Friday, August 31, 2012

Talk of violence against Rimsha worries her lawyer

Yesterday’s confidence replaced by fear that judge will yield to mob

LAHORE, Pakistan, Aug. 30 (Open Doors News) — Confident on Wednesday of Rimsha Masih’s release, her lawyer was apprehensive Thursday after a prosecutor hinted strongly at the likelihood of violence if she is freed.

"This girl is guilty,” said Rao Abdur Raheem, a lawyer for the man who has accused the girl of blasphemy against Islam. “If the state overrides the court, then God will get a person to do the job.”

One of Rimsha’s lawyers, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, called Raheem’s remarks “an open threat” meant to cow the court into trying the girl as an adult, thereby exposing her to the possibility of the harshest penalties possible, including death.

Thursday’s dramatic turn followed Tuesday’s release of a medical report that determined the girl to be 14 years old. Naveed said Wednesday the report was powerful evidence that would persuade the court to shift Rimsha’s case to the juvenile courts, where potential penalties are less severe.

Instead, the local court in Pakistan’s federal capital adjourned Rimsha’s bail hearing Thursday after Raheem disputed the medical report’s legitimacy. Rather than make a ruling, the judge kicked the matter into Saturday.

Rimsha, a resident of an impoverished Christian sector of Islamabad, was reported to police Aug. 17 on the testimony of neighboring Muslims who accused her of carrying burned pages of Quranic verses. Her defense argues she is too young to face blasphemy charges as an adult, and too mentally handicapped to even understand the concept of blasphemy.

Raheem, who presented his papers in court Thursday, challenged the medical report on the basis that the panel that produced it was not convened by the court, but by a subordinate magistrate. The report was issued, he said, a day before the court itself issued an order convening a medical panel.

He asked the court to annul the report because “the doctors and the State were supporting the Christian girl,” and to form a new board to determine her age while leaving alone the question of her mental capacity. Christian advocacy groups have suggested the girl suffers from Down syndrome, which is associated with learning disabilities.

“The medical report on Rimsha is illegal, as it followed the orders of a civil servant and not the court, and went beyond its remit of determining her age,” Raheem told news reporters. “The government is supporting her and manipulating court proceedings.”

Rimsha’s arrest has prompted widespread condemnation of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari has ordered an investigation, and has said the law must not be used to settle personal scores.

Other prominent government figures, including Punjab provincial Governor Salmaan Taseer, have been killed after publicly urging reform of the blasphemy laws. Raheem served as an attorney to Taseer’s assassin, Malik Mumtaz Qadri.

”Every person advocating (Rimsha’s) release should know that if she is allowed to walk free, there are many Mumtaz Qadris in this country,” Raheem said Thursday to  a large number of reporters at the court hearing.

"If the court is not allowed to do its work, because the state is helping the accused, then the public has no other option except to take the law into their own hands," he said.

Naveed, the attorney for the girl, told Open Doors News that even though there is no legal justification to refuse bail to his client, Raheem’s dark talk is likely to influence the judge’s decision on Saturday.

“Raheem’s reference to many more Qadris in Pakistan is an open threat to the judge, and to us,” said Naveed, who also is a member of Pakistan’s Punjab provincial assembly. “Everyone knows that extremist elements can go to any lengths to impose their will. We have recorded his public statement and will ask the court to take notice of it but I fear the situation will be very volatile when we appear in court on Saturday.”

A Lahore High Court judge, Arif Iqbal Bhatti, was gunned down in his chambers in 1997 after he acquitted two Christian brothers, Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih, in a blasphemy case.  Since then, several people accused of blasphemy have spent years in prison awaiting a judge willing to take up their appeals.
Naveed said the judge who had been assigned Rimsha’s case was on leave and would be resuming his duties Saturday.

“Although the case is quite clear, it solely depends on the judge if he is willing to show courage and release the poor child on bail,” he said. “In a recent case, a judge refused to give bail to a Christian man falsely accused of blasphemy on the pretext that he was safer inside the jail. So you can understand that the judges are also under immense pressure, and since this case has already attracted immense media coverage and consequently attention of extremist elements, I can just hope and pray God works in this situation.”

Napolean Qayyum, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party Minorities Wing and field director of Christian organization World Vision in Progress, told Open Doors News that in his several years in the field pursuing persecution cases, almost all people charged under the blasphemy laws are convicted by judges under mob pressure.

“Religious elements gather outside courtrooms on every hearing and the poor judge has no choice but to convict the accused. The same thing happened in the case of Aasia Bibi and I fear that now these Islamist elements will try to pressure the judge hearing Rimsha’s case in similar manner,” he said.

Qayyum said that the Chief Justice of Pakistan should take notice of the situation and form a judicial panel to investigate the case. “Lower courts cannot withstand public pressure so a high-powered judicial commission stands a better chance of digging out the truth.”

As for Rimsha’s safety, Naveed said the girl’s legal team is prepared to move her to a safer location as soon as the judge orders her release on bail. He also has said it is unlikely she or her family would ever be able to return to their home in the Meherabad sector of Islamabad.

He rejected the notion that Rimsha would be safest if kept in jail, even if declared a juvenile, until her trial. “The law provides relief of bail to juveniles and she should be set free,” he said.

Human rights lawyer and activist Hina Jillani told Open Doors News that Pakistani law provides relief to women and children and in this case it is evident the Christian girl is not only a juvenile but also mentally handicapped.

“Under Article 25 of Pakistan’s constitution, it is the State’s responsibility to ensure the protection of women and children and this specific case involves a girl child so the government must ensure her security,” she said.

Hina lamented that only a few people in Pakistan had the courage to speak out against the misuse of the blasphemy laws, which often are used to settle personal vendettas. “It is unacceptable that we continue to persecute Pakistan’s minorities with such laws. Our minorities are very much a part of Pakistan as Muslims and it is the State’s responsibility that justice is administered and no vulnerable community is targeted by religious zealots.”

Naveed, a member of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance of the late Christian minister Shahbaz Bhatti, said the government is extending all possible support, but acknowledged it may not be enough.

“Who can guarantee complete security but God?” he said. “I am greatly disturbed by Raheem’s threatening statement, but I trust God will keep all of us in His protection.”

Copyright 2012 Open Doors News

Syrian refugee crisis hits Jordan

Hussein Malla\AP

Jordan (MNN) ― The violence continues in Syria, and now a border situation is causing a refugee crisis.

Bill Bray with Christian Aid Mission says, "Early in the week the Turks closed their border, and it's created a lot of panic. The fighting on the ground is horrific. A lot of these [refugees] are widows and children. This is a real crisis."

Jordanian native missionary leaders say they are being overwhelmed by a new surge of terrified Syrian refugees. "They are coming under the fences every night--2,500 to 3,000 at a time since the border with Turkey closed two days ago," says an indigenous leader of one of the main mission groups who asked not to be identified for security reasons.

"There are already 180,000 refugees here from Syria, and they are growing every day. This is a very, very intense time for us." The Christians are responding as good Samaritans to the desperate refugees, helping them find food and shelter. Most are women and children.

The indigenous leaders asked Christian Aid Mission and others in the USA to help send more immediate financial aid so that food, medicine, and clothing can be purchased on the local market for free distribution to the refugees.

"The refugees are only dressed in light, summer wear and have nothing but the clothes on their backs," he said. "They don't want to enter government camps where there is food and water shortages. Instead, they are coming to us for food and clothing."

Winter is coming, he added, and at least $150,000 will be needed now to keep food parcels going out, supply blankets and winter clothing.

Like all the other front line states, Jordan has officially closed its borders to Syrian refugees and is trying to resist pressure by Sunni Jihadists from nearby Saudi and Qatar. The Islamic Jihad wants to divide up Syrian territory under various militias in order to help bring down the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite Muslim who is accused of many atrocities but has protected the Christian minority.

A special fund has been set up by Christian Aid coded 400REF to aid the Syrian Christians during this time of crisis. 

Offerings for the suffering believers of Syria are being collected by phone at 800-977-5650 or at the Christian Aid Mission Web site: www.ChristianAid.or.

"We want to thank you Americans from the bottom of our hearts," said the Jordanian native missionary. "Your prayer and support is helping us befriend, love, and supply aid to these people. Discipleship requires an investment of time, resources, and courage, which we trust the Lord to provide to us."

Bray says, "The biggest thing they need right now is cash immediately to purchase food, medicines, and warm clothing."
A nearby pastor said, "I feel like finally, for the first time, we are doing outreach successfully."

Among the biggest needs they face:

• $70 each to sponsor the education of one child
• $45 each to supply medications for a refugee family
• $12 each for Arabic Bibles
• $55 each for food packets
• $180 per share of rent if a family shares an apartment with several other families

All the Syrian refugees told Christian Aid Mission reporters that they fled Syria after family members were killed. "We lost it all in Syria," said one woman. "I feared for my children, but here in Jordan they can play without being shot! I worry for my family that didn't make it out. I lost friends and loved ones. I've lost all hope."

Just crossing the border can be deadly. "We waited until nightfall, climbed through a barbed-wire fence under heavy gunfire with our husbands and kids. Our husbands didn't make it across."

Another said she came because "I couldn't sleep at night as I watched over my kids thinking this is our last night."

Bray says workers supported by Christian Aid Mission are using this for the Gospel sake. "In the midst of it, they're doing a lot of child evangelism and children's classes. This provides a lot of context in which to do a lot of Christian outreach."

Christian Aid Mission has been supporting indigenous missions in Syria and the front line states of Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey for decades. "We already had an indigenous network in place before the fighting began," said a Christian Aid Mission spokesperson in Charlottesville, Virginia. "We are able to get help to the field quickly."

Killing of Islamic cleric leads to violence

(Image courtesy of Open Doors USA)

Kenya (MNN) ― Muslim rioters took to the streets of Mombasa, Kenya following the death of Sheikh Aboud Rogo. Unknown gunmen sprayed Rogo's van with bullets, immediately killing the controversial Islamic cleric. Jerry Dykstra with Open Doors USA said rioters focused their rage on two targets.

"Muslims in Mombasa put some of the blame on the government," Dykstra explains, "but also they attacked Christian churches and organizations."

Five Mombasa churches were attacked and severely damaged by rioters; a few worshippers were injured in the process. The National Council of Churches in Kenya (NCCK) offices were damaged as well.

"We have completely failed to understand the logic that made…demonstrators associate the heinous murder of Aboud Rogo with the churches," said Rev. Canon Peter Karanja, NCCK's General Secretary.

Dykstra said it's not unusual to see believers becoming the scapegoat.

"Christians are blamed for a lot of things," he stated.

Most attacks against Christians have been linked to al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based terrorist cell of al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab has been growing at a steady rate along the border of Somalia and Kenya. Dykstra expressed concern about al-Shabaab's expansion.

"They've been increasing in power and influence on that border area."

As al-Shabaab's presence increases, it could become even harder for believers to share the Gospel in Kenya.

Al-Shabaab has expanded its hunt for Christians from Somalia to neighboring Kenya, and Rogo was an alleged al-Shabaab fundraiser and recruiter. Remember the July 1 attacks against believers in Garissa? Dykstra said Rogo supported them because he didn't want Muslims and Christians working together.

"He called that a really good happening, a good thing," noted Dykstra.

Within the last year, Christian aid workers have been killed and kidnapped. Two believers died at a Kenyan revival meeting whenterrorists threw a grenade toward the podium. In July, gunmen attacked a Garissa church with grenades and then shot believers as they tried to escape. More than 60 were injured in this attack, and 18 believers died.

"The border area between Kenya and Somalia has become a dangerous place for the followers of Christ, as well as aid workers trying to help those caught in the chaos and poverty," said Carl Moeller, President/CEO of Open Doors. "As we have seen in the past, innocent believers are often targets of the extremists' rage.

"Please pray that the Christians there will stay strong in the faith and that rioting will come to an end."

Pakistani Christian girl still held

Ramsha Masih will be in court tomorrow.
Pakistan (MNN) ― A bail hearing has been adjourned until Saturday of a young Pakistani girl accused of blasphemy.

Rimsha Masih was taken into custody a few weeks ago after an angry mob surrounded her home accusing her of burning pages with verses of the Quran written on them.

Masih, who's reported to be about 14-years-old, is also believed to be mentally disabled.

According to Voice of America, a lawyer representing the accuser challenged a medical report released earlier this week that said the girl was 14-years-old, but mentally younger than that. The girl's lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, hopes the judge would settle the matter during a bail hearing set for tomorrow.

Human-rights groups are asking for the girl to be released immediately. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Prominent Muslim clerics in Pakistan and the country's president are pressing for a fair and impartial investigation into her case.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws have long been used to harass religious minorities and settle personal vendettas. Amnesty International and other human rights groups called for Pakistan to reform their blasphemy laws and protect Masih and her family against possible intimidation or attack.

Christian leaders in the government have been targets of attacks. Last year, Pakistan's Minister of Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti--the only Christian member of the federal Cabinet, was killed by an assassin in Islamabad. And Salman Taseer, Punjab province's governor, was killed by one of his bodyguards for his opposition to the blasphemy law.

Christians are the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Pakistan, making up about 5% of the population.

The United States has called Masih's case "deeply disturbing" and urged Pakistan's government to protect not just its religious minority citizens, but also women and girls.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lawyers for Jailed Christian Lawyer Gao Zhisheng Barred from Prison Visit

Photo: Shaya Prison

SHAYA, XINJIANG, China, Aug. 29, 2012 /Christian Newswire/ -- Two lawyers for jailed Christian lawyer Gao Zhisheng were denied a meeting with him Monday by authorities at the prison in far west China where he has been held since last December, years after "disappearing" into police custody.

ChinaAid learned that prominent Beijing human rights lawyers Li Xiongbing and Li Subin, engaged by Gao's eldest brother, traveled Sunday from Xinhe county to Shaya county, in the remote part of the region of Xinjiang where Gao is being held. Along the way, they were stopped at a police guard post where their IDs were checked.

At 8 a.m. Monday, the two set off for Shaya prison from the county seat on the only road to the prison, which was fenced off on both sides by barbed wire. En route, they were stopped again for ID checks and an inspection of the trunks of their two vehicles. Upon arrival at the prison at 9 a.m., they made their request to see Gao to the police officer on duty at the desk, Dong Ping.

Dong said that they needed prior approval by the prison authorities to visit Gao. Because the prison administrators were holding their Monday meeting of the Communist Party branch committee and an administrative affairs meeting, no decision could be made until the meetings had ended and the prison administrators were consulted about whether the two lawyers could visit.

Around 10 a.m., the section chief for prison administration, a police officer surnamed Xu, arrived at the duty office, and Dong gave him the lawyers' written request for a visit. Xu checked the lawyers' request for a meeting, letter of authorization, law licenses and photocopies of Gao's eldest brother's government-issued ID card. He also asked to further inspect the lawyers' ID cards. After he'd finished reading everything, he left with all the paperwork as well as the lawyers' ID cards, saying he needed to consult his superiors.

Around 11:30 a.m., Xu and a prison administrator surnamed Kang invited the two lawyers into Xu's office, where they gave these answers:
  1. The letter of authorization signed by Gao's brother, Gao Zhiyi, was not acceptable because such a letter should be signed by Gao Zhisheng himself. They cited the Ministry of Justice's "Temporary Regulations on Lawyers Meeting with Prisoners" as their "reason."
  2. Gao Zhisheng himself is a senior attorney, and as such, he has no need to engage other lawyers to represent him in his appeal.
  3. Lawyer Gao does not wish to see any family members or relatives
The two lawyers suggested that they meet briefly with Gao to hear from him directly whether he agreed with his brother's decision to have the two lawyers handle his appeal, but the prison officials said this "was not in compliance with the regulations." The lawyers followed with a heartfelt appeal for the prison police to pass on to Gao Zhisheng the letter authorizing them to represent him that was signed by his brother, Gao Zhiyi, so that he could also sign the document to indicate whether he agreed with his brother's decision to hire them to represent him. The prison authorities' answer was, "There's no need."

Left with no other options, the two lawyers left Shaya county and on Tuesday morning went to Xinjiang's Prison Administration Bureau (in capital Urumqi) where they expressed their objections and filed a complaint about the prison's actions. They were received by the deputy chief of prisons, who was surnamed Kai, and two police officers, who repeated the same answer that their lawyers' request for a meeting was not approved and further clarified that Shaya prison's answer was in fact their answer.

The two lawyers said that the prison's requirement that lawyers must be "authorized by the prisoner" in order for a meeting to take place was totally illogical and goes against common sense, as well as being a violation of the existing laws. The criminal procedural law, prison law, and the law on lawyers, as well as other laws all stipulate that the family members of prisoners and of defendants can hire lawyers, and that lawyers can meet with prisoners on the basis of a letter of authorization from a family member, the lawyers' licenses, and a letter requesting a meeting from the lawyers' practice. The prison authorities and the Xinjiang Prison Administration Bureau concocted all kinds of illogical reasons to refuse the lawful requests of the lawyers for a meeting, which not only was a serious violation of the law but is also an unjustified deprivation of the legitimate rights of the lawyers as well as of Gao's family members.

This being the case, the two lawyers plan to report this matter to other relevant departments and to fight for the right to meet with Gao, as well as to employ further legal measures to ensure that the legitimate rights of their client are protected.

ChinaAid condemns the Shaya prison authorities and the Xinjiang Prison Administration Bureau for their erroneous decision and calls on the international community to urge relevant authorities of the Chinese government to reverse these illegitimate and outrageous decisions and immediately restore the legitimate rights of Gao Zhisheng to meet with his family members and lawyers.

Gao Zhiyi has telephoned the prison hundreds of times, hoping to speak with Gao and to inquire about his health. His family has had no word from or about Gao since a brief visit in March and are extremely concerned for his safety and well-being.

ChinaAid founder and president Bob Fu said, "To deny legal representation and family visits to imprisoned human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng is both inhumane and a violation of China's own laws. We call upon the highest authorities in the Chinese regime to release him immediately and allow him to join his family in the United States."

Christian Newswire

Teen accused of blasphemy will leave jail, but can’t go home, lawyer says

Reunion with parents is likely, but safety is uncertain

By Murad Khan

Lahore, Pakistan, August 30 (Open Doors News) — Rimsha Masih is likely to be cleared of the blasphemy charge against her, but never will be able to return home, her lawyer says.

Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, who has taken up the defense of the young Christian girl whose case has renewed international debate about Pakistan’s notorious anti-blasphemy laws, said he is confident Rimsha will qualify for release on bail this week. The government, however, may ask the court to keep her in custody until tensions ease.

Naveed, a member of Pakistan’s Punjab provincial assembly, also hinted that the blasphemy accusations against Rimsha may have been motivated partly by overtures toward her older sister being rebuffed.

“I am quite hopeful of securing Rimsha’s release on bail,” Naveed told Open Doors News. “A medical board has certified that she is 14, although her church record claims it to be around 11.”

Under Section 7 of Pakistan’s Juvenile Justice Ordinance, he said, Rimsha is not an adult and her case should be transferred to a juvenile court. Nor does she have the maturity to understand the concept of blasphemy, he said.

“The medical report has also supported our contention that her mental age is not compatible with her physical age,” Naveed said. “Both official findings will help us in proving that the charges against her have been wrongly framed and she should be set free on bail immediately.”

Rimsha, a resident of a poor Christian pocket of Islamabad, was reported to authorities Aug. 17 on the testimony of neighboring Muslims who accused her of carrying burned pages of Quranic verses. Little is known about how the girl came to be carrying burned religious texts. Even so, police have said they placed the girl in jail both to placate angry demonstrators and to keep Rimsha safe from attack. Her parents likewise were removed to protective custody, while hundreds of Christian neighbors fled to the relative safety of more distant Islamabad sectors. Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, stepped into the matter, warning against vigilantism and ordering the interior ministry to investigate.

The accusations against the girl have renewed international condemnation of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws, which carry the potential of a life sentence for desecrating the Quran, and the death penalty for insulting the prophet Muhammad. Inside Pakistan, the laws enjoy widespread popular support, and prominent government officials who have advocated they be repealed have been killed.

Rimsha’s defense, her lawyer said, pivots on the legal requirement that “willful desecration of the Quran” must be proved. In this case, Rimsha is both too young, and too mentally incapable, to carry out intentional defamation.

“The law clearly does not apply on her,” Naveed said. “There was no willful desecration on her part. There is no way the poor child could have known what she is being accused of having done.”

A medical board constituted by an “additional district magistrate” had found Rimsha’s age to be around 14. On Tuesday, the judge instructed Naveed to file a fresh application requesting the court to order a new medical exam, this time by a medical board convened by a more senior district magistrate. The judge observed that the first medical board had been constituted by the order of a lesser magistrate, and not by the court.

“I filed a fresh application as per the court’s orders and requested the setting up of a medical board to determine Rimsha’s age,” Naveed said. “The court accepted my application and directed the district magistrate to constitute the board which will present its findings on Aug. 30.”

The complaint against Rimsha was registered under the name of Malik Ammad, who Naveed said is the son-in-law of the man who owns the house in Meherabad in Islamabad’s Sector G-12, where the girl lived with her family.

“Ammad does not enjoy a good repute in the locality,” the lawyer said. “Rimsha’s family shared with me that he had made several attempts to ‘befriend’ Rimsha’s older sister but had been unsuccessful. This could be one of the reasons besides the discriminatory attitude of some of the locality’s Muslims.”

He said about 50 Christian families had been living among 500 Muslim families in the area for the last 15 years.

“Most of the Christians are laborers and their women work as maids in the nearby bungalows, while the Muslims have businesses in the area and own almost all property in the locality,” he said. “Soon after the incident, a large number of Christians fled the area fearing violence as the Muslims threatened to burn down their homes but now the situation was improving and several families had returned to their residences.”

Though he said he is hopeful the court will release Rimsha on bail and that she would soon be united with her family, Naveed said he is equally certain the family will face more upheaval.

“As with every blasphemy accused, Rimsha and her family won’t be able to return to their home as it may put their lives at risk,” he said.

A government source told Open Doors News that intelligence agencies had warned authorities that setting Rimsha free at this stage could stoke religious tension.

“The agencies have advised the government to oppose Rimsha’s bail and keep her in custody until the matter cools down,” the source said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Regardless, Naveed said, “the government should release her and ensure the security of all Christians living in the area.”

Rimsha has found some support from Muslim quarters as well, with the leader of a prominent Islamist group calling for the release of the girl, if found innocent, and punishment for the persons responsible for leveling the false accusation.


Copyright 2012 Open Doors News

Open Doors News is distributed to raise awareness of Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith.

Kyrgyzstan's coalition falls, impact on Christians unknown

Kyrgyzstan's coalition falls.

Kyrgyzstan (MNN) ― Another government in a predominately Muslim nation has fallen. This time it's a former Russian Republic -- the Republic of Kyrgyzstan. This is a nation that has increasingly become antagonistic to evangelical Christians and has taken steps to curb religious freedom.

Slavic Gospel Association has limited work in the country for this very region. SGA's Joel Griffith says this isn't the first issue in Kyrgyzstan, but he describes what happened. "The most recent flare-up is this collapse of the coalition government. The two parties apparently withdrew in protest, and Reuters says basically their objections were a bad economy alleged corruption."

The two parties claim Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov has yet to enact a single reform and is accusing him of using "shadowy" organizations to handle money. It unclear what will happen next as there is no clear majority coalition in the five party system.

Griffith says the evangelical church has been under fire the last few years. "With an unstable situation, depending on who actually comes to power both in the parliament and in the presidency later, it could have a significant impact on evangelical churches in their freedom to either worship or proclaim the Gospel. So it's something that needs to be watched."

While persecution isn't new, Griffith says, "No matter what happens, churches are going to continue to proclaim the Gospel no matter what. But it certainly does stand the pressure is more than likely, the knot will tighten up in the days ahead."

According to Griffith, prayer is essential. "We really need to intercede for the churches there that the Lord would use this situation to somehow open the door for the churches to be able to freely worship and also to proclaim the Gospel. That certainly doesn't go with the trend, but the Lord can do anything, and that has to be our prayer."

Forum 18 notes new penalties and shift of power away from judicial courts

Tajikistan (MNN) ― Tajikistan has added new punishments for non-Islamic religious activity. According to Forum 18 News Service, Tajikistan has tightened its religious restrictions and given power to the State Committee for Religious Affairs to oversee punishments. Forum 18 says these new restrictions are "part of a steady tightening of state controls over all religious activity."

Under the newly-added penalties, people can be fined for sending Tajik citizens abroad for religious education, preaching or teaching religious doctrines in their homes, and establishing ties with religious organizations overseas.

Religious organizations can be penalized for carrying out any religious activity not specifically spelled-out in their statutes.

"The Religion Law and the administrative penalties totally violate believers' rights," members of one religious community told Forum 18.

Another alteration is the ability for Tajikistan's State Committee for Religious Affairs (SCRA) to directly administer punishments to religious groups without investigation by police or prosecutors. One independent legal expert said courts should administer punishment for legal violations, not the state.

"[In 2011], after the new provisions to the Religion Law were added, the authorities did not particularly punish religious communities," said the anonymous members. Now they're afraid that with the introduction of these new penalties, authorities will start cracking down on them.

Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda of the officially registered Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) told Forum 18 that new penalties and changes in the Religion Law were "made to limit as much as possible the religious believers from exercising their religious freedoms."

Tajikistan is #34 on the Open Doors World Watch List. These new fines could become a substantial financial burden, especially for believers without work or those living in poorer areas. Pray for Tajik believers facing persecution.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Pakistan blasphemy case girl examined by doctors

By Dan Wooding
Founder of ASSIST Ministries

PAKISTAN (ANS) -- Doctors in Pakistan have examined a young Christian girl imprisoned on blasphemy charges to determine her age and mental capacity, with the results due to be presented in court tomorrow.

According to the BBC, her lawyer says the girl, called Rimsha, is 11 or 12 years old and appears to have Down’s syndrome.

“She is being held in a maximum security prison after an angry mob accused her of desecrating pages of the Koran. But her supporters say she has been wrongly accused,” said the BBC.

“Police say the girl was arrested last week in a Christian area of the capital Islamabad, after a crowd of people demanded that she be punished for allegedly desecrating pages of the Muslim holy book.

“It is not clear whether she burned pages of the Koran or was found to be carrying them in her bag.

Attack fears

The doctors' report will be presented at a bail hearing in Islamabad on Tuesday.

Christian leaders say she is as young as 11 but police quoted in some media reports say she may be older and that she had no mental impairments.

Pakistan's Minister for National Harmony, Paul Bhatti, has said she is innocent and should be released.

He told the BBC earlier: “The police were initially reluctant to arrest her, but they came under a lot of pressure from a very large crowd who were threatening to burn down Christian homes.”

According to the BBC's Orla Guerin in Islamabad, Rimsha’s lawyer said that when he saw her in jail over the weekend she wept and begged to be released.

Her parents have been taken into protective custody following threats, and many other Christian families are reported to have fled the neighborhood.

“There are fears that even if she is released, Rimsha’s family will not be safe in Pakistan. 

Others accused of blasphemy have been killed by vigilante mobs in the recent past,” concluded the BBC story.

InterVarsity sees growth and resistance in 2012-2013

USA (MNN) ― On college and university campuses throughout the U.S., students are seeking God in droves. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship expects a record year of campus ministry during the 2012-2013 school year, topping the 3,000+ new believers who came to Christ throughout the previous term. In four months, InterVarsity will host the Urbana Student Missions Conference in St. Louis, with almost 20,000 students expected to attend. Register for Urbana 2012 on InterVarsity's Web site.

"In our 72-year history, we have never seen such a season of fruitfulness," said Alec Hill, president of InterVarsity. "God's Spirit is moving on campus, and this is an exciting time to be involved in campus ministry."

Yet with growth comes increased resistance. On a small number of campuses, InterVarsity chapters were "de-recognized." The decision was overturned this summer at the State University of New York at Buffalo, but officials at Vanderbilt University haven't changed their minds. Along with InterVarsity, more than a dozen Christian student organizations lost recognition because of a recent "all-comers" policy.

The policy, implemented in January 2012, prohibits campus groups from selecting members based on race, gender, religion or sexual orientation.

"InterVarsity believes that a diverse campus environment requires the presence of groups which authentically and faithfully reflect religious beliefs," said Hill. "We will vigorously defend our right to be on campus and to contribute to campus life."

Pastor and family survive attack in Nigeria

Nigeria (MNN/VOM) ― A pastor and his family are safe, but recovering after an attack in Nigeria. The attack happened on August 10, but details are just coming out.

According to the Voice of the Martyrs, at least seven gunmen entered an Ekillisiyar Yan'Uwa Nigeria (EYN) church compound in Borno state, intending to kill the pastor, his wife and three children.

One gunman entered the room of the pastor's 24-year-old son, but "God gave him the courage and strength to push the man down," VOM contacts said. The young man was shot in the leg and fell to the ground as he fled his attacker.

The pastor ran from the family's house when he heard the gunshots, only to see his son lying on the ground and gunmen shooting at him. Although the pastor was not hit, he also fell to the ground when the gunmen fired at him. Thinking both men were either dead or injured, the gunmen entered the house to search for the church key.

After confronting the pastor's wife and two other children, the gunmen ordered them to lie face down on the floor. The family remained in the house as the attackers set fire to the house and church. The woman and her children eventually escaped the fire and hid in bushes near the church.

Apparently satisfied with the burning buildings and persuaded that the pastor and his family were dead or seriously injured, the gunmen fired their guns into the air while shouting, "Allahu Akbar." As the attackers left the scene, they unknowingly passed right by the pastor and his family hiding in the bushes.

The family remained in hiding through the night and took the oldest son to a hospital in Maiduguri the next morning. He has been released from the hospital, and the family is staying with another pastor in Maiduguri.

Pray for Christians in northern Nigeria. The radical group Boko Haram has taken aim at Christians and anything non-Muslim. They would like northern Nigeria to be an Islamic state.

Nigeria in talks with Boko Haram

(Cover photo courtesy Compass Direct. Story photo courtesy Open Doors)

Nigeria (MNN) ― Nigeria's president has taken a controversial step in trying to end the insurgency plaguing his country.

President Goodluck Jonathon is engaged in back-channel talks with leaders of the Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group blamed for the murder of over 600 people since the beginning of 2012.

The group's main targets of elimination are Christians, and their near-weekly attacks on churches have borne out their commitment.

President and CEO of Open Doors USA Carl Moeller reacts to news of the negotiations: "Having talks with these people? It's a bit crazy, in my opinion." Specifically, precedent has already been set for the success of such talks. "The experience of the Afghan government talking with the Taliban, the experience of the Pakistani government talking with the extremists in Swat Valley shows that you don't engage conversation with terrorist groups and expect them to compromise."

Compromise does not exist in Boko Haram's lexicon. "Boko Haram has committed itself ideologically to  the elimination of Christianity, particularly in northern Nigeria, but making all of Nigeria an Islamic state." Boko Haram, whose name in Hausa means "Western Education is sin," has gotten both better funding and better organized in their efforts.

This marks the second time the government has engaged Boko Haram in negotiations. Moeller disagrees with the notion. "I feel like it's absolutely a dead end for the Christian community in Nigeria--for the entire nation of Nigeria--for them to engage in conversation with those that are so intent on destroying the fabric of freedom and the church in Nigeria."

Since most of the victims have been pastors and Christians, there has been growing concern that the Church will begin to fight back, which could lead to civil war. However, last week, the National President of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor denied that. At the end of a special council meeting, Oritsejafor said that the association will continue to pray for the peaceful co-existence of the country.

According to a news release from their Web site, Oritsejafor is quoted as saying that "we will not encourage our people to carry arms against anybody whatsoever the situation may be. For those that are behind Boko Haram, you come to us with AK47, bombs, charms and other dangerous weapons, but we come to you in the name of God."

Moeller agrees. The first line of defense is prayer. "Pray that the Nigerian government would understand that compromising on the rights of its citizens, Christians, in the north in order to obtain a political solution to this crisis, will only result in losses of more freedoms, more restrictions, and more violence against Christians in those areas." 

The second defense: awareness. That's where Open Doors can help. They've got more information about partners they work with and the back story to the scenario in Nigeria at their Web site. Once armed with the facts, Moeller encourages believers to get involved.

The last line of defense, says Moeller, are the tools. Open Doors equips church leaders with training, tools and mentorship to help them work toward a consensus for peace and biblical response to the campaign of violence.

Despite the fear and concern rising in the Church body, they haven't forgotten their first love. Moeller notes the courage of believers under fire. "Some of the most dynamic and growing churches in the world are in southern Nigeria. The progress of the Gospel continues to go forward."

Believers are gearing up for more, but not for the reasons you might think. Moeller calls it the "paradox of persecution."

"As extremism rages in people's hearts, it produces a deeper vacuum, and that vacuum can only be filled by Jesus. 

Sometimes they don't even know that, but Jesus is still moving in people's hearts, even in the midst of this violence."

Monday, August 27, 2012

Justice delayed...again

(Images courtesy Mission India)

India (MNN) ― August marks the three-year anniversary of the arrest of two Children's Bible Club leaders in Karnataka on false charges.

Late one night in 2009, a mob of 20 Hindu extremists burst into a training for Year-Long Children's Bible Club leaders working through Grand Rapids, Michigan-basedMission India. Shouting threats, they moved from room to room. The extremists dragged people out of bed, beat them mercilessly, and burned every book and Bible they could find.

When police finally arrived, they arrested two Children's Bible Club partners and charged them with coercing children to become Christians. Mission India President Dave Stravers says, "There's no basis for the charge. They were actually sound asleep in the middle of the night. It's during a training session, (but) there weren't even any non-Christians involved, so how could they be converting anyone?"

The pair is out on bail...and STILL awaiting trial. "This is normal. They claim there is a 20-year backlog in the Delhi court system, for instance," Stravers reports. The United Nations Development Program estimates that some 20 million legal cases are pending in India. the country has roughly 11 judges for every million people, so the proverbial "light at the end of the tunnel" (hope for an end) isn't likely coming soon.

The problem is the expectation of those who are awaiting their day in court. Stravers explains, "Every month, they get on the train [for a] 12-hour train ride, sit all day in the court, and be told. 'No, no progress. A new date has been set.'" That's added expense and time lost to travel back and forth.

While the delay may be "normal" in Delhi, Stravers wonders if the "dragging feet" could be because  "judges and the accusers know that there is no case, so if the case actually comes to trial, all the charges will be dismissed. So they want to drag it out as long as possible to make life as difficult as possible."

The case is at a standstill in the courts. The most recent court date was postponed until September 21. It's harassment, pure and simple, Stravers argues.

However, it also revealed an indomitable spirit. "These people are still working hard, training Children's Bible Club leaders. We have a long list of Christian workers who are waiting to be trained." In fact, Karnataka State is one of Mission India's biggest fields of ministry. 

Why do the extremist Hindus oppose the Children's Bible Clubs? First, explains Stravers, "God is working. And this is why the persecution is happening, because the general population is so open to the Gospel and the Lord Jesus is doing His work in a really powerful way in India today."

Mission India provides in-depth training for volunteer Children's Bible Club leaders as well as materials to teach up to five age levels in nearly two dozen Indian languages.

The Children's Bible Clubs are introduced in a community through a 10-day program. In the clubs, children enjoy songs, skits, and play games. They also listen to Bible stories, memorize Scripture, and learn more about relationship with Jesus, which helps them discover a loving Savior.

So, Stravers says, by the end of the Children's Bible Club, many children make a decision to follow Jesus. They then share their new faith and are bringing their parents to Christ. As a result, every year new churches grow out of Children's Bible Clubs.

As far as their two workers go, the danger of this case is that it's a distraction. "We need to pray that the Lord will be faithful to them, that they'll feel the Lord's hand of protection. And when the persecution comes, [pray that] they will understand that this is not the devil winning any battles, [that]  they need to keep speaking boldly for Christ."

Pray that there will be no further delays in the courts. Pray that the false charges will be dropped. Pray for the safety of this year's Year-Long Children's Bible Club leaders who are being trained right now across India.

Check our Featured Links Section for more details about the Children's Bible Clubs.

Fate of Turkish believers might lie in this decision

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Turkey (MNN) ― Currently the cause of unrest between parties writing Turkey's new constitution, the issue of religious freedom could act as a catalyst.

"Depending on who wins this battle, they certainly will gain more power in moving the country: either toward a more secular, European/Western country," Rody Rodeheaver with IN Network explains, "or into a closed, Islamic fundamentalist country like their neighbor, Iran."

What would this decision mean for Turkish believers?

"There is great danger here, and in the midst of this are the Christians," he said.

One point of controversy in the freedom of religion proposals is education: namely, the Religious Culture and Knowledge of Ethnics (RCKE) courses required at all public schools. In this class, kids have to memorize parts of the Koran, the history of Mohammed, and various teachings from the Koran. They're also expected to participate in various Muslim celebrations and holidays.

The RCKE course puts children of believers on the front-lines of persecution. Rodeheaver explains that a common Turkish view is: "If you're a Turk, you're Muslim." This can be very difficult for kids trying to fit in at school because the RCKE course requires them to reveal their faith, making them stick out like a sore thumb.

"Our director and his children have experienced some very hurtful things," Rodeheaver said. "The children were selected for ridicule: 'You Christians, you're just all Americans in disguise.'"

Pray for Christian children who face persecution from their peers.

Another area impacted by this decision is Turkey's membership in the European Union (EU). Turks are primarily divided into two groups; some Turks want their nation to join the European Union and adopt policies with a secular lean, while others want Turkey to become a fundamental, Islamic nation. With Turkey's interest in becoming a part of the EU comes freedom for believers.

"If this changes, [believers] will lose a lot of ground and it could become very dangerous for them."

However, a recent survey by the Turkey-Europe Educational and Scientific Research Foundation (TAVAK) shows a significant drop in Turks' desire to join the EU. The study attributes this drop in support to the economic crises in EU member states and self-assurance among Turks that "they can do without the EU."

As the government continues to drag its feet toward change, there is a desperate need for prayer. Pray for the safety of believers in Turkey.