahmane, Rachid Muhammad Essaghir, and a third man were charged in February with “blaspheming the name of the Prophet [Muhammad] and Islam” and threatening the life of the man who claimed to have converted to Christianity but who “returned” to Islam when his fundamentalist ties were exposed. Essaghir had received three sentences, one for blasphemy and two for evangelism, after police stopped him and another man in June 2007 while transporting Christian literature. As a result they were convicted in absentia in November 2007 and given a two-year sentence and 5,000-euro fines. The Protestants requested a retrial, and the charges were dropped at a hearing in June.

The three acquitted men are just a few of the Algerian Christians who have come under legal heat in a wave of trials this year against the country’s tiny evangelical church. Habiba Kouider, facing a three-year sentence after police stopped her while she was carrying several Christian books, was kicked out of her family’s home. Kouider’s brothers learned about her conversion to Christianity after her case sparked national and international media attention. Though no Christian has yet served jail time on religious charges, several still on trial or appealing their convictions have said that negative publicity has damaged their businesses and family life. Chaban Beikel, a pastry maker, was fired after his boss discovered that he was one of four Protestants convicted of evangelism in Tiaret city in June. Handing down suspended sentences allows the government to save face before human rights advocates by showing its prison cells empty of Christian “convicts,” Algerian observers said.

*** A photo of Rachid Muhammad Essaghir is available electronically. Contact Compass Direct News for pricing and transmittal.