1 – Silent Waves of Persecution in Iran
Working quietly beyond the international media spotlight, Iranian authorities followed through on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s vow in November 2005 to “stop Christianity in this country.” A campaign to curb burgeoning house church growth in predominantly Shiite Muslim Iran emerged in 2006 as waves of arrests hit Christian leaders. When Issa Motamedi Mojdehi was arrested on July 24, officials told the convert from Islam that he must renounce Christianity or face years in jail and possible execution for “apostasy.” Originally facing drug trafficking charges commonly leveled at “undesirables,” Motamedi Mojdehi endured strong psychological pressures, including threats to kill his family and other Christians, as secret service agents and a professor of Islamic theology urged him to recant his faith. He refused, and on August 24 authorities released him “for the moment,” but not before a judge in the northern city of Rasht had a new accusation. He accused Mojdehi’s 8-year-old daughter Martha of trying to lead other children to Christ. Rasht police also shut down the shop of another believer in his church, as depriving converts to Christianity of employment became a common government ploy to force them to leave Iran.
In one southern city, police beat two young Christian women in their homes, arresting one for several days, and daily threatened to re-arrest her and members of her family. In September, Iranian secret police arrested a Christian couple in the northeastern city of Mashhad, forcing them to leave behind their 6-year-old daughter. Authorities released Reza Montazami, 35, and his wife Fereshteh Dibaj, 28, by order of a Revolutionary Court in Mashhad only after Montazami’s elderly parents posted bail – turning over the title deed of property worth US$25,000. In December, Iranian secret police raided and arrested leaders of an indigenous house church movement in Tehran, Karaj, Rasht and Bandar-i Anzali. Several detained Christians were released, but four of eight jailed Christians remained in custody until Christmas, facing accusations such as “evangelization activities” and “actions against the national security of Iran.”
Even progress in justice was tinged with repression. Hamid Pourmand, whom a military tribunal in Tehran baselessly found guilty of deceiving the Iranian army by allegedly concealing his conversion from Islam to Christianity, was released on July 20 – with the warning that attending church services could result in him being sent back to finish the remaining 14 months of his three-year prison term.
2 – Eritrea Tightens Noose
Defying international pressures with brazen denials, the increasingly isolated regime in the Horn of Africa tightened its stranglehold on churches in 2006, torturing Christians to death and wresting control of ecclesiastical leadership and assets. Security police killed two Christians on October 17, two days after arresting them for holding services in a private home south of Asmara. Immanuel Andegergesh, 23, and Kibrom Firemichel, 30, died from torture wounds and severe dehydration in a military camp outside the town of Adi-Quala. Seven other men and three women of the evangelical Rema Church were kept in military confinement with Andegergesh and Firemichel and subjected to “furious mistreatment.” The deaths came after officials re-imprisoned popular Christian singer Helen Berhane, who was hospitalized as a result of spending 29 months in a metal shipping container; she was released without explanation later that month. Berhane’s leg had been seriously damaged as a result of beatings she received for refusing to deny her faith while imprisoned since her arrest in May 2004.
More than 2,000 Eritrean citizens, mostly Christian, are known to be jailed solely for their religious beliefs. In October, Eritrean authorities detained 150 Christians from at least five unrecognized churches. Local sources confirmed to Compass that police authorities were subjecting the detained Christians to beatings and other physical mistreatment. According to eyewitnesses, at least 10 nursing mothers were among the new prisoners, all of them forced to leave their infants behind. In May, two days after a Christian mother was arrested from her home and jailed by Eritrean police, her 6-month-old son died on his sickbed in Nefasit, 10 miles east of Asmara. Ghenet Gebremariam was arrested on May 8 with two other Protestant women who are also mothers with children and members of Nefasit’s banned Full Gospel Church. They were detained on accusations of “actively witnessing about Christ.” Two days later, Gebremariam’s baby, Hazaiel Daniel, died of unknown causes. Subsequently Gebremariam was released on bail.
In September, the Eritrean government demanded that Kale Hiwot Church surrender all its property and physical assets to the government – all church buildings, schools, vehicles and other assets. While Eritrea has banned all such independent religious groups not under the umbrella of the government-sanctioned Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim faiths since May 2002, in 2006 restrictions and controls on even the four recognized religions accelerated to unprecedented levels. In December, the regime wrested financial and personnel control from the Eritrean Orthodox Church, demanding that all offerings and tithes be deposited directly into a government account. The monthly salaries of all Orthodox priests were to be paid from this government-controlled fund of church income. The government also announced new limits for the number of priests to be allowed to serve in each parish, specifying that any “extra” priests beyond quota would be required to report to the Wi’a Military Training Center to perform required military service. The regime of President Isaias Afwerki had removed the church’s ordained Patriarch Abune Antonios from office in August 2005 and placed him under house arrest.
3 – Christians Targeted in Iraq
Christian leaders were increasingly targeted by Muslim militants in Iraq who have found kidnapping lucrative. Muslim extremists in Iraq murdered a Presbyterian Church elder after kidnapping him following worship services at the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Mosul on November 26. The body of the clergyman, identified only as 69-year-old Elder Munthir, was found on a Mosul street on November 30 with a single bullet to the head. The kidnappers had said by telephone that they would “kill all the Christians, and we will start with him.” In October, Muslim kidnappers abducted and beheaded a Syrian Orthodox priest, leaving his corpse in an outlying suburb of Mosul. Father Boulos Iskander, 59, was kidnapped on October 9. The kidnappers had demanded US$350,000 ransom, and then reduced their demand to US$40,000 with the stipulation that the priest’s church publicly repudiate Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks about Islam in September. The family paid the ransom, and the St. Ephram parish of the Syrian Orthodox Church placed 30 large signboards on walls around the city, distancing itself from the pontiff’s comments – all to no avail.
A Chaldean priest kidnapped in front of his Baghdad home was released on December 10. Father Samy Abdulahad Al-Raiys was freed six days after he had been abducted in Baghdad’s Al-Sinaa street while driving to his parish. He was the fifth priest kidnapped in 2006. Commented one Baghdad priest who requested anonymity, “So many of us are frightened. We are asking, ‘Who will be the next?’” Al-Raiys’ disappearance came only five days after Baghdad Chaldean cleric Douglas Yousef Al-Bazy was released on November 29, his nose broken and requiring surgery. Iraq’s young Christian women have also become open targets for insurgents plying the kidnapping industry. One girl subjected to gang rape took her own life while still hostage, and another was reportedly so traumatized by the torture and sexual violence she suffered that she committed suicide even after the ransom had been paid and she had gone home.
4 – Islamic Rage Triggered
Cartoons in a Danish newspaper portraying Muhammad as violent, and then a papal quote of a Byzantine emperor’s reference to Islam’s violent history, touched off Islamic violence in various countries. Christians were sometimes targeted. In Nigeria, Catholic priest Matthew Gajere of St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Maiduguri, Borno state, and 50 other Christians were killed on February 18 when Muslims extremists enraged by the caricatures burned 31 churches in Maiduguri and Katsina state. Rioters also torched the residence of the bishop of Maiduguri diocese. On February 23, Muslims angry over the cartoons killed 10 Christians and set ablaze nine churches in Kontagora, Niger state.
In Turkey, Father Andrea Santoro, 60, was shot twice in the back with a pistol after Sunday mass on February 5 as he knelt at the altar of the Santa Maria Catholic parish in Trabzon. Oguzhan Aydin, then 16, reportedly said he had murdered the priest as revenge for the Danish cartoons. The killing, for which Aydin received a prison sentence of nearly 19 years, was said to contribute to a deterioration of the religious climate in Turkey. Days later, a Franciscan friar was attacked and threatened by several Turkish youths in Izmir. In the second week of March, a young Turk in the southern port city of Mersin chased two clerics and a group of Catholic youth inside their church, cursing Christianity and threatening them with a butcher knife until he finally surrendered to local police. In July, an elderly French Catholic priest in Samsun, on the Black Sea, survived a knifing by a Turkish Muslim known for spreading false rumors against both Catholics and Protestants in the city.
In Pakistan, cartoon outrage indirectly affected Christians. With emotions running high over the cartoons in massive demonstrations in three major cities, on February 19 a crowd of 500 Muslims burned down two churches and a convent school in the southern province of Sindh over an alleged desecration of the Quran. Wielding gasoline bombs and other flammable chemicals, the mob attacked St. Mary’s Catholic Church and St. Savior’s Church of Pakistan in Sukkur, leaving them gutted. Protests against the caricatures had taken place almost daily in Sukkur.
Muslim hysteria erupted anew in September when Pope Benedict XVI, delivering an academic speech on faith and rationality at Regensburg University in Germany, quoted a remark by 14th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus that Muhammad had commanded Muslims “to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The veracity of the quote aside (it is supported by Islamic historians and the Quran), the pope – twice stating that the quote was not his own – was referring to the emperor having argued that historical Muslim violence was not rational. This ironic subtlety was lost on Islamic leaders and media worldwide, who misconstrued the quote as the pope’s own words and labeled his speech as offensive, thus riling up masses that have a sharia sanction to perceive any criticism of Muhammad as “blasphemy.” The following month, Iraqi Muslims who kidnapped a Syrian Orthodox priest in Mosul added repudiation of the pope’s remarks to their list of demands. (See above, “Christians Targeted in Iraq.”) After kidnapping 59-year-old Father Boulos Iskander on October 9, the Muslim extremists lowered their demand from US$350,000 to US$40,000 but added that the priest’s church must publicly spurn Benedict’s comments. They beheaded the Orthodox priest even though the family paid the ransom and his parish placed 30 large signboards on city walls distancing itself from the pontiff’s comments.
On November 26 (also noted above), Muslim extremists citing vengeance for the papal comments kidnapped 69-year-old Elder Munthir of Mosul’s National Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Telling negotiators by telephone, “We will take revenge for the pope’s words . . . We will kill all the Christians, and we will start with him,” the kidnappers killed the Iraqi clergyman with a single bullet to the head on November 29. Islamist militants had distributed flyers across Mosul demanding that Catholic clergy condemn the Pope’s remarks or else “Christians will be killed and churches burned down.”
5 – Islamic Terrorist Confesses to Beheadings in Indonesia
Last November, one of three Muslim extremists on trial for the October 29, 2005 beheading of three Christian teenagers in Poso, Indonesia admitted his role in the attacks. A group of machete-wielding men had ambushed Theresia Morangke, 15, Alfita Poliwo, 17, Yarni Sambue, 15 and Noviana Malewa, 15 as they walked to their Christian school. The first three girls died instantly; Malewa received serious injuries to her face and neck but survived the attack. Known by his single name of Hasanuddin, the defendant admitted planning the murders as a “gift” to celebrate Idul Fitri, a festival marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The beheadings were also carried out to avenge the deaths of Muslims during inter-faith clashes in the eastern province of Central Sulawesi between 1998 and 2001, according to the defendants. The trial of the 24-year-old Hasanuddin (alias Hasan) began on November 8 in a Jakarta district courtroom, while two suspected accomplices, Lilik Purnomo (alias Haris or Arman) and Irwanto Irano (alias Irwan, also known as Apriyantono), were tried separately. All three could face the death penalty. After the fatal ambush, the men wrapped the girls’ heads in black plastic bags, leaving one head on the steps of a church in nearby Kasiguncu village and the other two near a police station five miles from Poso. Police had searched in vain for the perpetrators of the attacks until May of this year, when seven Islamic terrorists confessed to the beheadings. On November 20, the parents of the slain girls met with the defendants, and one mother said she was ready to pardon them. The families embraced the terrorists and shook hands as a sign of peace.
6 – Hindu Campaign against Mission in Rajasthan, India
Still reeling after being voted from federal power in 2004, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – political wing of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – stepped up its campaign for Hindu nationalism. Faith-based collusion between government and goons was most apparent in a coordinated attack in BJP-ruled Rajasthan state, where authorities mounted a brazen campaign against the social ministries of Emmanuel Mission International (EMI). Rajasthan state police officers on March 16 arrested the Rev. Dr. Samuel Thomas, president of EMI and son of Archbishop M.A. Thomas, EMI’s founder. Both men had gone underground after Hindu extremists accused them of distributing a controversial book they alleged denigrated their religion and deities.
Samuel Thomas has been released on bail, and his father has been granted anticipatory bail. Previously police detained without charges EMI’s chief operating officer and the officer in charge of its Hope Center Orphanage in Raipura. In late May, the administration of Kota district leveled fresh charges of “exciting . . . disaffection towards the government of India” against M.A. Thomas and his son. The new accusation was based on Kota police reportedly charging that the map of India shown on the website of Georgia-based Hopegivers International, which funds EMI, excluded Jammu and Kashmir state. An offense under this law can lead to imprisonment for life. In the second week of May, a concerted attack on EMI orphanages, schools and other ministries had intensified when the state social welfare minister, Madan Dilawar, said he should be stoned to death if his government effort to take over EMI’s properties failed. The statement came less than a month after the state unduly revoked the licenses of an EMI Bible institute, orphanage, school, hospital and church in the northern state. The licenses and frozen assets of EMI have since been temporarily restored.
On February 2, a mob of Hindu extremists had attacked an EMI orphanage in Tindole, resulting in the death of one child and the stoning and beatings of children, staff and local clergy. On February 10 in Ramganjmandi, a Hindu mob burned to the ground an EMI school and orphanage. According to mission officials, local police warned the head of the EMI school and orphanage in advance that they would not stop the violence. Also on February 10, police in Kota notified Emmanuel Seminary that they would not provide security for the graduation ceremony of 10,250 students and advised Archbishop Thomas to cancel or postpone it. More than 8,100 students relocated their graduation ceremonies to cities in southern India.
Hindu extremists on February 25 called for a boycott of the Kota orphanage, ending legal aid from lawyers and food from merchants for the children. EMI officials said that on February 27, building inspectors were being recruited to find fault with the orphanages, schools and church buildings in order to have them condemned and torn down and replaced with yoga centers and Hindu temples. Hindu extremists on March 3 had offered a reward of US$26,000 each for the heads of Archbishop Thomas and his son.
A delegation from the All India Christian Council (AICC) submitted a report to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on March 21 concluding that the Rajasthan state government was harassing Christians due to pressure from the BJP. The delegation concluded that the Rajasthan government machinery, including the justice, law and civil administration systems, was “overwhelmed by political pressure from the BJP” and that Dilawar, the state minister for social welfare, was behind attacks on Christians in Kota. “BJP’s members roam free offering large sums of money for the murder of Archbishop M.A. Thomas and his son, while the state machinery merrily strangulates his orphanages and schools by summarily rescinding their registrations without even giving enough time to respond to a show cause notice,” AICC Secretary General John Dayal reported.
7 – Islamic Violence Hits Classrooms in Nigeria
Educational institutions became the new battleground for Islamists in Nigeria bent on spreading their religion by force. Christian teachers and students in high schools and universities suffered. At the Government Day Secondary School in Bauchi, capital of Bauchi state, on February 20 Muslim students attacked English teacher Florence Chuckwu after she confiscated a Quran that a student was reading during her lesson. With her dress torn and blood gushing from her head, Chuckwu was locked in the principal’s office to keep her from being killed in the ensuing riot. By the end of the day, more than 20 Christians were killed, and two churches were burned along with many houses belonging to believers. Chuckwu’s whereabouts are unknown. At the Government College in Keffi, in the northern state of Nasarawa, a Christian high school teacher went on trial in October for blasphemy after he disciplined a Muslim student. English and history teacher Joshua Lai was charged with blasphemy against the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and for “public incitement, rioting, and mischief,” after he disciplined a Muslim student for arriving late to class. Muslim students attacked Christian students and teachers and burned four houses, including Lai’s home. Alerted by Christian students of a plan by Muslim students to behead him that night, the teacher and his son fled their home. Police caught up with Lai in Abuja, and he was remanded to prison custody for eight days before being released on bail.
In Sokoto, students, teachers and officials at the School of Nursing and Midwifery in the northern Nigeria city in February condemned a student to death by stoning for “blasphemy.” Ladi Muhammed, 22, went into hiding. A friend had rebuked her for being a Christian after overhearing her telephone conversation that led her to mistakenly conclude that Muhammed’s mother was Muslim – making Muhammad an “apostate.” In fact Muhammed was raised mainly by her mother, a Christian living in Kebbi state who was divorced from a Muslim when Muhammed was very young. The ensuing argument led to Muhammed supposedly making “blasphemous” statements and an interrogation by school officials. School personnel judged her and were taking her to a sharia court for confirmation of the death sentence when Muhammed escaped. The following morning, Muslim students went on a rampage, burning down the house of the administration officer for allowing her to escape, and Christians living near the school were also attacked.
At Ahmadu Bello University in Zaira, Kaduna state, two female Christian students went missing after seven Muslims, also young student women, assaulted them on March 18 at the school. The two students were about to bathe at the women’s residence when the Muslim women, veiled and covered in Islamic robes, emerged from a mosque and attacked, beating them until they were unconscious. Identified only as Joy and Priscilla, the victims were treated at the university health clinic, but they have not been seen since the campus reopened on March 28.
8 – Pastor Zhang Sentenced in China
The Zhongmu City People’s Court sentenced Chinese house church pastor Zhang Rongliang to seven and a half years in prison on June 29 – though he was not notified of the verdict until July 4. A key leader of the China for Christ house church movement formerly known as Fangcheng, Zhang was arrested by Henan police without charges on December 1, 2004. Only months later was he charged with “attaining a passport through cheating” and with “illegal border crossing” (Chinese authorities often deny passports to well-known house church leaders).
Following his arrest, authorities confiscated Christian DVDs and other materials from Zhang’s house that allegedly linked him with foreign Christians; contact with foreign co-religionists can constitute illegal activity in China. Zhang’s lawyer, Zheng Laiyou, was not optimistic about an appeal. “It is very clear that the verdict was not made independently by the People’s Court,” he said. The verdict followed a series of court hearings, the last of which was held on April 6. By April 13, the Zhongmu City People’s Court had acknowledged that “there was insufficient evidence and ambiguous facts,” and submitted the case to the Zhengzhou City Intermediate People’s Court for legal advice. At the April 6 hearing, Zhang had argued his right for a passport as a Chinese citizen and denied the charge of “attaining passports through cheating” for three of his co-workers. Pastor Zhang’s wife, Chen Hongxian, was shocked at the verdict. “It is the Communist Party’s court, not the People’s Court, that makes the real decision,” she said. Pastor Zhang has five chronic diseases, including high blood pressure and severe diabetes, which were all acknowledged in an official hospital diagnosis in 2005.
According to a government official sympathetic to the plight of house church members, the Zhengzhou City Political and Legal Committee was displeased with an impending decision by the People’s Court of Xinmi to dismiss all charges and release Zhang. The Zhengzhou committee therefore asked the Zhongmu city court to re-examine the case. Officials in Zhongmu refused to accept Zhang, however, fearing he might die in their custody as a result of serious health problems. Zhang was then admitted to the Xinmi city People’s Hospital on December 19, 2005, where he stayed until January 23. One witness reported seeing Zhang handcuffed and chained to his hospital bed. Later Zhang was transferred to a Zhongmu City hospital.
9 – Vietnam’s Forlorn Pastors
Some Vietnamese church leaders were disappointed when the U.S. State Department removed Vietnam from the list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom in 2006. On November 13, the state department declined to re-designate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern after including the country on the list for two years. The department cited steps the Communist regime had taken after enacting new religion laws banning forced renunciations of faith, opening once-closed churches, and clarifying how churches can register. Compass did not report on the state department decision, which received broad mainstream media coverage, but rather on the concerns that Vietnamese church leaders voiced – largely ignored – before the decision was made.
While U.S. diplomats claimed hundreds of Vietnamese churches had reopened, were operating freely and were getting registered, pastors in the country saw progress as modest at best. After U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford visited Vietnam in September, two church leaders there told Compass they were surprised that he later asserted there was “enormous progress” in religious freedom in the country. A major point of contention is the number of Vietnamese congregations that have registered. Of the legally recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North), only 32 of its 1,214 congregations have been recognized, or 2.5 percent. Of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South), some 475 of its 1,600 churches have been registered, or 29 percent. Combined, 18 percent of the churches of the two ECVN groups registered. Compass sources in the country estimate only about 240 of the non-ECVN churches registered, or 16 percent of 1,500. In total, only about 750 of 4,350 congregations, or 17 percent, were registered by year’s end.
Nor does local registration – only a one-year permission – always appear to allow the churches to operate “freely.” When 18 of 534 Hmong churches who applied learned that their registrations had been accepted in September, some Vietnamese pastors pointed out that since being forced to list members by name under the registration rules, their churches have suffered numerous and wide-ranging threats and intrusive actions by local authorities. Police and officials who long persecuted the Hmong, for example, now sit in some of their church services as observers. In some churches, authorities prohibited anyone under 14 years old from attending. In other churches, authorities did not accept the leadership and forced congregations to choose another under their supervision. Authorities have also checked the attendance of some churches against membership lists and expelled any visitors or guests, the leaders said. Government officials have tried to stop the movement of respected church leaders and teachers, and they have even dictated the order of service.
Interestingly, authorities chose to register only the 18 smaller churches of the Hmong, most with leaders not considered strong, of the 534 that applied. Pastors of larger, more vigorous Hmong churches have said they will refuse to register if these are the “benefits” of doing so. Elsewhere, about 50 house church organizations have agreed that they should try to register their activities according to the new religion legislation. But the church leaders say that the highly intrusive nature of some of the questions they must answer are unnecessary and incompatible with religious freedom. House church leaders refused to comply with a procedure requiring the signing of a pledge to obey the decrees of local officials without any specification of what these decrees might be. In some parts of the country, such local officials have often capriciously harassed and persecuted Christians in spite of laws to the contrary. Yet without receiving registration, these house churches representing more than 200,000 Christians will remain illegal.
One house church leader also reported obtaining a new internal government document indicating a strong push by Vietnam to gather information about all Christian groups – to decide on that basis which ones are eligible for registration. According to the new directive, he said, Christians not considered to have a “genuine need for religion” are to be mobilized and persuaded “to return to their traditional beliefs and practices.”
10 – Democracy, Afghan Style
An avalanche of media coverage of an Afghan man facing the death penalty for converting to Christianity apparently prompted the arrest and deepening harassment of other Afghan Christians in the ultra-conservative Muslim country. Authorities arrested Abdul Rahman, then 41, in February for the “crime” of leaving Islam for Christianity. Compass confirmed the arrest of two other Afghan Christians. Another Afghan convert to Christianity was beaten severely outside his home by six men who ultimately knocked him unconscious with a hard blow to his temple. He regained consciousness in the hospital two hours later. Several other Afghan Christians were subjected to police raids on their homes and workplaces, as well as to telephone threats.
Rahman faced the death penalty for the “crime” of converting from Islam to Christianity in mid-March, but after international pressure he was released and whisked out of the country. Although Islamist militants have captured and murdered at least five Afghan Christians in the past two years for abandoning Islam, Rahman’s case was the local judiciary’s first known prosecution case for apostasy in recent decades. Prosecutor Abdul Wasi called Rahman a traitor to Islam. “We are Muslims, and becoming a Christian is against our laws,” the prosecutor reportedly said. “He must get the death penalty.”
Rahman’s plight dramatized the judicial paradox within Afghanistan’s constitution, ratified in January 2004. Although it guarantees freedom of religion to non-Muslims, it also prohibits laws that are “contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” At the same time, the constitution obliges the state to abide by the treaties and conventions it has signed, which include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In outlining freedoms of thought, conscience and religion, Article 18 of this convention explicitly guarantees “freedom to change [one’s] religion or belief.”
Copyright 2007 Compass Direct News