Friday, March 2, 2012

No Justice One Year after Assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti

By Dan Wooding
Founder of ASSIST Ministries

KHUSHPUR, PUNJAB, PAKISTAN (ANS) -- Friday (March 2, 2012) marks the first anniversary of the brutal killing of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, who was shot by Islamist extremists on March 2, 2011 for his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws and his support of a Christian blasphemy defendant, Asia Bibi.

Shahbaz Bhatti in Washington in February 2011. He gained the respect of world leaders (Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty)
According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a UK-based human rights group, a memorial for Shahbaz Bhatti is being held Friday in his home village of Khushpur, Punjab.

“This will be followed a few days later by another event in Islamabad and attendees are expected to include political colleagues and members of the diplomatic community, with whom Bhatti had forged close links. Pakistani Christians in the UK and around the world are also marking the anniversary,” said a spokesperson for CSW.

Mervyn Thomas, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) Chief Executive said, “We pay tribute to our friend Shahbaz, whom we miss dearly, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this time. We continue to draw inspiration from his commitment both as a grassroots activist and a politician, not to mention his faith. He was utterly committed to making justice and equality a reality in the lives of Pakistan’s minorities.”

Bhatti’s killers are yet to be caught, and announcements from the investigative team have thus far been overshadowed by inconsistency and speculation, including in the most recent arrests in February. Bhatti’s long-term friends and associates at the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), which he co-founded in 2002, are recommending that all memorial events should highlight the lack of progress in the hunt for his killers, stating that “a mockery has been made of the investigation”.

The funeral for Shahbaz Bhatti was held in his remote village; still, 20,000 Christians came and showered rose petals on his coffin.
APMA continues to call for a judicial commission of inquiry to be established, as was done in the case of murdered journalist Shahzad Saleem.

Mervyn Thomas added, “It is crucial that his murder investigation reaches a satisfactory conclusion, not only to do justice and honour the memory of Shahbaz himself, but also to make it clear that the rule of law still means something in Pakistan. At stake is the ability and willingness of the Pakistani state to stand up against those taking justice into their own hands, including those who target religious minorities with confidence that they will never be held to account.”

Note: Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) is a Christian organization working for religious freedom through advocacy and human rights, in the pursuit of justice.

For further information or to arrange interviews please contact Kiri Kankhwende, Press Officer at Christian Solidarity Worldwide on +44 20 8329 0045 / +44 78 2332 9663, email or visit

Notes to Editors:

1. CSW’s briefing -- Pakistan: Religious freedom in the shadow of extremism, examines how rising religious extremism in Pakistan has catapulted some of the country’s primary religious freedom concerns into the public consciousness, in a context relevant to Pakistanis of all faiths; two examples of this have been the assassinations of prominent politicians Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer for their opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws.

2. Although a candlelit procession and vigil will be held in Islamabad today, the main memorial event was not scheduled for the day of the anniversary because it coincides with Pakistan’s Senate elections. This round of elections will be the first to include four seats for religious minorities, one from each province, a measure secured by Shahbaz Bhatti while he was minister.
3. For further details about the life of Shahbaz Bhatti, see his obituary ( written by CSW’s Annabelle Bentham.

Dan Wooding, 71, is an award winning British journalist now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for 48 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. He is the founder and international director of ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times) and the ASSIST News Service (ANS) and was, for ten years, a commentator, on the UPI Radio Network in Washington, DC. He now hosts the weekly “Front Page Radio” show on KWVE in Southern California which is also carried throughout the United States. The program is also aired in Great Britain on Calvary Chapel Radio UK and also in Belize and South Africa. Besides this, Wooding is a host for His Channel Live, which is carried via the Internet to some 192 countries and also provides a regular commentary for Worship Life Radio on KWVE. You can follow Dan Wooding on Facebook under his name there or at ASSIST News Service. Dan has recently received two top media awards -- the Passion for the Persecuted award from Open Doors US, and one of the top "Newsmakers of 2011" from Plain Trust magazine. He is the author of some 44 books, one of which is his autobiography, “From Tabloid to Truth”, which is published by Theatron Books. To order a copy, press this link. Wooding, who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, has also recently released his first novel “Red Dagger” which is available this link.

** You may republish this story with proper attribution.

BBC Chief Admits Christianity ‘gets less sensitive treatment than other religions’

By Michael Ireland
Senior International Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

LONDON, UK (ANS) -- Mark Thompson, director-general of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has claimed Christianity is treated with far less sensitivity than other religions because it is ‘pretty broad shouldered.’

Mark Thompson, outgoing director-general of the BBC, outside the White City studios of the BBC in London (Photo from BBC website).
In an article in the Mail Online, the London Daily Mail newspaper’s web presence  , reporter Paul Revoir says the BBC chief “suggested other faiths have a ‘very close identity with ethnic minorities’, and were therefore covered in a far more careful way by broadcasters.”

Revoir reports that Thompson also revealed that producers had to consider the possibilities of ‘violent threats’ instead of polite complaints if they pushed ahead with certain types of satire.

According to the Mail Online article, Thompson said: ‘Without question, “I complain in the strongest possible terms”, is different from, “I complain in the strongest possible terms and I am loading my AK47 as I write”. This definitely raises the stakes.’

Revoir says Thompson added that religion as a whole should never receive the same ‘protection and sensitivity’ in the law as race.

The Mail Online article says Thompson was making his comments during a wide-ranging interview about faith and broadcasting, which included the furor provoked by the BBC’s decision to screen the controversial show Jerry Springer: The Opera on BBC2 in 2005.

At that time, hundreds of Christians rallied outside BBC buildings before and during the broadcast to protest about what they saw as blasphemous scenes such as Jesus Christ wearing a nappy, the Mail Online reported.

The Mail Online article said that at least 45,000 people contacted the BBC to complain about swearing and its irreverent treatment of Christian themes. Many said that no one would have dreamed of making such a show about the Prophet Mohammed and Islam.

Revoir reported that: “Thompson has now appeared belatedly to accept their argument. In an interview, he said Islam was ‘almost entirely’ practiced by people who already may feel in other ways ‘isolated’, ‘prejudiced against’ and who may regard an attack on their religion as ‘racism by other means’.”

Thompson said that “Christianity was ‘an established part of our cultural-built landscape’ which meant it was ‘a pretty broad- shouldered religion,’ ” the newspaper website reported.

Revoir wrote that Thompson conceded the broadcaster would never have aired a similar show about Mohammed because it could have had the same impact as a piece of ‘grotesque child pornography’.

In the interview posted online for the Free Speech Debate – a research project at Oxford University – Thompson said: “The kind of constraints that most people accept around racial hatred, the fact that it may be in certain forms of expression or certain forms of depiction, may be outlawed because of the way in which they go to racial hatred and potentially the promotion and incitement of racial hatred.

“I think religion should never receive that level of protection or sensitivity,” he said.
“But I think it is wrong to imagine that it therefore goes into the general swim and that a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed is no more challenging than a debate about what two plus two equals.”

He added: ‘The point is that for a Muslim, a depiction, particularly a comic or demeaning depiction, of the Prophet Mohammed might have the emotional force of a piece of grotesque child pornography.

“One of the mistakes secularists make is not to understand the character of what blasphemy feels like to someone who is a realist in their religious belief.”

The Mail Online report says that, when asked by his interviewer, the historian Timothy Garton Ash, if it was the case that the BBC wouldn’t dream of airing something ‘comparably satirical’ as Jerry Springer: The Opera about Mohammed, he said: “Essentially the answer to that question is yes.”

He added: “The idea you might want to… think quite carefully about whether something done, in quotes, in the name of freedom of expression, might to the Jew, or the Sikh, or the Hindu, or the Muslim, who receives it, feel threatening, isolating and so forth, I think those are meaningful considerations.”

The Mail Online report goes on to say that Thompson, who is expected to leave his job after the 2012 Olympics in Britain, said he was a ‘practicing Catholic’ who believed that the ‘truths of the Christian faith’ were objective rather than subjective.

He said had never watched Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ or Monty Python’s The Life of Brian because he was ‘quite personally sensitive to mockery of religious images’.

But the Mail Online reports he said this did not mean that he was against either film being broadcast, adding that the best advice if you thought something might offend you was not to watch it.

However, he had no problem with the decision to show Jerry Springer: The Opera, and ‘thoroughly enjoyed it’.

In the conclusion to the Mail Online article, Revoir quotes Thompson as saying the fatwa against Salman Rushdie over his novel The Satanic Verses, the September 11 terror attacks, and the murder in Holland in 2004 of film-maker Theo van Gogh, who had criticized Islam, had made broadcasters realize that religious controversies could lead to murder or serious criminal acts.

** Michael Ireland is the Senior International Correspondent for ANS. He is an international British freelance journalist who was formerly a reporter with a London (United Kingdom) newspaper and has been a frequent contributor to UCB UK, a British Christian radio station. While in the UK, Michael traveled to Canada and the United States, Albania,Yugoslavia, Holland, Germany,and Czechoslovakia. He has reported for ANS from Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Israel, Jordan, China,and Russia. Michael's volunteer involvement with ASSIST News Service is a sponsored ministry department -- 'Michael Ireland Media Missionary' (MIMM) -- of A.C.T. International of P.O.Box 1649, Brentwood, TN 37024-1649, at: Artists in Christian Testimony (A.C.T.) International where you can make a donation online under 'Donate' tab, then look for 'Michael Ireland Media Missionary' under 'Donation Category' to support his stated mission of 'Truth Through Christian Journalism.' Michael is a member in good standing of the National Writers Union, Society of Professional Journalists, Religion Newswriters Association, Evangelical Press Association and International Press Association. If you have a news or feature story idea for Michael, please contact him at: ANS Senior International Reporter

** You may republish this story with proper attribution.

Indonesia: saying "NO" to Islamic Intolerance

-- specifically to the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI)

By Elizabeth Kendal

Something happened in Palangkaraya, the provincial capital of Central Kalimantan, on Saturday 11February 2012 that may prove pivotal for Indonesia. While it was not the first time Indonesian moderates, reformists, human rights activists and peace-loving citizens have taken a stand against Islamic intolerance, it was an inspirational victory.

On 11 February, four prominent leaders of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI: Front Pembela Islam) flew into Central Kalimantan from Jakarta to inaugurate their organisation in Palangkaraya. Upon landing, however, the FPI delegation -- which included FPI founder, Saudi-educated Habib Rizieq -- was blocked by a crowd of around 800 locals, mostly indigenous Dayaks, at Palangkaraya's Tjilik Riwut Airport.

After first staging a street protest -- displaying banners at strategic locations and railing against the FPI and its plans to open an office in the city -- the protestors met up at Tjilik Riwut Airport in time to besiege the FPI leaders on their plane. According to Tempo Interactive, "The residents said they did not want the organization, which often uses violence, to enter their area."

The protestors forced their way onto the runway to confront the FPI officials, causing air traffic to be disrupted for over three hours. They dispersed only after airport officials convinced them that the FPI members would not be permitted to disembark and would travel on to another destination.

The Jakarta Globe headline on 16 February was a classic: "Could Palangkaraya Be Our Rosa Parks' Moment in the War Against Violence?" According to Jakarta Globe correspondent Pangeran Siahaan, "The people of Palangkaraya believe violence, which the FPI advocates, is intolerable and they found FPI’s presence in their city as a threat to society. The residents were successful in ousting the FPI, as the FPI officers . . . fled without stepping off their plane."

From Palangkaraya to Jakarta . . .

As Peter Alford, Jakarta correspondent for The Australian comments, "Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) bullying is so rarely confronted that the spectacle of its officials being almost literally run out of town in Central Kalimantan last weekend grabbed national attention.

"Civil society activists in the national capital, where the hard-liners wield their strongest influence, have tried to seize upon FPI's momentary discomfiture to galvanise a 'Movement for an FPI-free Indonesia'."

Jakarta's 'Movement for an FPI-free Indonesia' held its inaugural public demonstration at the Hotel Indonesia (HI) traffic circle on 14 February. "If Kalimantan can do it, Jakarta can also do it," activist spokeswoman Tunggal Pawestri told the Jakarta Globe.

The Jakarta Globe's Pangeran Siahaan attended the demonstration, which he says was inspired by the courage, determination and principle on display in Palangkaraya and fuelled by the same spirit.

"Everybody," writes Siahaan, "has said that they’re fed up with the unlawful behavior of such organizations, but nothing had been done publicly to declare a war against violence and intolerance until the citizens of Palangkaraya stood up and their voices reached the people of Jakarta. Driven by the same spirit and anger caused by the government’s leniency towards violence, I joined the protest rally at the HI traffic circle. It was a peaceful event as the protesters unfurled banners and posters while chanting, 'Indonesia Damai! Tanpa FPI! Tanpa Kekerasan' ('Peace in Indonesia! Without FPI! Without Violence!')."

Siahaan despairs that when FPI militants disrupted the protest and began assaulting some of the protestors, the police chose to shepherd the protestors, rather than the attackers, away from the HI traffic circle, supposedly for safety reasons. 

"What a bucket of nonsense," rails Siahaan, "because what’s the purpose of the police’s being there if not to prevent harm to the rally attendants?"

Vivi Widyawati, a coordinator with the "Movement for an FPI-free Indonesia" said the Jakarta rally was intended to widen opposition to the hardline group following the Dayaks’ 11 February protest at Palangkaraya airport.

. . . to Surabaya and beyond

And as Megawati Wijaya reports for Asia Times, opposition to the FPI iswidening. "The anti-FPI movement spread to Surabaya, another major metropolitan area where people referring to themselves as 'Surabaya Residents Against Violence' held a similar rally on February 17. Although the group did not specifically refer to the FPI in its addresses promoting non-violence, yells of 'Indonesia without FPI, Indonesia without violence' could be heard from the gathered mass, according to local press reports."

In order to maintain momentum, Jakarta's "Movement for an FPI-free Indonesia" is planning to take the battle online using Twitter, blogging and other social media tools. Bhagavad Sambada, one of the movement's founders, is confident: "The snowball has rolled and it is getting bigger. The movement will be more widespread and will be unstoppable."

The FPI has slammed the movement as a "Western-funded plot".


FPI files reports to police over hostile Palangkaraya welcome
Dicky Christanto, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Mon, 02/13/2012 11:54 AM

No love shown to the FPI
Bagus BT Saragih, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Wed, 02/15/2012

FPI and the Government: Best Friends?
by Calvin Michel Sidjaja, Jakarta Globe, 21 Feb 2012

Pakistan government fails to protect religious minorities says Amnesty

The Pakistan Government has failed to protect religious minorities from systematic campaigns of violence and vilification, Amnesty International said yesterday (1 March) on the first anniversary of the assassination of Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti.
The only Christian member of the federal cabinet and one of a handful of Pakistan’s leading politicians to call for changes to the country's controversial blasphemy laws, Bhatti died after armed men opened fire on his car as he travelled to work in the capital, Islamabad.
Although Shahbaz’s brother Dr Paul Bhatti was made a special adviser to the President for religious minorities after his death, no one has replaced him as Minister for Minorities.
Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific director at Amnesty International, said:“Pakistani officials should honour Bhatti’s legacy by challenging the systematic campaign of vilification and attacks on minorities.
“The ministerial post remains vacant at this critical time, a sad reflection of the government’s inaction in the face of continued violence against minorities.
“A year has passed since Bhatti was assassinated yet the perpetrators remain at large with no clear sign that they will be brought to justice any time soon.”
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for killing Bhatti over his criticism of the country’s blasphemy laws – British-era criminal sanctions that were amended in the 1980s under the rule of General Zia ul Haq, making it an offence to defile the Quran or Prophet Muhammad punishable by life imprisonment or death respectively.
Religious minorities have been disproportionately accused of blasphemy, but the largest proportion of victims are mainstream Muslims, reflecting the danger these laws pose to all members of Pakistani society and the rule of law.
In 2009, a year after replacing military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, the current government pledged to review “laws detrimental to religious harmony,” which includes the blasphemy laws.
But the government fell silent after former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated in January last year by one of his own security guards over his criticism of the blasphemy laws.
Sam Zarifi, said: “After Taseer’s assassination, Minister Bhatti remained resolute in his criticisms.
“Since Bhatti’s death, the Pakistan government has allowed itself to be intimidated into silence. Pakistani officials must break that silence and speak out against those who seek to harm others because of their religion.”
This year a coalition of extremist and militant religious groups has openly called for the murder of Shi’a and some Sufi Muslims, Ahmadis and Christians, and have held large rallies across Pakistan’s major cities.
On Tuesday 28 February, 18 Shi’a Muslims were brutally shot dead in the Kohistan district of Pakistan’s north-west, after the perpetrators stopped their bus and singled them out from other passengers because of their religion.
Amnesty says the Pakistani government must do all it can to protect its citizens regardless of their religious background, especially where perpetrators candidly speak of committing violence against them.
Sam Zarifi, said: “The failure to bring Bhatti’s killers to justice or protect the most vulnerable citizens from violence while extremist groups publicly call for them to be killed tells the perpetrators of abuses that they will go unpunished if they disguise their crimes as the protection of religious sentiments, even when the targets are senior government officials.
“Violence against religious minorities is leading to a breakdown in the rule of law and increased tension within Pakistan’s diverse society."
He concluded, “The Pakistan government must take urgent, concrete measures to improve the quality of police investigation, and reform laws like those on blasphemy that promote abuses against religious minorities.”

A ministry team employs an unusual strategy in India

India (MNN) ― Disruptive violence against evangelists, pastors, and church gatherings continues to occur on a monthly basis in India, usually where the Christians live and work in remote or rural areas.

Mainly, the troublemakers are organized by extremist Hindu organizations who believe that those belonging to other faiths have no place in India and should be forced to leave.

According to Open Doors, it is likely that there's a higher degree of persecution because of the success Christianity is having among the low castes and untouchables, or Dalits. It means a loss of influence and power to Hindu leaders.

With the likelihood of rising oppression, Dave Stravers with Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Mission India asks, "How do you engage in this battle in a way that will break down the barriers and enable people to understand what Jesus can mean for their life?"

India's secularism may be critical to answering that question. Stravers explains that "India has never been more open to the Gospel than now. The growth of churches has really stirred up some of these activists. We have a ministry in India that's doing this in a really effective way, and it seems to completely disarm the opponents."

Their strategy is unusual, Stravers admits. "How can you use children to fight a spiritual battle? That's the question." That's especially important when you consider that for the average family helped by Mission India, grinding poverty is a major problem. 40% of India's population under five is malnourished; a staggering 72% of Indian children never attend high school, and there are 60 million child laborers.

You start with education. Mission India has Bible Clubs and many other programs that build on relationship in the community. "There are literally tens of thousands of Christian volunteers that want to do this. They go every day, two hours a day, and  they get this relationship with the kids and then with their parents. We have many converts, and in most cases, we end up with a new church."

Teachers that run the clubs are trained from the local churches. Mission India provides all of the materials and training. Stravers says they're not shy about who they are and what they're about. Even so, "Hindu and Muslim parents are very willing for their children to attend these clubs because they know Christians have a reputation for education, and they know their kids need this kind of help if they're going to succeed in school."

So, when word gets out that a club is starting, there's immediately a throng of eager participants. "Children come after school to meet in a location. A Christian teacher from some nearby church tutors them in their lessons, leads them in some games, tells Bible stories, helps with learning memory verses, and sings songs." Most of these kids take their new material home, sing the songs, and otherwise live out the lessons they're learning. On more than one occasion, says Stravers, that has resulted in the parents coming to Christ, too.

Even though Christians are bracing for increasing persecution in the future, that's having very little effect on the zeal following this program. "The demand is four or five times what we can provide. It only costs a dollar to bring a child through one of our 10-Day Clubs." Stravers goes on to say they have to turn away thousands of churches for lack of funding, which supports training and resourcing.

However, their teams can't afford to stop. A future body of Christ hangs in the balance. "India has 350 million children under the age of 14, more than the entire population of the United States. The remarkable thing is that it's the Hindu children and the Muslim children who are the most eager to participate."

Learn more on our homepage in the Featured Links Section.

What Russia's election will mean for the church

(Photo by Lyn Gateley. Cover photo
 courtesy of the World Economic Forum.)

Russia (MNN) ― No one really seems to be arguing the idea that Vladimir Putin will become Russia's next president this Sunday, March 4. Despite numerous protests, most news sources and other Russian insiders have all but declared Putin the winner.

When asked if it was possible that another of the four candidates could take office, Joel Griffith with Slavic Gospel Association replies, "Honestly, I would be really surprised if something like that were to happen."

Regardless of whether or not Putin is who the country wants, the question thus becomes: What will happen when he takes office?
The biggest fear for many Christians in any power change worldwide is that the church might have fewer freedoms. This fear is especially heightened in the former Soviet Union, of which Russia is a part.

"In the former Soviet central Asian countries--like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and the like--we've seen tremendous crackdowns the past few years against religious groups and evangelical churches," says Joel Griffith.

Even more disconcerting is that those crackdowns tend to be somewhat contagious across Central Asia, in particular. 

When amendments are made to a religion law in one country, similar amendments may follow in a neighboring nation. 

Russia has been able to stay relatively free, but there is awareness of these goings-on nearby.

"Our prayer is that Russia would certainly not go down that route, but that the churches would remain free and able to worship and proclaim their faith freely," notes Griffith.

The church in Russia is just praying for the best, says Griffith. Many are nervous that religious freedom could be jeopardized, but most choose to lay low on the political scene and maintain an optimistic outlook.

"They typically don't get really exercised about political things. They just do what they do. They remember what it was like to live under communist oppression, and the Lord brought them through that and opened a tremendous door for the Gospel when the wall came down. It's no different now."

It's hard to predict what may happen, and so for now, the church continues on its business as usual. In fact, the distress over the elections for many Russians may even be opening doors to share Christ.

"I think any time of transition and change is an open door for the Gospel because people are really doing a lot of soul searching during these times."

Pray that the result of this election would mainly be opportunities. 

Colombian rebels disrupt evangelistic work

Colombia (VCM/MNN) ―Although Colombia's Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has had to alter the war against the state, they're no less disruptive.

Recent media reports indicate the numbers have dropped dramatically. From what was an estimated 20,000 soldiers, the number now seems closer to 8,000, which means loss of control over populated territory.

That doesn't lessen the threat of disruption, though. The FARC guerrilla group prevented an evangelist with the Voice Of the Martyrs, "Rolo," from entering La Macarena region in Colombia with radios, Bibles and Christian books, a report confirmed by both Voice of the Martyrs offices in the U.S. and Canada.

A VOM worker in the area reported that members of the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary guerrilla organization are closing the churches and burning the buses of those attempting to enter the area.

Add in efforts to raise funds that keep both the leftist guerrillas and the right-wing paramilitary groups functioning, and the result is drug trafficking, ransom kidnapping and general lawlessness.

Most of the trouble comes from the alliances that exist between non-Christian indigenous population and paramilitaries. Christians who openly oppose their activities are viewed as a threat.   

According to the religious rights watchdogs, last year these groups killed at least five Christians, but the real numbers are likely higher. The pressure isn't lessening, either. Last month, because of a successful evangelistic work, rebels murdered a pastor and two of his relatives.

Yet these cases prove the church is flourishing. In 1933, there were estimates of 15,000 evangelical Christians in Colombia, but by 2011, that number hovered between 3.5 and 5 million with some churches growing 1,000-fold over the last two decades.

Please pray that Rolo's evangelistic efforts will not be thwarted. Pray for protection for pastors seeking to share the Gospel in their communities. 

Colombia is #47 on the Open Doors World Watch List, which ranks 50 countries according to the intensity of persecution Christians face for their faith.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Conflicting reports coming out of Iran over condemned pastor

(Photos by Present Truth Ministries)

Iran (MNN) ― Reports of the imminent execution of Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani are now being countered by news of delay.

Spokesman with the Voice of the Martyrs USA Todd Nettleton says the latest information he's heard is still being confirmed. "There is a report from an Israeli media outlet saying that the execution has been postponed. It's unclear when it will happen. The other part of this report that has new information to me is that it was scheduled to take place today (February 28), but it was postponed indefinitely."

There are other stories indicating there was actually no execution order and that Nadarkhani was being held for rape and "other crimes," not apostasy. (Article 225 of the Iranian penal code states, "Punishment for an Innate Apostate is death," and "Punishment for a Parental Apostate is death.") Naturally, the changing details beg the question, "Is this a campaign of misinformation?"

"There are so many different pieces of information coming from different directions, that it's hard to know what is real and what is not real," Nettleton notes. It could discredit future reports coming out of Iran. Who benefits from discrediting the stories? The bigger question, says Nettleton, is: "What role does the Iranian government play in this? They have a history of not being transparent with the rest of the world as far as what's going on inside Iran. So it is interesting to wonder if they are perhaps playing with this information as a way to try to gauge: 'How is the world going to respond if we do this?'"

However, delay could be a response to the international scrutiny, too. "When it comes to some of the European countries, those countries can have sway on Iranian public policy. The Iranian government does tend to pay attention to what they're saying. In this case, many of them are also sounding the chorus that a person should not be executed for their religious beliefs."

The American Center for Law and Justice added their voice the chorus of concern. "If a human being becomes a bargaining chip for the ayatollah, that's not a situation that will lead to anything positive," says ACLJ's executive director, Jordan Sekulow.

Nettleton says the lack of movement could also signal an acknowledgement of the conundrum Iran's judiciary faces. If the court releases the pastor, it denies Sharia law, risking the wrath of Muslims in Iran. If they execute him, they face the displeasure of the international community, which includes dozens of human rights groups, the White House, members of Congress, leaders from the European Union, France, Great Britain, Mexico and Germany.

Trying to find a way out of the dilemma, the court gave Nadarkhani a chance to recant and return to Islam, but he refused. His story reveals a distress the government can't ignore. Nettleton explains, "The government is responding with lethal force in this particular situation because the church is growing in a way that the government can't understand and can't control. They see putting someone to death as saying, 'This will put a stop to Muslims leaving Islam to follow Christ.'"

The paradox of persecution, says Nettleton, is met by prayer. "There is an incredible hunger for the Gospel. There is an incredible openness to hear about Jesus Christ. We need to pray that there will be ministries and people and workers who will work in those harvest fields."

Check our Featured Links Section for more about the work of the Voice of the Martyr with the persecuted church.

Doctors Try to Save Remaining Eye of Ugandan Pastor

Pastor Umar Mulinde, in Sheba Hospital in Tel-Aviv,
 Israel, is fighting to save sight in his left eye after acid
 attack in Uganda. (Photo: Compass)

Another pastor, close friend of victim of acid attack, is also ambushed.
While a Ugandan pastor was fighting to retain sight in his remaining eye after an acid attack, Muslim extremists this month were shooting at his close friend, a leader of another church.

Doctors at Sheba Hospital in Tel-Aviv, Israel, are still not sure what kind of chemicals Muslim extremists cast on Bishop Umar Mulinde of Gospel Life Church International outside of Kampala last Christmas Eve, but they know that the acid is threatening the vision in his remaining eye.

“I am regaining my sight, though the healing progress is a bit slow,” Mulinde told Compass by phone. “Doctors are still looking for ways to save it, but it seems a complicated case. The chemical was very strong, and each day it was going deeper, with pain increasing day by day; even the doctors are interested to know which type of acid it was, because it really did great damage to me.”

Mulinde, a former sheikh (Islamic teacher) who became the target of Islamic extremists after converting to Christianity in 1993, said his left eye has been getting better under the specialized treatment he has been able to receive since Compass publicized the attack on him (see, “Muslim Extremists in Uganda Throw Acid on Bishop,” Dec. 28, 2011).

“The damaged right eye is somehow affecting the left eye,” Mulinde said. “The doctors are thinking of removing the right eye with hope of saving the left eye.”

Muslim extremists are opposed not only to his conversion from Islam but his outspoken opposition tosharia (Islamic law) courts in Uganda, he said. On Oct. 15, 2011, area Muslim leaders declared a fatwaagainst him demanding his death. He is known for debates locally and internationally in which he often challenges Muslims regarding their religion.

Mulinde said he was encouraged that ministry is continuing at his church in Namasuba, about 10 kilometers (six miles) outside of Kampala, though his friend Zachariah Serwadda, a pastor with an Evangel Church congregation, was ambushed on Feb. 4 after an evangelistic outreach in the predominantly Muslim town of Mbale.

Serwadda, who has been attacked by Islamic extremists before, told Compass he was not sure how many began firing guns at his car at 10:30 p.m.

“I only heard several voices as I dropped down when the windshield of my vehicle got broken,” said Serwadda, who was unhurt in the attack. “It could be the same group [that attacked Mulinde]. It seems it’s the same network, because after attacking Bishop Mulinde they threw down letters at the Gospel Life Church International there threatening to attack other preachers like him.”

The attack took place on Tirinyi Road, between Mbale and Kamonkole, he said. Three other Christians were with him at the time. Since the Feb. 4 attack, the only security precaution he has taken was to report the incident at Iganga police station, he said.

Serwadda said there seems to be a new wave of persecution against Christians in Uganda. Besides Mulinde, also attacked last year were church leaders Hassan Muwanguzi and Hassan Sharif Lubenga, he said, and there were two other serious incidents, one in 2010 and one in 2009.

“In 2010 pastor Jamada Kikomeko of Nateete Victory Church was attacked during a gospel outreach in Entebbe town – bullets were shot with intent to assassinate him while he was returning from the outreach that night,” he said. “He managed to escape, took his coat and ran on foot for safety.”

The assailants vandalized his car, smashing all the windshields, he added.

In 2009, evangelist Yazid Muwanguzi was assaulted in Nakaloke, in Mbale district, barely escaping with his life after Muslims attacked chanting “Allahu Akbar [Arabic for “God is greater”], Serwadda said.

“But some Christians were severely injured,” he said.

Serwadda also survived a barrage of gunfire in 1997. A Muslim extremist tried to stop him as he was coming home from an evangelistic outreach in Jinja, but Serwadda saw an armed group standing on both sides of the road, he said; refusing to stop, he drove through as 20 bullets struck his vehicle.

He called his survival “miraculous.”


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Armenian Church Elder Allowed Out of Jail on Bail

By Michael Ireland
Senior International Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

TEHRAN, IRAN (ANS) -- An Armenian believer has been released on bail a week after his arrest by Iranian authorities.

Masis Masessian (Photo courtesy FCNN).
According to the Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN) , Mr. Masis Masessian, an elder of the Narmak Church of Assembly of God in Tehran, who was arrested on February 8, 2012 at his work, was allowed home more than a week later (Feb. 16).

FCNN says, however, that his temporary freedom did not come cheap; to provide the demanded money his family had to mortgage two title deeds.

FCNN reported: “Islamic Justice has accused Mr. Masessian of ‘Propagation of Christianity.’ Those who know him would describe Masis as a kind, quiet, and committed Christian, with a big heart and helpful personality, always ready to help those in need irrespective of race creed or religion.”

FCNN stated that, in a country where acts of mercy are almost entirely unknown, he has taken it upon himself to visit hospitals and spend time with the lonely and the forgotten, giving them whatever hope and help he can.

However, in the Islamic Republic “these acts of mercy have now come to be seen as ‘acts likely to be harmful to public safety’,” the agency said.

Islamic interrogators have informed him of complaints about his propagation of Christianity, but failed to identify the source, FCNN said.

According to the FCNN report, Masis was kept blindfolded throughout his interrogation, and his sons were also called in for their own sessions with the interrogators.

The private company where Masis worked has now terminated his contract, the agency reported.

The agency added: “Having lost his job and only source of income, Masis is forced to stay at home and wait the long, uncertain months, perhaps years, of suffering, until his trial by the Islamic Justice.”

** Michael Ireland is the Senior International Correspondent for ANS. He is an international British freelance journalist who was formerly a reporter with a London (United Kingdom) newspaper and has been a frequent contributor to UCB UK, a British Christian radio station. While in the UK, Michael traveled to Canada and the United States, Albania,Yugoslavia, Holland, Germany,and Czechoslovakia. He has reported for ANS from Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Israel, Jordan, China,and Russia. Michael's volunteer involvement with ASSIST News Service is a sponsored ministry department -- 'Michael Ireland Media Missionary' (MIMM) -- of A.C.T. International of P.O.Box 1649, Brentwood, TN 37024-1649, at: Artists in Christian Testimony (A.C.T.) International where you can make a donation online under 'Donate' tab, then look for 'Michael Ireland Media Missionary' under 'Donation Category' to support his stated mission of 'Truth Through Christian Journalism.' Michael is a member in good standing of the National Writers Union, Society of Professional Journalists, Religion Newswriters Association, Evangelical Press Association and International Press Association. If you have a news or feature story idea for Michael, please contact him at: ANS Senior International Reporter

** You may republish this story with proper attribution.

Indictment of ‘Masterminds’ of Murders in Turkey Expected

Erdal Dogan (left) and Orhan Kemal Cengiz on
 the step of the Malatya courthouse.
(Photo: Compass)

Court sets a week of court hearings in April for witness testimony.
Judges in Turkey’s southeastern city of Malatya have announced the preparation of an indictment in the case of three murdered Christians that is expected to reveal a shadowy network that incited five young men to carry out the crime.

The Third Criminal Court of Malatya is expected to announce the indictment on April 9, followed by a week of witness testimony that judges believe will link the five murder suspects to the “masterminds” who prompted them, plaintiff lawyers said. The brutal murders of Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske at the Zirve Publishing House by five young men in 2007 are believed to be part of a conspiracy to overthrow the current pro-Islamic government.

“In the next court hearing, the new indictment will certainly be ready, and the case will deepen as the suspects and instigators are judged together,” co-plaintiff lawyer Erdal Dogan told Compass.

Dogan said the case will speed up with the introduction of the new indictment and make it easier to bring those responsible to justice.

Co-plaintiff attorney Orhan Kemal Cengiz said that with this second indictment he expects former gendarmerie commanders and other officers who have been arrested in connection with the Malatya murders to finally take the stand in the case – something he and colleagues have long hoped for.

“The longer we wait, the more anxious we become, because it should have been announced [long ago],” Cengiz said.

Cengiz said he is not sure how deep the second indictment will probe into the network he and other attorneys believe was behind the five murderers. For the last five years, plaintiff lawyers have argued there is overwhelming evidence that the Malatya murders were connected to Ergenekon, a hidden network within the state alleged to have plotted crimes to destabilize the government.

“It is difficult to speak about it without seeing the indictment itself,” said Cengiz. “It should implicate a wider network behind these murders. But we don’t know to what extent they will expand the limits of the case. I hope it will uncover the real network, but it may be too shallow; then again, it may really go deep.”

Ergenekon is believed to be behind at least three key murders of Christians since 2006, including those in Malatya, as well as other crimes.

This month plaintiff lawyers for families of the Malatya murder victims demanded key Ergenekonindictments be joined to the Malatya murders case. The 37th hearing of the Malatya murders case took place on Feb. 17.

One of the requested indictments concerns a case opened against retired Gen. Ilker Basbug, a former chief of general staff. Basbug testified last month in an investigation that implicates him in an anti-government propaganda campaign of the Turkish Armed Forces. The propaganda campaign aimed to instill fear in the public that the government was attempting to establish a religious order based on Islamic law.

This month authorities prepared an indictment against him as a senior administrator of the Ergenekonterrorist organization within the Turkish Armed Forces. Basbug is the highest-ranking officer to be jailed and involved in legal proceedings in Turkey this far, according to Today’s Zaman. 

In April 2010, judges added to the Malatya case file one of the Ergenekon indictments concerning the so-called Cage Operation Action Plan. The Cage Plan surfaced when authorities seized a CD from the office of retired naval officer Maj. Levent Bektas, a suspect in the Ergenekon case, which exposed plans to assassinate prominent non-Muslim Turkish citizens. The naval forces group planned to pin the murders to the current pro-Muslim government.

The Cage Plan called the killings of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul, Catholic priest Andrea Santoro in Trabzon, and the three Christians in Malatya successful “operations.”

Ergenekon hearings have been ongoing since October 2008, and scores of its alleged members, including military personnel, members of the press, academics and businessmen, are in jail.

Advances and Setbacks
The trial hearings for the murders of the three Christians in southeastern Turkey in 2007 continued slowly last year amid advances in investigations – and the replacement of judges whom lawyers say were making significant progress in the case.

Last year the prosecutor for the Ergenekon case in Istanbul, Zekeriya Oz, ordered the arrests of various suspects in relation to the Malatya case. Malatya plaintiff lawyers saw this as a major advance in their efforts to illustrate to the courts and public that the two files should be joined, as they concern the same perpetrators.

Initially 20 suspects were arrested in last year’s investigation pertaining to the links between Ergenekonand Malatya, and seven of them are still in custody . They include former Malatya Provincial Gendarmerie Brigade Commander retired Col. Mehmet Ulger and a theology instructor at Malatya’s Inonu University, Ruhi Polat. Five of the seven are active in the military.

These suspects were arrested after a CD surfaced with a voice recording of a meeting in which they discussed the Malatya killings, how much they paid the assailants and how the murders influenced the country’s agenda.

It is believed that Ergenekon members were spying on Christians in Malatya and organized numerous talks vilifying missionaries in Turkey as agents who aimed to overrun the state. There are approximately 4,000 Christian converts among Turkey’s population of 75 million.

A transcript of a speech made on April 18, 2007, the day of the Malatya murders at Inonu University in Malatya entitled, “Besieged Turkey at the Start of the 21st Century,” by Hursit Tolon, was included in the Malatya case file this month. Tolon is a retired general and key suspect in the Ergenekon investigation.

Though the Turkish Constitution ensures freedom to disseminate information about one’s faith, many Turks hold deep-seated, anti-Western nationalism and suspicion of Christians, who are seen as seeds of Western propaganda aimed at questioning Turkish sovereignty.

The Malatya case experienced a major setback last year when Ergenekon prosecutor Oz and Malatya head judge Eray Gurtekin were taken off the cases and promoted to higher positions. Plaintiff lawyers expressed dismay as both prosecutors had contributed to major advances in the case. Plaintiff lawyers in both cases said they believed the promotions were an effort to sidetrack the cases and sabotage the advances they had made.

Buried CasesLast month an Istanbul prosecutor acquitted seven suspects in Dink’s murder of belonging to a network or terrorist organization. The acquittal came as a surprise in the face of evidence linking Dink’s murder to members of police, Ergenekon suspects and the Gendarmerie Intelligence Organization.

In January 2007, Dink, an Armenian Christian and editor-in-chief of Agos, was shot by 17-year-old Ogun Samast from Trabzon. Samast was sentenced to 22 years and 10 months of prison for killing Dink, while the man who instructed Samast to kill Dink received an aggravated life sentence on charges of instigation to premeditated murder. Other suspects also received prison sentences.

Dink’s death five years ago, and the court’s decision last month, created public outrage over prejudice against Armenians and non-Muslim minorities in Turkey and the court’s inability to bring to justice the instigators of the crime.

After the the Istanbul court reviewing Dink’s court case declined to pursue evident links between the young men who killed him and Ergenekon, Cengiz, who is also a writer for English daily Today’s Zaman, wrote a column titled, “Will the Malatya massacre be also covered up after Dink?”

“This verdict was the worst of the worst that the court could ever deliver in this case,” Cengiz wrote.

The Turkish Presidency’s State Supervisory Council (DDK), in a 650-page report issued this month, recommended that the Dink case be re-opened in order to bring top police and gendarmerie officials to justice for negligence before and after Dink’s murder.

The DDK recomendation is not binding, but a prosecutor in the case is already collecting evidence to re-open the case. The Malatya case file is expected to be used as evidence in the new Dink case.

This month marks the six-year anniversary since the murder of Santoro in the northern city of Trabzon. Authorities arrested a 16-year-old in relation to Santoro’s death and sentenced him to 18 years of prison for pre-meditated murder.

No further probes were made into who might have been behind the crime despite evidence that the Trabzon police had tapped Santoro’s phone three months before the murder. Malatya lawyers say a deeper investigation would easily uncover links to the murders of Christians that followed.

In June 2010, Catholic Bishop Luigi Padovese, vicar apostolic of Anatolia, was murdered by his driver. There are suspicions that this case could also be linked to the other Christian assassinations, but court proceedings by the state prosecutor are closed to the press.

A book released in October 2011 by Turkish journalist Ismail Saymaz shocked the nation, exposing how the Malatya murders constituted an act of national hate. The book is entitled, “Hate, Malatya: A Murder with National Consent.

Saymaz provides detailed information that shows how the killing of Santoro in Trabzon and the murders in Malatya are connected, and how the security forces viewed the Christians as national threats.

Shortly after the release of Saymaz’s book, a veteran crime reporter for the Hurriyet newspaper, Ali Daglar, published “The Priest Murders – 200 Years of Close Pursuit and the Bloody Zirve Finale.” The book examined the Malatya murders in the context of national prejudice toward Christians throughout the last two centuries.

There is no legislation in Turkey to penalize hate crimes. This month the Hate Crime Legislation Campaign Platform organized a series of meetings between civil society groups, academics and concerned citizens.

Lawyers from the group are drafting legislation that will define and authorize penalties for hate crimes. The group plans to submit it to the Turkish Parliament by the end of 2012. The platform cites the murders of Santoro, Dink and those at the Zirve Publishing House as examples of hate crimes.


Pakistani Muslims Employ ‘Blasphemy’ Threat in Land Grab

Attempt fails as influential Islamic family intervenes on behalf of Christians.
Tensions are still high in a village near here following Muslims’ attempt to seize land from a Christian family by threatening to accuse them of “blasphemy.”

What began on Feb. 19 as a quarrel over a pigeon between Christian and Muslim youths at Nawa Pind Sabu Mohal village, in Sialkot’s Pasroor area in northeast Punjab Province, grew into an occasion to jail some Christians in the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country, the Christians said.

Gulshan Masih, 20, told Compass that his younger brother, Saif Masih, 18, had quarreled with a young Muslim over a pigeon that led to about a half dozen boys from each group charging into a fistfight and later pelting each other with stones. With the Muslims throwing bricks and stones from inside a mosque at the young Christian men’s homes, the skirmish ended when an elderly female relative of the Christians was wounded in their courtyard, Gulshan Masih said.

A few hours later, police officers arrived and took his father, 55-year-old Bashir Masih, 55, and 50-year-old uncle, Pervaiz Masih, into custody.

“The Muslims had accused us of desecrating the mosque by throwing stones at it,” Gulshan Masih said. “My father and uncle were not even involved in the fight, yet they were taken into custody on false charges.”

Muslim villagers have tried to drive Christians from the village on similarly petty pretexts, he said.

“We own land and cattle, and this may be one of the reasons why the Muslims keep on picking fights with us over minor issues,” Masih said, recalling how relatives Saleem and Rasheed Masih were arrested on a false blasphemy charge in 1999 after a quarrel stemming from a Muslim ice cream vendor refusing to serve Saleem Masih from the same bowl used by Muslims. Rasheed Masih was not even present at the scene of the quarrel, Gulshan Masih said, but was also charged.

Their accusers had carried a grudge again them after having lost a civil land dispute. The brothers were convicted of blasphemy by a lower court, but the Lahore High Court freed them on March 19, 2003.

Hidden MotiveAs soon as word spread in Sialkot that the Christian youths had “desecrated the mosque,” Muslims from nearby villages gathered at a police station to pressure officers into registering a false case against Bashir and Pervaiz Masih under Pakistan’s internationally condemned laws against blaspheming Islam, its prophet or the Quran.

Two days later, Tuesday (Feb. 21), police took into custody eight more Christians – Gulhan Masih, his cousin Amir Masih, Mehmood Masih, Irshad Masih, Kashif Masih, Qamar Masih, Khuram Masih and Akmal Masih – in order to increase pressure on the Christians, according to Napoleon Qayyum, a Christian rights activist. He said it was evident that the Muslims were trying to seize a 1.5-kanal (one kanal is one-eighth of an acre) plot of land owned by Bashir Masih, as they demanded that he surrender it as a condition for the release of the jailed Christians.

Bashir’s land is located near a mosque run by one Hafiz Ishfaq, who is also a member of the militant Islamist group, the Sunni Tehreek, Qayyum said.

Police released Bashir and Pervaiz Masih and the other eight Christians on Wednesday evening (Feb. 22) with a warning that they would be charged with blasphemy if they did not meet the conditions set the previous day by a “reconciliation committee” comprising the area’s notable Muslim leaders, Qayyum said – though in fact an influential family had argued successfully against imposing the condition on the Christians.

Muhammad Riaz Dar, the police inspector in-charge of the area, told Compass that the matter had been “amicably resolved” by the two parties. He declined to comment on the illegal detention.

Qayyum said the chain of events was clear.

“Look at how conveniently they threatened the Christians with involving them in a fake blasphemy case and were about to acquire the land without even paying a penny,” he said.

The intervention of the influential Muslim family on behalf of the Christians persuaded Hafiz Ishaq and others against trying to seize their land, Gulshan Masih said. Thus far the Muslims have backed off from that demand, but the village was still volatile, he said.

The other demand imposed by the “reconciliation committee” was that Pervaiz Masih’s son, Amir, not enter the village.

The Muslims suspect that Amir Masih had an affair with a local Muslim girl and took this opportunity to ban him from the village, said Qayyum.

He criticized police for playing into the hands of the Muslims.

“The police kept Bashir and Pervaiz in illegal custody for three days while eight others were detained for a day without any justification,” he said. “The police did not bother to take action against the Muslims involved in the fight. No Muslim was arrested, and no notice was taken of the injuries suffered by the Christians.”