Thursday, December 31, 2009

Death of a Champion: Abdurrahman Wahid

Former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, known as a champion of democracy and moderate Islam, died December 26th at the age of 69 after a long struggle with strokes, diabetes and near blindness.

Better known as Gus Dur to his constituents, the late Muslim cleric was Indonesia's first democratically elected president. He came to power in 1999 following the fall of military strongman Suharto in 1998.

He was preceded by former Vice President Baharudin Jusuf Habibie, who became president for little more than a year after Suharto resigned. Habibie says President Wahid was a key figure in Indonesia's transition to democracy.

He says Wahid promoted pluralism as the key to peace and prosperity in Indonesia.

Political analyst Sunny Tanuwidjaja with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta says Wahid was a strong advocate for religious freedom and diversity.

"I think his liberal thinking, his progressive thinking in regards to religious freedom and religious life in Indonesia is something that we are going to miss very much," he said.

But President Wahid political skills were not as highly regarded. He was criticized for his erratic leadership style and was removed from office by the national assembly in 2001 amid unproven allegations of corruption and incompetence.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sudan Yet on the Brink

An official of South Sudan’s government says Sudan is in danger of witnessing another civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south unless the international community intervenes.

The National Congress Party, headed by President Omar al-Bashir, has repeatedly broken the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the country’s bloody two-decade-long civil war, reported Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, head of government of South Sudan Mission to the United States, to International Christian Concern.

As a result of the North’s failure, the delicate peace process is in danger of being derailed, he said.
“The role of the international community is to get in now and help us (the South and North Sudanese) to make sure that we work together to avoid war, to have peaceful disengagement and a fair election [and] put a lot of pressure on the NCP to end the war in Darfur,” Gatkuoth said.

Sudan is scheduled to hold its first national and presidential elections in April 2010. The elections will be the country’s first in 24 years. Then in January 2011, Sudan is slated to hold a referendum on whether South Sudan will secede from Sudan.

Gatkuoth said studies show that 98 percent of the people in Southern Sudan plan to vote for separation.
The elections and referendum are part of the 2005 Sudanese Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended one of Africa’s longest and bloodiest civil wars. The two-decade conflict between ethnic African southerners, who are mostly Christian and animist, and Sudan’s Arab-dominated government left an estimated two million people dead and tens of thousands of others displaced and wounded.

Hundreds of churches in Southern Sudan were also destroyed by Muslim militiamen from the north during the civil war.

In the five years that the CPA has existed, there has always been fear that the peace process would be derailed over disputes about the border between the north and south, the enactment of a national security law, and the April 2010 election, among other issues.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last week noted that the NCP escalated the tension between the north and south by pushing through the National Assembly – a body the party controls – a Southern Sudan referendum bill with new language that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement did not agree to. The SPLM is the primarily Christian political party that governs South Sudan.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sorrowful Christmas in Islamic Lands

Christians in the Iraqi city have opted not to celebrate Christmas this year, since Ashura, a major Shi’ite day of mourning, falls on the same day. So out of “respect” for the local Shi’ites, Chaldean Catholic Bishop Imad Al Banna asked all Christians in Basra not to engage in any public celebration of Christmas, and not even to entertain guests or show any joy in the day.

Would Shi’ites curtail one of their celebrations to show similar “respect” to the Christians? Would they mute their joy on Eid al-Fitr if it began on Good Friday? And what would happen to these Christians if they failed to show this “respect”?

Meanwhile, Christians are still streaming out of Iraq in such large numbers that the ancient Christian community is on the verge of extinction. Islamic jihadists last week attacked churches and Christian schools in Mosul, with forty people killed in bomb attacks and random Christians targeted for violence on the streets. This is after jihadist violence late last year killed forty and drove 12,000 Christians from the area.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Attacks on Iraqi Christians Condemned

As Iraqi Christians face a new round of violence this Christmas season, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued this statement:

“The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom calls for increased protection of Iraqi Christians, particularly in Mosul and the north, as well as other minority religious groups” said Leonard Leo, USCIRF chair. “USCIRF calls on the Iraqi government to investigate and bring to justice those who have already perpetrated and planned this most recent round of violence.”

Bombs exploded December 23rd in front of the Syrian Orthodox church of St. Thomas and the Chaldean church of St. George in Mosul. The death toll so far is of three dead - a Chaldean Christian and two Muslims. Other media report that on December 15, a Christian baby was killed and 40 persons injured as three bombs were detonated simultaneously targeting Christian churches. On December 17, an Iraqi Christian was killed as he traveled to work. In the last 45 days, four Mosul churches have been attacked. By some estimates, three-quarters of all the Christians in Iraq have fled since 2003, and as the violence targeting them continues, many fear the time will come when there will be no Christians left in Iraq.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

France Retreats on Burqa Ban

France is moving towards outlawing full Islamic veils in certain public buildings, stopping short of a broader ban that could violate the right to religious freedom.

“Permanently masking one's face in public spaces is not an expression of individual liberty,” Jean-Francois Cope, the parliamentary party leader of Sarkozy's UMP party, said in an opinion piece in newspaper Le Figaro.

“It's a negation of oneself, a negation of others, a negation of social life,” he said, but conceded that a complete ban faced certain legal obstacles.

The Le Figaro newspaper piece quoted advisers as saying such a ban could be challenged before the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that it hurt religious freedom.

China Rights Attorney Plight Worsens

The condition of human rights attorney, Gao Zhisheng is described as being "worse than death," according to China Aid. Almost a year ago, officials detained Gao for defending the rights of persecuted believers in China. Authorities also recently cut off communication with his family in response to international pressure. At the end of November, in an interview with Radio Free Asia, Gao's brother described the governmental confusion their family faced.

"No one knows anything," he said. "For every question, there are three unknowns. They won't talk to us, and they won't meet with us.
"Even if Gao Zhisheng did commit a terrible crime, his family would still have the right to know what had happened to him."

Following the release of the interview, Gao's older brother and sister lost all contact when their phone lines were disabled.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Missionary Activity Still Targeted in Russia

Religious liberty advocates in Russia say proposed amendments to a national law seek to regulate free religious expression in the country and endanger profession of faith provisions in the Russian constitution.

The amendments to the 1997 law called "On Freedom of Conscience and Association" specifically target so-called "missionary activity" in the country, experts say.

If passed, the anticipated amendments will "not only contradict the constitution, but also violate the right to freedom of conscience and faith," said Viktor Vitko, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Euro-Asia.

Vitko's comments came a week after representatives from the Euro-Asia chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), the Slavic Law Center and the Institution of Religion in Law met in Moscow to defend missionary activity as a fundamental expression of freedom of conscience.

While the Russian constitution includes religious liberty provisions, the government does not consistently uphold the equality of minority religions before the law, according to the Religious Freedom World Report, a publication of the world church's PARL department.

More than 52,000 Seventh-day Adventists worship in Russia, part of the two percent of Russians who call themselves non-Orthodox Christians. Reports indicate that Adventists are generally allowed to evangelize freely, but religious liberty experts worry that if passed, the amendments would jeopardize that freedom.

The law in question already gives the Russian Orthodox Church preferred status and "significantly disadvantages" some religious groups deemed "nontraditional," according to the World Report. When passed in 1997, the law required every religious and faith community to register before 2001. At that point, more than 2,000 yet unregistered organizations were "dissolved," the report said.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Pope: Signs of RF in Cuba?

Pope Benedict XVI stated this week that there are growing signs of religious freedom in Cuba and that there is an opportunity for reconciliation between the communist nation and the United States.

Welcoming Havana's new ambassador to the Vatican, Benedict also expressed sympathy for Cuba's suffering during the global downturn as well as "the devastating effects of natural disasters and the economic embargo."
President Barack Obama has loosened some travel and financial restrictions, and the two countries have discussed re-establishing direct mail links. Still, Washington has made clear it has no intention of ending its embargo unless Cuba undertakes political, economic and social reform.

Benedict told Eduardo Delgado Bermudez that "certain signs of openness in relations with the neighboring United States presage new opportunities for a mutually beneficial rapprochement."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Obama, Turkish PM Pressed on RF

Dear Mr. President, As you prepare for your upcoming meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom urges you to make freedom of religion a key component of your discussions. In particular, we strongly recommend that, among other issues outlined here, you ask the Prime Minister to commit to a date certain for return of ownership and control of the Halki Seminary to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Christian Church, and to commit to eliminating the state controls on the internal governance of that Church and the Greek Orthodox community.

During your speech to the Turkish parliament in April you noted that “[f]reedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state,” and that “[a]n enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people . . . . Robust minority rights let societies benefit from the full measure of contributions from all citizens.” We welcomed those remarks and believe it is most fitting again to raise these important points when you meet with Prime Minister Erdoğan.

While Turkey has a democratic government, the state has applied the concept of secularism to fully control religion in public life in a manner that has resulted in many restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief amounting to violations for persons living in Turkey, for its majority Muslim as well as its minority religious communities. Ensuring greater respect for freedom of religion or belief will foster a strong and secular Turkish state, while protecting the human rights of those living there.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Clerics Raise Voices Against Noise Law

Church leaders in the larger Nakuru District of Nairobi, Kenya, and other parts of the country are preparing to move to court to challenge the just enacted rules on noise pollution.

Speaking during a pastors' meeting in Nakuru, Bishop Mark Kariuki of Deliverance Church of Kenya said the law was oppressive and denied some Christians their freedom of worship and expression.
He said while some Christians liked to worship in silence others were loud since that was their way of praise.
"You cannot force worshippers who want to sing and shout in praise because even the Bible tells us to make a joyful noise to the Lord," said Bishop Kariuki.

Addressing the press after they read out a memorandum in response to the harmonised draft constitution, the church leaders said they were consulting their lawyers with the intention of challenging the rules fronted by Environment minister John Michuki.

"We will sing and make noise in God's praise even if they jail us or take us to court," said Bishop Kariuki.
On the draft constitution, the church leaders said they would mobilise their followers to shoot it down if the clause on Kadhi courts was not deleted.

The leaders demanded the deletion of Articles 208 (b) and 209.

Article 208 (b) recognises Kadhi courts as subordinate courts while Article 209 expounds on the formation, officials and functions of the courts.Most Kenyans are of the opinion that the constitution must treat all religions equally, said Pastor Sammy Nkahu of News Creation Church.

He noted that the draft contradicted itself because while Article 10 provided that all religions were equal and must be treated equally by the State, the same document also sought to establish Kadhi courts for another group.

The memorandum also called for the amendment of Article 42 (2) which gave the impression that marriage shall be between man and woman under the constitution.
Pastor Nkahu noted that the constitution failed to prohibit same-sex unions and founding families through adoption.

Separately, Bishop Geoffrey Buliba of the Christian Brotherhood Church said Kenya could experience a major problem in the future if the Kadhi courts are entrenched in the constitution.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

CSID Condemns Attack on RF in Switzerland

The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy notes with great concern the recent referendum in Switzerland which according to a majority of the votes will ban the construction of mosque minarets in that country.  This development is part of a recent disturbing trend in significant parts of Europe to restrict the religious freedom and self-expression of religious and ethnic minorities, notably of Muslims, who are full citizens of these European countries which otherwise pride themselves on being democratic and tolerant.  

We note that the Swiss government to its credit was against this proposal but could not prevail against the incendiary and intolerant rhetoric of the extremist Swiss People's Party (SVP).  It is equally noteworthy that the results of this referendum have been welcomed by leaders of other radical right-wing groups in Europe, such as Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the radical-right Austrian Freedom Party, and Marine Le Pen, vice-president of France's National Front, which points to the possibility of religious and political extremism spreading further in Europe.  

Monday, November 30, 2009

China House Church Leaders Sentenced

A court in northern China has sentenced five leaders of an unauthorized Protestant church to prison terms of up to seven years on charges including illegal assembly.

The sentences are among the harshest in recent years for members of so-called "house churches" - congregations that refuse to register and accept the authority of the government's Religious Affairs Bureau.
Arrests stemmed from a Sept. 13 raid by police and hired security guards on sunrise services held in a dormitory building by the 50,000-member Linfen Fushan Church in Linfen, northern Shanxi province, rights groups and the advocacy Web site reported.

Those sentenced late Wednesday, November 25th, by the Linfen Intermediate Court included the church's pastor Wang Xiaoguang and his wife Yang Rongli, who both received the maximum sentence. Yang was apparently targeted for her efforts to petition local authorities on Wang's behalf, Boxun said. Others were given sentences of between three and four-and-a-half-years, it said.

The trial was called at the last minute and the court permitted only one family member of each defendant to attend, the reports said. Local authorities had previously refused to allow lawyers to meet with the accused.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Extremists Execute Young Convert in Somalia

Islamic extremists controlling part of the Somali capital of Mogadishu this month executed a young Christian they accused of trying to convert a 15-year-old Muslim to Christianity.

Members of the Islamic extremist group al Shabaab had taken 23-year-old Mumin Abdikarim Yusuf into custody on Oct. 28 after the 15-year-old boy reported him to the militants, an area source told Compass. Yusuf’s body was found on Nov. 14 on an empty residential street in Mogadishu, with sources saying the convert from Islam was shot to death, probably some hours before dawn.

“Our brother Yusuf has been murdered,” the source told Compass. “His body was dumped in Yaqshid district of Mogadishu, and his body is said to be on an empty residential street.”
Al Shabaab, said to have links with al Qaeda terrorists, controls parts of Mogadishu and much of southern parts of Somalia, as well as other areas of the nation.

Their accusations against Yusuf had led the extremist group to raid Yusuf’s home in Holwadag district, Mogadishu, sources said. After searching his home, militia didn’t find anything relating to Christianity but still took him into custody.

Before Yusuf was executed by two shots to the head, reports filtered in to the Compass source that he had been badly beaten and his fingers broken as the Islamists tried to extract incriminating evidence against him and information about other Christians. The source later learned that Yusuf’s body showed signs of torture; all of his front teeth were gone, and some of his fingers were broken, he said.

“We don’t know the time he was murdered, but his freshly killed body was dumped in Yaqshid district at around 4:30 in the morning of Nov. 14, and due to the will of the family we have buried the body at around 3 p.m. on Nov. 14,” the source said.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Egyptian Convert Sends Plea to Obama

15-year-old Egyptian girl Dina el-Gowhary, who converted from Islam to Christianity, has sent a plea to President Obama, complaining of mistreatment by the Egyptian Government and asking for his mediation. "Mr President Obama," she writes, "we are a minority in Egypt. We are treated very badly. You said that the Muslim minority in America are treated very well, so why are we not treated here likewise? We are imprisoned in our own home because Muslim clerics called for the murder of my father, and now the Government has set for us a new prison, we are imprisoned in our own country."

The handwritten Arabic letter, posted on Coptic websites, also says "I am 15 years old but I still have hope that my message will reach President Obama."

The el-Gowhary family was barred from leaving Egypt on September 17, 2009 without any legal reason. They were told, however, that the order came from a higher authority (AINA 9-26-200).

Dina, is the daughter of 57-year-old Maher el-Gowhary, also known by his Christian name Peter Athanasius, who embraced Christianity secretly 35 years ago. In August, 2008 he filed the second ever lawsuit of a Muslim-born Egyptian against the Egyptian Government to officially alter his identification documents to reflect his new Christian identity. He lost the case in June 2009. According to the Court ruling, the religious conversion of a Muslim is against Islamic Sharia law and poses a threat to the "Public Order" in Egypt.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Christ Science lobbies for prayer in health-care

Leaders of the Church of Christ, Scientist, are pushing a proposal that would help patients pay its spiritual practitioners for prayer by having insurers reimburse the $20 to $40 cost. The provision was stripped from the bill the House passed this month, and church leaders are trying to get it inserted into the Senate version.

And the church has powerful allies there, including Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who represents the state where the church is based, and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who said the provision would "ensure that health-care reform law does not discriminate against any religion."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Opposition to U.N. 'Defamation of Religions' Grows

More than 100 organizations, including Muslim and secularist ones, have signed a petition against the proposed U.N. resolutions on the "defamation of religions," which they contend will do more harm than good for religious freedom.

The “Common Statement from Civil Society on the Concept of the ‘Defamation of Religions,'” signed by organizations in over 20 countries, opposes the Organization of the Islamic Conference’s (OIC) proposal for the United Nations to adopt a binding treaty that would protect religions from defamation. The groups pointed out that a similar resolution adopted earlier this year only cites Islam as the religion that should be protected.

Moreover, human rights groups say the resolutions will give credit to anti-blasphemy laws in countries such as Pakistan and Sudan.

Reports indicate that blasphemy laws have been widely abused to justify violence and abuse against religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries. Blasphemy laws can also be used to silence critics of a religion and restrict freedom of speech.

“In seeking to protect ‘religion’ from defamation it is clear that existing international human rights protections will be undermined, specifically freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression,” said Tina Lambert, Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s advocacy director.

“For the sake of those who already suffer unjustly under such legislation (blasphemy laws) and for the protection of our existing international human rights framework, it is vital that member states act to prevent such a treaty or optional protocol being established,” she said.

Since 1999, when the “defamation of religions” resolution was first proposed, this is the first time that sponsors have asked for it to become a binding treaty.
Angela C. Wu, international law director of the Becket Fund, one of the groups that signed the petition, argued, “Human rights are meant to protect the individuals, not ideas or governments. Yet the concept of ‘defamation of religions’ further empowers governments to choose which peacefully expressed ideas are permissible and which are not.

"It is pivotal for human rights defenders around the globe to unite against this flawed concept before it becomes binding law."

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Uproar Over EU Ruling on Crucifixes in Spain

Spanish bishops have come out in protest against the recent ruling made by the European court for human rights which was against the presence of a crucifix in classrooms saying that it was against the parents’ rights to make their children learn according to their own convictions and acted against the religious freedom of the students.

Juan Antonio Martínez Camino, the spokesman for the bishops said that the crucifix stood for freedom and the court’s ruling was unjust and sad. He also added that the crucifix symbolized respect for a person’s dignity from his birth to death. He questioned that what would replace the crucifix in classrooms.

Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said that Italy would not remove the crucifix from classrooms and that there was no chance that they would be forced into getting rid of them.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Chinese Lawyers Face Govt. Oppression

Religious freedom activists in China are not the only ones needing a lawyer; their lawyers also are being attacked by the government.

"They are the defenders for the defenseless and a voice to the voiceless, and basically, for doing that, they themselves have been facing danger. The defenders themselves need defense, ironically," said Bob Fu, president of China Aid.

At a news conference in Washington, six Chinese legal rights professionals recounted their treatment by the Chinese government.

One of the attorneys, Cao Zhi, founder and editor-in-chief of the Citizen Republic magazine in China, noted that a 2005 law enacted in China stipulates that if the government does not grant permission for a religious activity, it is considered illegal.

Dai Jinbo, a legal counsel for Chinese house churches, described a recent case that involved a church that was attacked at 3 a.m. on Sept. 13 in northeastern China's Shanxi province. At least 300 police raided the Linfen House Church, physically beat a number of believers and destroyed much of the church's property.

Zhang Kai, a defense attorney whose law license was revoked in May, cited some reasons Chinese officials persecute church members through beatings, imprisonments or insults:

-- If the church is not registered through the government.

-- If the church does not ask permission to have religious activities.

-- If the church evangelizes in other Chinese regions without government permission.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Scientology Convicted of Fraud in France

A Paris court has convicted the Church of Scientology of fraud and fined it more than euro600,000 ($900,000), but stopped short of banning the group's activities.
The group's French branch said it would appeal the verdict.
The court convicted the Church of Scientology's French office, its library and six of its leaders of organized fraud. Investigators said the group pressured members into paying large sums of money for questionable financial gain and used "commercial harassment" against recruits.
The group was fined euro400,000 ($600,000) and the library euro200,000. Four of the leaders were given suspended sentences of between 10 months and two years. The other two were given fines of euro1,000 and euro2,000.
Prosecutors had urged that the group be disbanded in France and fined euro2 million. A law that was briefly on the books this year prevented the court from going so far as to disband the French branch of Scientology in the October 27th verdict — though it could have taken the lesser step of shutting down its operations.
However, the court did not do so, ruling that French Scientologists would have continued their activities anyway "outside any legal framework."
A spokeswoman for the French branch of Scientology, Agnes Bron, said the verdict was "an Inquisition of modern times," a reference to efforts to rout out heretics of the Roman Catholic Church in centuries past.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

U.S. Hits Effort on Religious Speech

The United States opposes an effort by Muslim nations at the United Nations to ban religious "defamation," because the proposal would conflict with freedom of speech.

"Based on our own experience, we are convinced that the best antidote to intolerance is not the defamation of religions' approach of banning and punishing offensive speech, but rather a combination of robust legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes, proactive government outreach to minority religious groups and the vigorous defense of both freedom of religion and expression," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said to reporters.

She made her comments while unveiling the State Department's annual report on international religious freedom.

A pending resolution before the U.N. General Assembly sponsored by the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is to be voted on in mid-November.
The effort has gained momentum since the 2005 publication by a Danish newspaper of editorial cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

Mrs. Clinton said: "Religion provides a cornerstone for every healthy society. It empowers faith-based service. It fosters tolerance and respect among different communities, and allows nations that uphold it to become more stable, secure and prosperous."

The United States and many European nations fear the anti-defamation resolution will protect religion at the expense of freedom of speech and worship, which are guaranteed by the U.N. Charter.

Christian groups fear the resolution could endanger the lives of worshippers living abroad. Israel says it rejects the resolution, as do many human rights organizations.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Military RFF Nominated for Peace Prize

Albuquerque-based Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), a civil rights charitable organization that has worked both fearlessly and tirelessly to stop religious discrimination and oppression in the United States armed forces, has been nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

Since its founding in 2005, the MRFF has become the undisputed national and international leader in the civil rights movement to restore the severely fractured wall between church and state in the United States military and to stop the ill effects of noxious religious discrimination both domestically and abroad. The growing organization currently has over 15,000 constituent clients from today’s American active duty military, amazingly most of them practicing Christians. MRFF has also fought aggressively for the Constitutional rights of United States service members who are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists, agnostics and other religious minorities, and to stop the unbridled proselytizing of Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis and other foreign nationals by the U.S. military.

While the Nobel committee does not officially release the names of nominees for 50 years, the letter nominating the MRFF was authorized for release by the Foundation, though redacted so as not to reveal the identity of the nominating source at his request. The nominator of MRFF for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize is identified as a Senator from a foreign nation, which is an ally of the United States, and the only Christian legislator in the upper chamber of that country’s national parliament.
The nomination letter states, “The past accomplishments and ongoing critical work of the MRFF have gained this civil rights organization the profound respect of officers and officials in the highest ranks of the United States military...”.

The MRFF has tenaciously taken on the U.S. military with a bold, brave approach to stopping the systemic and embedded discrimination against those who are not fundamentalist Christians in today’s armed forces, as well as against the citizens of the Islamic countries where our military is presently engaged in combat operations. Such egregious acts of bigotry and prejudice include violence and threats against U.S. sailors, soldiers, marines, airmen, cadets and midshipmen who will no longer accept the unconstitutional abuse of forced religious oppression from their military chains of command.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Suppression of Buddhists in Vietnam

The violent forced expulsion of more than 300 followers of the world-renowned Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh from Bat Nha monastery in late September highlights the Vietnamese government's suppression of religious freedom, according to Human Rights Watch.

In 2005, the Vietnamese government welcomed Thich Nhat Hanh during his first return to his homeland after 39 years in exile abroad. Government and religious officials subsequently invited him to open a Buddhist meditation center at Bat Nha monastery in Lam Dong province, which soon began to draw large numbers of followers.

But on September 27, 2009, police officers cordoned off the monastery as more than 100 thugs and undercover police officers armed with sticks and hammers broke down the doors and forcefully evicted 150 monks - all followers of Thich Nhat Hanh - beating some of the monks in the process. Police reportedly arrested two senior monks, Phap Hoi and Phap Sy, whose whereabouts remain unknown. The next day, in response to threats and coercion, more than 200 Buddhist nuns, also adherents of Thich Nhat Hanh, fled the monastery, seeking temporary refuge with the monks at a nearby pagoda.

"Once again Vietnam has clamped down on a peaceful religious group - even one that was initially welcomed by the government," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government views many religious groups, particularly popular ones that it fears it can't control, as a challenge to the Communist Party's authority."

The crackdown is thought to be linked in part to proposals Thich Nhat Hanh made during a private meeting with President Nguyen Minh Triet in 2007 - and later made public - urging the government to ease its restrictions on religion.

All religious groups must be authorized by the government and overseen by government-appointed management committees. For Buddhists - the majority of the population - the management entity is the government-sanctioned Vietnamese Buddhist Church (VBC), sometimes referred to as the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha.

The VBC, which is designated to preside over all Buddhist organizations and "sects" in Vietnam, oversees pagodas and educational institutes. Its approval is required for Buddhist ordinations and ceremonies, donations to pagodas, and temple expansions. It also vets the content of Buddhist publications and religious studies curricula offered at pagoda schools. In 2007, it authorized the establishment of Thich Nhat Hanh's Buddhist training and meditation center at Bat Nha monastery.

Other Buddhist organizations - such as the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) and some Hoa Hao and ethnic Khmer Buddhist congregations - are banned by the government because they choose to operate independently of government-appointed management committees.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Pakistan Pressed on Religious Tolerance

U.S. lawmakers want Pakistan to do more to fight religious intolerance, saying the issue should play a bigger role in U.S. assistance to and engagement with Pakistan in coming years. Witnesses at a congressional hearing testified that Pakistan's blasphemy laws encourage extremism.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which carry a potential death penalty for derogatory remarks or actions against Islam, the Koran or the Prophet Muhammad, have long been controversial within and outside the country.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organizations say the laws have been used to squelch dissent and oppress Muslim and non-Muslim religious minorities, and have often led to violence.
Anti-Christian violence in the Pakistani city of Gojra this past August resulted in the deaths of at least seven Christians, with 50 homes burned.

Nina Shea, of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, says additional events since Gojra have underscored that religious tensions continue. "Since Gojra several reports have been made of Muslims tearing out pages of [a] Koran and leaving them on church property, including [at] the Associated Reform Presbyterian Church in another Punjab village on September. This was an apparent attempt to ignite more religious violence," she said.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

India Urged to Protect Christians

A group of U.S. lawmakers have written to the Chief Minister of India's eastern state of Orissa, calling for action against those who have carried out attacks against Christians.

"Such attacks on the fundamental freedom of religion threaten not only India's reputation for religious diversity, but also the very stability of India's secular democracy," the 21 lawmakers, led by Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), state in the letter addressed to Naveen Patnaik.

Just over a dozen people have been convicted so far for the anti-Christian violence that erupted last year and many remain at large.

In August 2008, Hindu extremists carried out the worst religious persecution in India’s 60 years of democracy. At least 120 people were murdered, 250 churches destroyed and over 50,000 individuals displaced. Thousands remain in refugee camps, fearing more attacks if they return home.

"Given the recent experience with religiously inspired terrorism, we are concerned that if Hindu extremists can act with impunity toward religious minorities in India, these extremists and their ideologies will begin to affect international security as well," states the letter, released Friday, according to Agence France-Presse.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

JW's Condemned for “Extremism”

A city court in the city of Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic, found the Jehovah’s Witnesses guilty of religious extremism. The sentence follows a similar decision handed down against the religious group in mid-September by a court in Rostov, which ruled that the group’s publications contain “extremist material” (see “Court in Rostov bans Jehovah’s Witnesses for being religious extremists,” AsiaNews, 17 September 2009). 

Altogether the court in the Siberian Republic banned 18 publications by the Jehovah’s Witnesses after they were submitted to expert analysis, which concluded they included incitement to religious confrontation. The Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Centre in Moscow, which is recognised by Russian authorities, has already appealed the decision by the court in Gorno-Altaisk. However, the situation for the religious group is very delicate. The latest ruling comes in the wake of that in Rostov and before others expected in other regions of the Russian Federation, where legal proceedings are currently underway. The charge is the same: incitement of religious extremism. 

The material in question is the same as those the group publishes and distributes across Europe and in about 200 countries around the world, in 176 different languages.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Outrage Over Tomb Raids in Turkey

The American Hellenic Institute (AHI) expresses its deep concern over the recent incident of the desecration of 90 tombs at the Baloukli historical Orthodox Christian cemetery. In its recent statement on September 9, 2009 AHI commemorated the memory of the victims of the Turkish government's atrocities against the Christian minority in 1955. The statement also calls for the full compensation of victims and their heirs from the Turkish government.

In light of the recent 54th anniversary of Turkey's destruction of the 110,000 Greek Orthodox Christian community of Istanbul, this latest incident is reminiscent of the tragic pogrom that took place back in September of 1955. More than half a century later, Turkey still fails to pay respect to the sacred memory of these victims and continues to suppress religious freedom and basic human rights of the Greek Orthodox Christian minority.

As reported on the website of the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (, the vandalism took place in the morning hours of September 2, 2009 when the vandals, who have not yet been identified, entered the cemetery from the stone fence facing the road. While violating the sacred ground, they destroyed the parts of the tombstones that carried the cross and damaged the signs that displayed the names, the dates of birth and death of the deceased. The Turkish authorities have started investigating this case as this incident has spurred great concern among the Greek minority in Istanbul. It should be noted that similar acts of vandalism into Orthodox Christian cemeteries have occurred in the past; however, this vandalism was especially destructive.

Throughout the years, the Turkish government has tolerated assaults against its Greek Orthodox Christian religious minority and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Furthermore, the Greek Orthodox Halki Patriarchal School of Theology remains closed. Turkey imposes restrictions on religious groups and on religious expression. Turkey violates fundamental principles and law on freedom of religion and has created an atmosphere in which hostile actions can occur, as in the aforementioned case. These illustrations suggest that Turkey has no intention of significantly changing its attitudes towards religious minorities living within its boundaries. The extent of religious oppression and lack of respect that Turkey has chosen to display against the Greek Orthodox Christian minority encourages the recurrence of violent and disrespectful acts from extreme elements within Turkey.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Scientology Wins Landmark Case in Russia

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled unanimously in favor of two Scientology religious groups in Russia, finding that they have the right to be registered as religious organizations under Russian law. The decision determined that these groups, the Church of Scientology of Surgut and the Church of Scientology of Niznekamsk, have the right to religious freedom and the right of freedom of association under articles 9 and 11 of the European Human Rights Convention.

In reaching this decision, the Court "established that the applicants were unable to obtain recognition and effective enjoyment of their rights to freedom of religion and association in any organizational form. The first applicant could not obtain registration of the Scientology group as a non-religious legal entity because it was considered to be a religious community by the Russian authorities.

The applications for registration as a religious organization submitted by the first and second applicants as founders of their respective groups and also on behalf of the third applicant were denied by reference to the insufficient period of the groups' existence. Finally, the restricted status of a religious group for which they qualified and in which the third applicant existed conveyed no practical or effective benefits to them as such a group was deprived of legal personality, property rights and the legal capacity to protect the interests of its members and was also severely hampered in the fundamental aspects of its religious functions. Accordingly, the Court finds that there has been an interference with the applicants' rights under Article 9 interpreted in the light of Article 11."

Along with the 2007 decision of the Court in favor of the right of the Moscow Church of Scientology to be registered as a religious organization under the Religion law, these cases represent precedent-setting rulings that guarantee the freedom of religion and right of association for Scientologists
and people of all faiths throughout the forty-seven nations that comprise the Council of Europe.

The Court concluded that "In the light of the foregoing considerations, the Court finds that the interference with the applicants' rights to freedom of religion and association cannot be said to have been "necessary in a democratic society". There has therefore been a violation of Article 9 of the Convention, interpreted in the light of Article 11".

Nina de Kastro, spokesperson of the Church of Scientology of Russia, praised
the Court's ruling saying, "This decision not only confirms the rights of Churches of Scientology in Russia, but sets another important precedent to protect the rights of all other religious communities in Europe."

The Russian Scientology Church in St. Petersburg also has cases pending in the European Court of Human Rights for similar discriminatory harassment concerning their registration.

The Scientology religion was founded by L. Ron Hubbard. The first Church was established in the United States in 1954. It has grown to more than 8,000 Churches, Missions and groups and ten million members in 165 nations. The Russian Federation has more than 73 Scientology Churches and Missions from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bald Eagle Case Sparks Debate

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. - On Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, Winslow Friday is preparing to surrender in his long fight with the federal government.

The seeds of the conflict were planted four years ago, when Friday shot a bald eagle from a tree. His cousin needed a tail fan for an upcoming Sun Dance, the Northern Arapaho tribe’s most important religious ceremony, and Friday wanted to help.

So when he spotted the bird, he seized his chance.
Charged with killing an eagle in violation of federal law, Friday argued that the law hinders the practice of his religion - a battle closely watched on the reservation.

Friday is giving up, though. Having exhausted his legal options, he’s hoping for a plea agreement that would avoid a trial. “The attorneys say that [a trial] would be a losing battle,’’ said Friday, 25.
Friday’s case represents the latest and most high-profile fight in a string of battles over how to balance conservation with religious liberty.

Once endangered, the bald eagle has rebounded in recent decades but remains - along with the golden eagle - under the protection of the federal Eagle Protection Act.

The law provides an exception for American Indians who want eagles for ceremonies: They can acquire birds from the repository or may apply for a permit to “take,’’ or kill, an eagle. Many tribes eschew both options, saying the former can take years and yield unsuitable specimens.

In Wyoming, Friday didn’t pursue either option before he killed the eagle, which carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $100,000 fine.

In 2006, a federal judge dismissed the case. Prosecutors appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, which ruled in favor of the government and ordered Friday to stand trial. This year, the US Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal. Federal prosecutors declined to comment on Friday’s case.

© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sentence Not Political Says Kazakhstan FM

ASTANA (Reuters) - Kazakhstan, responding to fierce criticism by international rights groups, has denied that the conviction of human rights activist and government critic Yevgeny Zhovtis was politically motivated.
A court this month sentenced Zhovtis to four years in prison for violation of traffic regulations following a July accident in which his car struck and killed a pedestrian.

Zhovtis, 54, said the harshness of the sentence handed down to him in a brief trial was linked to his professional activities and called the verdict politically charged.

He was accused of failing to make an emergency stop. He said he was blinded by the lights of oncoming cars and could not have prevented the accident.

In a statement issued late on Monday, Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry spokesman Yerzhan Ashykbayev said the verdict was in line with Kazakh law.

"The rule of law principle means the law is equal for everyone," Ashykbayev said. "According to available statistics, there have been 176 such tragic cases in Kazakhstan in January-July and in 136 cases (76 percent) defendants were sentenced to prison terms.

"This proves that the Zhovtis case is not 'exclusive' at all."

Monday, September 21, 2009

U.S. Faith-Based Hiring Policy Challenged

Nearly 60 groups are pressing the Obama administration to put an end to a Bush-era policy that allowed federally-funded faith-based groups to hire only fellow believers.

In a letter sent September 17, the 58 groups – which include the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Human Rights Campaign – asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., to direct the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to review and ultimately withdraw a 2007 memorandum that they say "threatens crucial religious freedom protections."

“The OLC Memo's interpretation that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 ("RFRA") provides for a blanket override of statutory nondiscrimination provisions is erroneous and threatens core civil rights and religious freedom protections,” wrote the groups, many of which are also members of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD).

“We accordingly request that the Obama Administration publicly announce its intention to review the OLC Memo, and that at the end of that review, withdraw the OLC Memo and expressly disavow its erroneous interpretation of RFRA, the most significant free exercise protection of the post-Smith era,” they concluded.
The hiring policy of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has been a source of controversy since Bush established the office in 2001 and Obama had vowed on the presidential campaign trail to reverse the hiring policy so that groups receiving federal money would no longer be allowed to discriminate based on religion.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Symposium of the Americas on Liberty

There is a very strong link between religious liberty and the preservation of a democratic state, according to the former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

Mary Ann Glendon, a law professor at Harvard University, affirmed this link when she discussed an international symposium to be held Sept. 25-26 in Mexico City.

"Voices: The Secular State and Religious Liberty" will consider the state of religious freedom on the whole American continent.

The event will cover "a variety of topics, from the application of religious liberty in an international context, to specific issues in several countries of the American continent," organizers explained.

Experts from Canada to Chile will focus on philosophical principles, historical antecedents and challenges that religious liberty faces in American countries, particularly Mexico.

IRLA Forming in Mongolia

Religious freedom supporters in Mongolia this month moved to form a national chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), a step they hope will encourage the government to implement greater principles of freedom of belief.

If officially approved, the new Mongolian Religious Liberty Association -- comprised of religious, government and academia members -- will encourage a more literal interpretation of the nation's constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.

While the government has increasingly adopted democratic principles, some experts say strict control of churches still exists in wake of the country's recent communist past.

"We hope Mongolia will follow the United Nations recommendations for religious freedom and that every religion and believer will live at peace and be respected," said John Graz, IRLA secretary-general.

The possible Mongolia IRLA was suggested at this month's symposium on religious freedom in Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar, on September 9. Among the 50 participants were representatives from academic and government institutions and religious faiths, including Baptists, Buddhists, Catholics, Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists.

"This is an important step in the development of religious liberty in Mongolia," said Paul Kotanko, director of the Adventist Church's Mongolia Mission and local IRLA representative.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bhutan Dissident: RF Remains Uncertain

Delhi (AsiaNews) – Bhutan’s democratisation is all for show; it exists only “on paper” and is of little relevance to the population, this according to Karma Duptho, secretary of the Druk National Congress (DNC), a Bhutanese political movement operating in exile. He has harsh words for the Bhutan government on a number of issues, from Nepali refugees to the free press, from an independent judiciary to respect for human rights and religious freedom, issues that have not yet found a solution in the small mountain kingdom in the Himalayas, caught between China and India. 

On the issue of religious freedom, the DNC secretary said that it “was absent until the promulgation of the constitution last year, but” even now “ we can never be certain whether the constitutional provision guaranteeing freedom of religion will be upheld.”

“There are reports of Buddhist culture and religion being imposed on ordinary people,” he said. Members of “other faiths are at risk of attacks, arrests and other forms of persecution including arbitrary detention and arrests from officials,”

Pakistan Minister to Revise Blasphemy Law

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Pakistan's minister for minority affairs promised Thursday to work to amend blasphemy laws used to target non-Muslims and said he was ready to die fighting.

Shahbaz Bhatti visited Washington at the invitation of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which awarded him a first-of-a-kind medallion for championing the rights of minorities in the Islamic state.

"The stand of the Pakistani government is to review, revisit and amend blasphemy laws so it will not remain a tool in the hands of extremists," Bhatti told commissioners from the bipartisan US government agency.
"They are using this law to victimize minorities as well as Muslims of Pakistan. This law is creating disharmony and intolerance in our society."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Congressmen Call for RF in China

Two U.S. Congressmen expressed deep concern in a letter sent to the U.S. Ambassador to China after China allegedly issued a secret directive calling for the dismantling of six house churches in Beijing.

Critics believe the secret directive is made to strengthen the Communist Party ahead of the 60th anniversary of its foundation on October 1, 2009.

Congressmen Frank Wolf from Virginia and Chris Smith from New Jersey, both Republicans who have visited one of the Churches prior to 2008 Olympics, in a letter sent on September 8th to the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, congratulated him on his new position, while also calling the issue of religious freedom in China to his attention.

“We are deeply concerned over a recent report that a secret directive has been issued by the Chinese government to dismantle six leading house churches in Beijing,” they wrote.

“We urge you to affirm the U.S. position prioritizing religious freedom, and to publicly state the vital importance of religious freedom to a modern nation.”

Moderate Baptist Receives RF Award

RICHMOND, Va. (ABP) -- Cecil Sherman, a pivotal figure in moderate Baptist life for the past half century, was formally recognized Sept. 10 for his fierce commitment to religious freedom as Associated Baptist Press presented him one of its top awards before a room filled with his family, friends and colleagues.

The recognition is “truly a celebration of life -- A life devoted to truth and truth-telling; to integrity, honesty and courage; in defense of the bedrock Baptist principles we hold dear, for which our forebears sacrificed immensely; and in service to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the freedom it offers,” said ABP Executive Director David Wilkinson in presenting the news service’s Religious Freedom Award. The presentation came at a banquet in Richmond, Va.

A Vow on Religious Freedom in S. Sudan

The Sudan Tribune reports recently, that the First Vice President of Sudan and president of South Sudan Salva Kiir Mayardit [have] stressed the importance of religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence in the semi-autonomous region.

Kiir addressing the advisory council of Muslims in South Sudan reiterated the respect of Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM) “respects all religions and treating them without discrimination.”

He added that there is no turning back from spreading the religious freedoms as well as tolerance and brotherhood in the South.

The SPLM chief condemned “individual acts” that caused harm to Islamic institutions in the South and said that the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) will support the convention morally and financially.
The South Sudan Muslims’ advisory council agreed on holding conferences in South Sudan for the states during the ongoing holy month of Ramadan and endorsed the charter so that it can be presented to the members next month for final approval.
Copyright © 2003-2008 SudanTribune - All rights reserved.

Malaysian Stand on Religious Freedom Criticized

Be bold and push harder.

That’s the message NGOs have for Suhakam, whose powers are limited.

There were lofty expectations when Suhakam was formed on Sept 9, 1999. A decade on, many human rights advocates feel the commission has not lived up to them.

Last year’s notice by the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions (ICC) to Suhakam over its failure to comply with the Paris Principles (which set international standards for independent national human rights institutions) and the threat of a possible “downgrading” in its rating bring various concerns into focus.

If downgraded, Suhakam will, among other things, lose its right to speak at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Edmund Bon, chairperson of the Bar Council’s Constitutional Law Committee, says: “Suhakam’s numerous fact-finding reports on issues such as police brutality, freedom of assembly, education, children, women, the indigenous community and poverty have very progressive recommendations that are in line with international human rights norms.

Religious freedom group in Israel launched

LOS ANGELES (JTA) -- An organization calling for full religious freedom and diversity in Israel was launched September 15th in Tel Aviv.

Hiddush, a Hebrew word for innovation and renewal,  is headed by President and CEO Rabbi Uri Regev, a native Israeli and until recently president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and Chairman Stanley Gold , a Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist.

A statement released by the organization blames the lack of freedom of religion in Israel on “a chief rabbinate and an ultra-Orthodox ideology” that controls the lives of Israeli Jews “from birth to death and almost everything in between.”

A survey of 1,200 Israelis conducted on behalf of the organization showed that 92 percent of Israel’s secular Jews favored abolishing the Orthodox monopoly on marriage. Among all respondents, 84 percent opposed the exemption of military duty for yeshiva students, and 83 percent supported freedom of religion and conscience.

Bashing Islam - Dangerous Sign of Times


The school year started off with an unpleasant bang in Gainesville, Fla., when a fifth-grader showed up on the first day wearing a T-shirt with "Islam is of the Devil" inscribed on the back.

Administrators sent the 10-year-old home to change clothes. But the next day several other students at two high schools and a middle school arrived wearing the same message. All were told to cover it up or go home. The local church responsible for the T-shirt, Dove World Outreach Center, is unapologetic about the school campaign. 

Church members had already erected a sign on church property proclaiming "Islam is of the Devil" to passersby.
According to the pastor, the church has a Christian duty to expose Islam as a "violent and oppressive religion."
Under the First Amendment, Dove World has the right to proclaim its beliefs about Islam, no matter how much it offends others. But the kids in the congregation may have to wait until after school to put on the T-shirts. Students do have some free-speech rights in schools. But the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the authority of school officials to draw the line at student speech that they can reasonably forecast will cause a substantial disruption. It's very likely that the Dove World T-shirt crosses that line, especially since Muslim students attend Gainesville schools.

Beyond the constitutional issues, however, the controversy points to the larger, more difficult question of how we engage one another in a public square that is increasingly poisoned by hatred and division. Dove World's anti-Islam initiative is not unique. Post-9/11, a growing number of churches inspired by some evangelical leaders such as Ron Paisley and Pat Robertson have condemned Islam in harsh terms. As Robertson puts it, terrorists don't distort Islam, they are "carrying out Islam."

Apart from the fact that these ugly generalizations are distortions of Islamic teachings and wildly misrepresent the views of the vast majority of the world's 1 billion Muslims, Islam-bashing on this scale threatens American Muslims and undermines the common good. It's impossible to measure the effect of anti-Islam rhetoric on those who take it to the next level and commit acts of violence. But we do know that attacks targeting Muslim Americans are a significant problem across the country.

Last month, for example, a Philadelphia business owned by Muslim Palestinian-Americans was ransacked and covered with angry graffiti telling the owners to "go home." And in Smithtown, N.Y., a man was arrested for threatening to kill a Muslim mother and her daughter and trying to run them down with his car. Both incidents are being investigated as hate crimes.

Most Americans recognize the problem. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly six in 10 adults say U.S. Muslims are subject to more discrimination than any other major religious group. Back in Gainesville, some local residents living near Dove World are countering the anti-Islam message by speaking up for their Muslim neighbors and fellow citizens.