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.