(Morning Star News) – The gruesome beating of a pastor’s family in northern India last month showed why a woman who was once Christian returned to Hinduism – and joined the mob attacking them.
“I was among the crowd abusing and accusing the Christian family,” the 30-year-old mother, whose name is withheld for security reasons, told Morning Star News.
Led by Hindu extremists in Udham Singh Nagar District in Uttarakhand state, a mob of 60 to 70 mainly female villagers assaulted 28-year-old pastor Sawan Pol’s father, mother, wife and 10-year-old brother in Bagwala village, near the city of Rudrapur, sources said. The pastor’s wife was holding their 6-month-old son during the assault.
Pastor Pol, who was away on ministry visits during the Nov. 8 attack on his home, said the assailants kicked his young brother in the groin.
“Some men were wearing boots – they kicked my little brother on his private parts with the boots on their feet and injured him so badly that he still cries with severe pain every time he urinates,” Pastor Pol said.
His father, 48-year-old Shyama Prasad, sustained internal injuries to his chest, knee, hands and legs and has pain throughout his body, he said.
“They beat my father, mother and wife in such a way that they would not profusely bleed,” Pastor Pol said. “They have sustained much internal injury. My father and mother are unable to walk. My father is not able to breath normally after he was beaten on his chest.”
Though about 10 men were among the assailants, initially most of the attackers were women in order to discourage the pastor’s father from fighting back, he said.
“They knew my father would never resist attack by women, knowing well that the crowd would blame him for attempting to compromise a woman’s dignity if he tried to resist,” Pastor Pol told Morning Star News. “Two men caught hold of him while the women attacked him with hands and wooden sticks. My brother was begging the assaulters to leave my father alone, but to no avail.”
The mob then turned to Pastor Pol’s mother and wife, according to the former Christian woman.
“The mob dragged Pastor Sawan’s mother and wife and assaulted them by slapping them with bare hands and sticks,” she said.
She said she feared for her own safety and that of her family if she did not join the mob, but that she could not obey the other women’s calls for her to strike the Christians.
“Not even one woman was left who did not step forward and slap the family,” she said. “After knowing how pious and helpful the family has been not only to me but also to the entire village, I just could not hit them on their face – although I joined the mob to abuse the family, to save my own skin.”
She said she became a Christian and was baptized a few years ago after experiencing several miracles and answers to prayer, but that she grew afraid when a Hindu “holy man,” or Baba, arrived in the village about a year ago. He summoned every woman in the village and demanded that they pay him 5,000 to 10,000 rupees (US$70 to US$140) each or he would harm them and their families with black magic, she said.
“He performed some black magic, threatened us and ordered us to continue to visit him and revere him by touching his feet,” she told Morning Star News. “And all the women of the village have been regularly doing as he says.”
Before his arrival, there were 15 Christian families in Bagwala village, she said.
“All the Christian families, for fear of the Baba, returned to the Hindu faith,” she said. “He threatened me with fatal consequences if I ever went to church again. Baba said that he would harm my children using his black magic, and at no cost can I risk my children’s lives. I am very scared for the safety of my family, and I asked my husband as well to stop going to church.”
She said she knew that the Hindu “holy man” was a fraud, but that she would not risk him and his followers attacking her family as they did Pastor Pol’s family.
“This is the fate of those who will not submit to Baba,” she said. “If I would have resisted, I would undergo the same fate as that of Pastor Pol.”
The followers of the Hindu Baba have spread word throughout the village that no one should attend church services if they wish to safeguard their families, she added.
In the two-hour assault, the former Christian said, the mob dragged Pastor Pol’s mother and wife and struck them, with his wife shielding their infant son from the blows.
“To save her son, she ran to a corner and hid him in her arms with her back taking all the beatings,” the mob member said.
Pastor Pol’s mother somehow escaped and shut herself in a room; the mob pounded the door with bricks, stones and wooden sticks, trying to break it open and assault her, the former Christian said.
“The mob accused the family of being Christian and carrying out forced conversions as they hit them,” she said, acknowledging, “all their allegations are false and fabricated stories.”
Pastor Pol said his young brother was traumatized.
“My brother was begging the assaulters to leave my father alone, but to no avail,” Pastor Pol said. “My house was completely vandalized when I reached home, and I was devastated to see my father, mother, wife and brother.”
He took his father 19 kilometers (11 miles) to Bilaspur, Uttar Pradesh state, for treatment. Prasad, his father, submitted a complaint at the Rudrapur police station that day, but police did not register a case, Pastor Pol said.
“The police came to our village and spoke to the head man of the village,” he said. “The head man hushed up the case by convincing the police in-charge that he will mediate and strike a compromise between the two groups [attackers and the victims]. So the police did not take any action.”
Pastor Pol later went to the police station to insist on registering a complaint, but the station chief said he would require not only the full names of the assailants but also their parents’ names, as well as their addresses.
“How can I know their mothers’ and fathers’ names and their correct addresses?” Pastor Pol said. “This is a way of demotivating me to pursue the case.”
Without money to hire a lawyer to move the case forward, he said he decided to take it no further with police.
Unwilling to Abandon Christ, Village
Heading an independent church called Jesus’ Followers’ Holy Gathering (Yeshu Bhakat Pavitra Sabha, or YBPS), Pastor Pol said his family has been facing threats for the past year.
His young brother is regularly bullied and threatened at school, he said.
“‘You are Christians, we will not let you settle here,’ is often what he hears while on his way to school,” the pastor said. “If I was alone, I would not fear – even if they cut me to pieces, I would not fear. But I am fearful for my family. Mine is the only Christian family left in the village, everybody else has chosen to leave Christ due to fear.”
He has been forced to stop gatherings in Bagwala, but he continues to lead worship services at nearby villages, he said.
“I cannot leave Christ, nor can I leave the village and go – they [Hindus] will say that we have fled due to fear,” he said. “If I leave, someone else will come [to lead services], but opposition will be strengthened to persecute this new pastor more.”
India is ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position has been worse each year since Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014.
(Morning Star News) – After spending 11 years behind bars for a murder they did not commit, five Christians in eastern India were finally ordered to be freed on Tuesday (Nov. 26), sources said.
The Supreme Court of India issued a decision granting bail to the five Christians from Odisha (formerly Orissa) state falsely accused of killing Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, whose death on Aug. 23, 2008 in Kandhamal District touched off anti-Christian attacks that killed 120 people, destroyed nearly 6,000 homes and displaced 55,000 Christians.
The five Christians remained in jail at this writing. One of the five Christians granted bail this week is reportedly mentally challenged. Because the Supreme Court issued the release on bail, the five Christians and two others freed earlier this year do not have to return unless the high court itself so orders.
“I am really happy that all of them are granted bail,” attorney Anupradha Singh, who represented the Christians, told Morning Star News. “The Honorable Judges granted the bail on the grounds that they have spent over 10 years in jail. Their behavior in the jail was also good, and the same was noted.”
Journalist Anto Akkara, who has been anchoring an online signature campaign at www.release7innocents.com since March 2016, was also elated.
“This is a big victory for truth and justice for Kandhamal,” Akkara, author of “Who Killed Swami Laxmamananda?” told Morning Star News. “I am thrilled.”
Buddhadev Nayak, Bhaskar Sunamajhi, Durjo Sunamajhi, Sanatan Badamajhi and Munda Badamajhi were convicted in 2008. They were arrested by December 2008 along with Gornath Chalanseth and Bijaya Sanaseth, who were also convicted but managed to obtain bail in May and July respectively.
Christian leaders and activists have long maintained that the seven Christians were framed and falsely accused, and that the charge against the mentally challenged Badamajhi typified the absurdity of the charges.
“Considering the fact that the accused-appellant(s) had already undergone 10 years of their sentence as is the case of other accused directed to be released on bail, and taking an overall view of the matter, we are of the opinion that the above-named accused- appellant(s) should also be released on bail on such conditions as may be imposed by the learned Additional Sessions Judge, Phulbani in S.T. No. 16/18 of 2013-2009,” Supreme Court Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari wrote in their ruling.
The Rev. Vijayesh Lal, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), said the legal fight does not end with the granting of bail to the seven accused Christians.
“This is just the first step,” Lal told Morning Star News. “The case still has to be fought at the High Court in Odisha.”
At the same time, Lal said he was glad that the Christians will be able to celebrate Christmas with their families.
“This is like a Christmas gift for them,” he said. “We are very grateful to the Human Rights Law Network, to the Bhubaneswar Cuttack Archdiocese, to [the United Christian Forum’s] John Dayal, ADF [legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom] and to everyone who contributed to securing this first step to their freedom. Special mention should be made of journalist Anto Akkara, who continued to create awareness about this case.”
Attorney Anupradha Singh echoed the sentiment that the quest for justice remains.
“This is a small success because the case is still pending at the High Court,” she told Morning Star News. “We will diligently fight the matter in the High Court.”
The Reb. Dibya Paricha, a Catholic priest and an attorney based in Odisha state who has coordinated legal matters for the seven Christians, said he was hopeful that they will win acquittal from the High Court.
“They should not have been detained for so many years,” Paricha told Morning Star News. “Politics should not have been involved but, unfortunately, it was. We must understand that people’s lives and liberty are more important. I know personally that they are innocent.”
Attorney Bibhu Dutta Das, who has played an active role in legal matters following the anti-Christian violence in 2007 and 2008, said the accusations lack substance.
“There is no direct evidence against them,” Das told Morning Star News. “Their conviction was based on circumstantial evidence, and it is necessary that the chain of circumstantial evidence be established for conviction, but in this case, it was not so.”
Journalist Akkara expressed his frustration over the lagging legal process.
“Last week the Supreme Court observed that the constitution will lose importance if fundamental rights are not protected,” he told Morning Star News. “When I heard this, I asked myself what this meant for the seven innocents of Kandhamal. It was a shame that those people were still in jail for all those years. I see the bails as a silver lining, and it seems that now we are coming to the edge of the tunnel, towards freedom and truth.”
Hindu extremist leader Saraswati, widely believed to have encouraged violence on Christmas Eve 2007 that damaged 53 church buildings and 700 houses, was killed along with five of his disciples by a mob of armed gunmen at his ashram in Jalespeta, Tumudibandha in 2008. Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda took responsibility for the attack, but Hindu nationalist leaders led by Pravin Togadia alleged a Christian conspiracy.
Togadia marched with the body of Saraswati for 160 kilometers (100 miles) along predominantly Christian areas in order to provoke violence. The ensuing attacks on Christians’ homes and destruction with explosives of church buildings sent thousands of people into the forests.
Soon after Saraswati’s death, the police arrested and detained four Christians, including a 13-year-old boy. The four Christians were reportedly brought to the police station by members of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Togadia, the VHP leader, reportedly announced the names of the arrested Christians arrested before the police could.
The Christians were detained for more than 40 days before police let them go for lack of evidence. Later, however, police proceeded to arrest the seven Christians as scapegoats.
“The first batch of ‘Christian killers’ – four of them were beaten up and dumped in police stations by Sangh Parivar – were later set free by the police after 40 days of investigation,” said Akkara, who also produced a documentary, “Innocents Imprisoned,” on the 10th anniversary of Kandhamal in August 2018. “It was after their release, the seven innocents were arrested in two batches in October and December 2008 from the remote Kotagarh jungle area.”
The seven Christians were convicted of murder, criminal conspiracy, unlawful assembly and rioting by Additional District and Sessions Judge Rajendra Kumar Tosh on Sept. 30, 2013. Two prior judges presiding over the trial were transferred before Tosh heard the case and delivered the verdict.
Appeals against the judgment from the District and Sessions Court have dragged on since then. Their bail applications were denied, forcing them to appeal to the Supreme Court of India.
“We requested the judges in the High Court again and again, and the matter was listed many times, but was never heard,” attorney Das told Morning Star News. “Finally, when it came to the court of Justice Misra, he said that he will neither hear the case nor will he grant bail and thus rejected the bail applications. So, we had no other option but to come to the Supreme Court.”
India is ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position has been worse each year since Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014.
India (Morning Star News) – Heavy-handed revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and statehood by the government of India three months ago has led to measures used against Christians, sources said.
The government on Aug. 5 revoked the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir state in 1949 that allowed it to have its own constitution. By thus abrogating Article 370 and Article 35A of India’s constitution, the government set back separatist movements within the Muslim-majority state while ushering in security measures that make it nearly impossible for Christian congregations to meet.
Besides cutting off all communications and Internet access and imposing a curfew to forestall an uprising against the measure, the government prevented assembly by issuing an order, Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Effective on Aug. 5 in Srinigar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, and in Jammu on Nov. 9, Section 144 prohibits assembling of four or more people, with those violating it subject to charges of rioting.
Besides thousands of security forces sent to the area, Hindu extremists have used the order to prevent Christians from meeting for worship, sources said. Based on Section 144, police took pastor Mohan Lal Kaith of the Ranbir Singh Pora (R.S. Pora) area in Jammu District into police custody on Nov. 10 as he led Sunday worship at a congregation member’s home.
Police took him into custody on both Nov. 10 and Nov. 11, releasing him each evening at 6 p.m. after spending the day threatening and intimidating him, he said. Police told him that Section 144 prohibited his congregation from meeting.
“I asked them, ‘If Hindu temples, Gurdwaras [Sikh temples] and mosques, and pujas [Hindu worship] can take place despite the imposition of Section 144, why not Christian prayers? It is the norm, Christians gather and worship on Sundays across the world. Why are you targeting me alone?’” Pastor Kaith said. “But the SHO [Station House Officer] was very angry, and he asked me to plead with the Ram Sevaks [worshippers of Ram] and [Hindu extremist] Bajrang Dal activists for forgiveness, and that I was wrong to question him. I told them, ‘All right Sir, I didn’t know that Section 144 was imposed. Please forgive me.’”
A large mob gathered outside the police station. Relatives present, fearful that the mob might target his small children, begged police and Hindu extremists to free him, the pastor said.
“The Station House Officer of R.S. Pora police station hurled abuses at me that I am a baba [religious guru] in the making, and that I have no idea that he can trap me into a huge case from which I can never get out of,” Pastor Kaith told Morning Star News.
The station officer continued threatening him, telling him repeatedly that he was wrong to lead Christian worship, and that cases against him had already been filed, the pastor said.
“Then I told him that, ‘I have not violated the Indian Constitution, and I abide by every word written in it as framed by its makers. If still you see fault in me, it is fine – you can forcefully frame me in any case that would incriminate me for sharing about Christ, but I will not stop,’” Pastor Kaith told Morning Star News.
He said he had decided to face whatever consequences might follow. The Bajrang Dal and Ram Sevaks had been threatening him three months before the Section 144 order, he added.
“They threatened me and closed down the worship service in my own house, and then in two other areas in the homes of believers,” he said. “How far can they go to stop us from praying and worshipping together? Some of the new believers come to church for healing or for blessings, and when they see opposition from outside, they backslide and don’t turn up again.”
A remnant gathering remains, and they are praying that they would grow stronger in faith, he said.
Pastor Kaith said he has received scores of threats in text messages in the Hindi language over the past six months.
“Every few minutes I received a message that the Bajrang Dal and Ram Sevaks are aware of where I am, and that they are observing me closely, and that I should preach about Hindu gods while sharing about Christ, and that if I failed to do so they would punish me with death,” he said. “The neighbors in the village keep watch on me, and if they see me going out for prayer, immediately the message passes on, and a mob of Ram Sevaks and Bajrang Dal reach there to disrupt the prayer service. They use filthy language, so that we can never have a proper dialogue with them.”
Police filed cases against Pastor Kaith under sections 107 and 117 of the Criminal Procedure Code, suspicion of committing a breach of peace. He has been ordered to appear before a judge on Dec. 9.
Religious Freedom ‘Getting Worse’
The former state of Jammu and Kashmir has a Christian population of 0.28 percent according to the 2011 census, while Muslims make up 68.3 percent and Hindus 28.4 percent of the total 12.5 million population.
Since the repeal of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, the state has been divided into two union territories – Jammu and Kashmir in the west, and Ladakh in the east, effective Oct. 31.
“It has always been difficult for missionaries and pastors to serve in Jammu and Kashmir region, but the latest move taken by the Indian government abrogating Article 370 has stirred the anger of dominant Islamic community,” pastor Vishnu Dev, based in Punjab state’s Ludhiana District, told Morning Star News.
Islamist Kashmiri separatists and other Islamic extremists groups have also threatened and attacked civilians, hoping to sow chaos in response to the federal clampdown, and Christians are gripped by fear of violence, sources said.
On a recent visit to churches enduring persecution in Jammu and Kashmir Territory, Pastor Dev told Morning Star News that he was shocked to see that Sunday worships took place in secret.
“At the most, five families would gather in a house and would pray in secret. Microphones and large congregations have disappeared,” he told Morning Star News. “It is saddening that the religious freedom situation for Christians in the valley is only getting worse.”
He said Srinagar-based pastor Lance Thomas and his wife are under constant surveillance.
“They have been ministering in Srinagar and other areas of the Kashmir Valley in the toughest times now – they visit believers’ homes and worship inside their homes with Christian families,” Pastor Dev said. “Their movements are closely under the watch by police officials as well as religious extremists in the area.”
Ahead of the repeal of the state’s special status, the central government cut all communication lines and placed political leaders under house arrest to try to head off opposition protests, which have erupted sporadically.
As a result, the region has been without Internet service for more than 105 days.
Srinagar-based Pastor Thomas said both his phone numbers are tapped by government officials.
“I can’t communicate much over the phone right now, and because of the Internet clamp down, it would be very difficult to write an email also, as only one government cyber-café is open,” Pastor Thomas told Morning Star News.
Pastor Jeewer Joeswa of Rajouri District said he also has been hampered.
“In Kashmir Valley, the curfew is still on,” he told Morning Star News. “There are very few churches in the region, and nowhere will you find open worship as a congregation. All Sunday gatherings are done secretly inside a Christian’s home, hiding from the police and neighbors.”
The communications blackout has also been problematic, he said.
“It was a total blackout – we had no access to phone lines or Internet when the government was deciding to abrogate Article 370,” he told Morning Star News. “The connections were restored in Jammu Region in a couple of days, but Srinagar still suffers an Internet clampdown, and we could not reach our pastors and Christians there for weeks.”
Pastor’s Eardrums Injured
In the Jewel area of Jammu, Hindu nationalists seized a pastor from a house-church worship service on Oct. 6 and took him to a neighboring village, where they badgered him with questions and beat him, damaging his eardrums, he said.
Initially two men took him from the service he was leading, pastor Packiya Raj said.
“A mob of 25 strongmen joined the two persons, and they forcefully boarded me in a vehicle and took me to a garage and then to a village nearby,” Pastor Raj told Morning Star News. “They started badgering, ‘Tell us, how many more like you are in Jammu? How many believers did you get here? What are you doing in Hindus’ houses? Where are your believers and pastors, tell us their address?’”
They beat him as they questioned him, he said. After beating him further, they left him at the Domala police station, he said.
“The police didn’t help me, and they told me that prayers should be done inside a church and not at home,” Pastor Raj said. “The police officials told me that it is my mistake that I have gone to someone’s house, and the local people are angered. It is a very natural reaction, they said.”
Pastors from neighboring areas arrived at the police station within about a half hour. They asked officers to file a case against the assailants, who had falsely accused Pastor Raj of adultery, he said.
“They [Hindu extremists] told the police, ‘There were six to seven ladies in the house. We don’t know what this fellow was doing inside,’” he said. “They tried falsely to book a stronger case against me, but by God’s grace my wife and son also reached there, and police didn’t pay heed to these allegations.”
Over the following three days he suffered severe body pains, including pain in his ears, he said.
“The doctors told me that both my eardrums were damaged, and that I should undergo an operation,” Pastor Raj said. “By God’s grace, both the operations were successful.”
He declined to register cases against the attackers, who remain poised to accuse him of assembling for worship in a home, though apart from Section 144 as implemented in the region, home worship is not illegal in India.
“I live in a rental house here, and it is not safe as the people connected to the assailants also live very close by, and I am constantly under watch,” he said. “If I speak any louder, they can hear me.”
Originally from Tirunelveli District in southern India’s Tamil Nadu state, Pastor Raj and his wife, Rajakani, had a strong desire to serve among those who have never heard of Christ, he said.
“I was working as an assistant pastor in Chennai when I received the confirmation from the Lord that I should serve the unreached in Jammu and Kashmir. We immediately obeyed and moved to Jammu with our son, who was 1-year-old then,” he said. “After much toil, we now have four to five families in each village. Even among the neighboring houses, there would be at least one person who has heard of Christ and desires to come to Him but is afraid, because of their families and the presence of Hindu extremists in their area.”
In September 2018, while distributing gospel tracts in Amb Grota and Nagbani villages, Hindu extremist Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS) members chased them away, threatening to kill them if they see them again in those areas, Rajakani said.
Elesh Prabhu Vasave, secretary of the Friends Mission Prayer Band of Jammu and Kashmir region, requested prayers for peace to return to Kashmir, and for safety of pastors and missionaries serving in regions stripped off of Internet and phone service.
India is ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position has been worse each year since Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014.
(Morning Star News) – A Christian in Iran convicted of conducting evangelistic activities began a mandated two years in exile this month in a remote area on the border with Pakistan, sources said.
As part of a larger prison sentence delivered in 2013, Ebrahim Firoozi, 33, was sentenced to two years in exile in Sarbaz, a frontier town on the Iranian-Pakistani border known for its isolation and prevalence of Islamic militant groups.
The sentence, which will expose the convert from Islam to extended periods of danger and isolation, was meant to keep him “from having a positive influence on people and to stop him from fellowshipping with the people in the Tehran area,” a source at advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC) told Morning Star News.
Released from Rajaei Shahr Prison in Karaj on Oct. 26, he was ordered to report to Sarbaz following a brief period to order personal matters.
Firoozi, whose mother died while he was in prison, arrived in Sarbaz on Tuesday (Nov. 12).
Having found housing in “a remote desert town out in the middle of nowhere,” he was said to be looking for work.
Firoozi n August 2013 was convicted of charges of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” “launching and directing evangelism” and “running a Christian website” He was sentenced to a year in prison and the term of exile.
While serving the prison sentence, Firoozi faced a second trial where he was sentenced to an additional five years for “crimes against national security,” “participating in illegal gatherings” and “colluding with foreign entities.”
Court Hearing Delayed
A hearing of an appeal by a group of Christians with prison sentences as long as 15 years was postponed without reason Wednesday (Nov. 13).
The delay was one of several in the appeal process for the Christians. In February a judge who was later unseated for corruption inexplicably combined a case involving a pastor’s wife with two longstanding appeal cases against other Christians. The three cases were delayed in September when the judge declined to show up.
Although delaying court cases is a common method to harass Christians charged with or convicted of crimes of belief, a researcher at MEC who requested anonymity said some of the delays surrounding the three cases could be due to court confusion about why the third case was combined with the earlier two. No date has been set for a new hearing.
The first case involves an Assyrian pastor, Victor Bet Tamraz, and two converts from Islam, Amin Nader Afshari and Kavian Fallah Mohammadi; all were arrested at a Christmas celebration in December 2014.
The second case also involves Afshari, as well as Hadi Asgari, from a 2016 arrest during what was essentially a picnic.
In the third case, Pastor Tamraz’s wife, Shamiram Issavi Khabizeh, was summoned by authorities in June 2017. Pastor Tamraz was sentenced the next month to 10 years in prison for “acting against national security.” Afshari, Agsari and Mohammadi received prison sentences of between 10 and 15 years on similar charges.
For charges of “acting against national security,” and “acting against the regime by organizing small groups, attending a seminary abroad and training church leaders and pastors to act as spies,” Shamiram was sentenced in January 2018 to five years in prison.
Iran was ranked ninth on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
A state-run Christian monthly “sinicized” biblical stories, where Jesus is shown wearing traditional Han attire and Mary is personified as an ancient Chinese woman.
Tian Feng (literally “Heavenly Wind”) is a monthly Christian magazine, published by the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China and the China Christian Council. It has always been a good indicator of the state of “official” Christianity in China. Read More
Source: Bitter Winter, launched in May 2018 as an online magazine on Religious liberty.
India (Morning Star News) – A U.S. pastor attending a Sunday School conference in India is stranded in the country after he was arrested for failing to report money he was carrying.
Pastor Bryan Nerren, 58, was traveling to Sikkim state in northeastern India for a Sunday school conference along with two U.S. pastors on Oct. 5 when they were detained at the Bagdogra airport, the closest airport to Sikkim. While the other two pastors were let go, Pastor Nerren was arrested when authorities alleged that he had violated the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) and the Customs Act by not declaring the cash that he was carrying for his trip and for conferences in India and Nepal.
“They showed me an email from the Delhi office directing them to detain and arrest me for breaking the law,” Pastor Nerren told Morning Star News. “I told them repeatedly that no one has told me that I need to declare this money. Not even the customs people [in Delhi] who interrogated us.
“I also told them that so far I have not stepped out of the airport onto Indian soil, and that I can go back to Delhi, fill in the necessary forms and come back to Bagdogra, or I can fill the forms right here, but they did not listen. They did not even deport me, but arrested me.”
Pastor Nerren was scheduled to visit Sikkim for four days and then go to Nepal for another nine days, but following his release on bail on Oct. 11 he is awaiting trial in Siliguri, a border city in the state of West Bengal, India. The Siliguri Civil and Criminal Court imposed a travel ban on him and confiscated his passport and travel money on Oct. 6.
Foreign nationals bringing foreign currency into India over a prescribed limit are required to fill in a form to declare it. If the value of the foreign exchange in the form of currency notes, bank notes or travelers cheques exceeds US$10,000, or its equivalent and/or the value of foreign currency notes exceeds US$5,000 or its equivalent, a form has to be filled to declare it.
The three U.S. pastors had arrived in Delhi, India in the early morning of Oct. 5 at around 1:30 a.m. by KLM from Amsterdam and had proceeded to obtain visas on arrival.
“I was not given any form by KLM in the incoming flight to Delhi that spelled out that I had to declare the currency I was bringing in,” Pastor Nerren told Morning Star News. “No one questioned us while we cleared immigration.”
After clearing immigration, Pastor Nerren was detained by customs officials who, during a security check for his connecting flight to Bagdogra, discovered the money that he was carrying for the conference and their trip.
“They detained us till after 4 a.m. and questioned me about the money I was carrying in my backpack and some in my travel pouch. I was not hiding that money nor concealing it,” he said. “Three investigators asked me questions for over an hour. They also questioned us separately. They asked me if I was a Christian and I answered in affirmative. They asked me the reason for carrying the money, and I truthfully answered that it was for a children’s conference and for my Nepal trip. Then they asked me if the conference was for Christians or Hindus and I told them that it would be a Christian conference.”
After questioning Pastor Nerren and the two others, the investigators cleared them and allowed them to board their flight to Bagdogra, he said.
“The investigator told me that he was convinced by the answers that I had given, and that we were free to go to Bagdogra. They shook our hands, smiled and let us go,” he said.
On landing at Bagdogra airport, however, two customs officials carrying Pastor Nerren’s photograph on their phones detained him, he said. They confiscated his passport and the travel money, arrested him and took him into custody. The other two pastors were let go, and it was then that officials showed him the email from Delhi ordering his arrest.
He was arrested under sections 104 and 135 of the Customs Act of India for failing to declare funds he was carrying.
Forbidden Contact with Embassy
After his arrest, he was not allowed to meet with anyone, including personnel from the U.S. embassy, he said.
The two other pastors were the ones who informed his family in the United States that he had been arrested and jailed.
“I suffer from sleep apnea and use a C-PAP machine to sleep, without which I can even suffocate and die during my sleep,” he said. “When I told the police officers about my condition and that I need the machine, they took me from one police station to the other so that my machine could be plugged in, but it was not possible. So they took me to the emergency room of the Medical Doctor’s Training Hospital, where finally I could use the machine.”
He faced some ill treatment at the small hospital, he said.
“When the doctor learned that I was a Christian, he spit on the ground and only then took a look at me,” Pastor Nerren said.
He added that nearly 20 people died during his nine-hour stay at the hospital.
“The patient whose bed was given to me soon passed away,” he said. “Another person who had already died was there in the room, and no one knew it till it was discovered by cleaning staff of the hospital. In all, three people in the room where I was died.”
After his first night at the hospital, Pastor Nerren was moved to the Siliguri Correctional Home, where he spent the next five days and nights. All jails in the state of West Bengal have been renamed as Correctional Homes.
During the six days he was in jail, he was taken to the hospital twice more for checkups. After six days in jail he was released on bail on Oct. 11, but under a travel ban.
Tapan Kumar Choudhary, the attorney for Pastor Nerren, told Morning Star News that the bail conditions were harsh.
“Pastor Bryan was arrested and presented before the court on Oct. 6 and was subsequently granted bail, but the bail conditions were harsh and required two bail bonds of 1 Lakh [100,000] rupees [US$1,412] each or local land papers in lieu of the bonds,” Choudhary told Morning Star News. “This was again challenged by me in the upper court on Oct. 9, and the bail was granted on Oct. 10 with relaxed sureties. The court this time asked only for two bail bonds of 10,000 rupees [US$141] each, and hence he was released on bail on Oct. 11.”
The pastor’s next court date is scheduled for Dec. 12, he said. His attorney has filed an application to the Customs department for the release of his passport and money, he said.
Pastor Nerren is staying with friends at an undisclosed location.
He first visited South Asia in 2002 with a trip to Nepal, where he started the Asian Children Education Fellowship, which has trained more than 20,000 leaders in Nepal, according to its website. The ACEF has also engaged in community development and social work digging community wells, holding medical clinics, and assisting in providing uniforms and books to over “2,500 children who would have never had the opportunity to attend schools.”
A native of Shelbyville, Tennessee, Pastor Nerren leads the House of Prayer Church, part of the International House of Prayer Ministries, along with his wife Rhonda. He has been to India three times before in the last 15 years. It was his involvement with Nepali churches that brought him to India this time.
His wife said in an Oct. 29 American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) update that he has done nothing wrong.
“His only crime is living out his steadfast love for Jesus. He’s my best friend, and I need him home,” she said. “My special needs daughter needs her daddy home. My son and his family want their dad and Grandpa ‘Popeye’ home. Please pray for our family. Pray for the hearts of the officials who have the power to give him back his passport and let him come back to us.”
India is ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position has been worse each year since Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014.
(Raymond Ibrahim) Hate for and Violence against Christians
Cameroon: Militant Muslims reportedly connected with the Nigerian based Islamic terror group, Boko Haram, “reached new heights” of depravity, according to a report: after devastating the Christian village of Kalagari in a raid, they kidnapped and fled with eight women. Some of the women were later released—but only after having their ears cut off (image here). The report adds that Boko Haram “has terrorised Christian communities in Nigeria for the last decade and has now splintered and spread its violent ideology into Cameroon, Niger and Chad.”
Nigeria: On August 29, Chuck Holton, a CBN News reporter, aired a segment on his visit with Christian refugees who had fled Boko Haram’s incursions into their villages. Among the stories of death and devastation, the following, spoken by a young man, stood out: “On 29 September 2014 was the day that they attacked my village. Around ten I had a call that they have killed my dad. They asked him to deny Christ and when he refused they cut off his right hand. Then he refused [again], they cut to the elbow. In which he refused, before they shot him in the forehead, the neck, and chest.” “Many of the 1,500 Christians living in this camp have similar stories,” adds Holton.
Indonesia: A Muslim preacher in a Christian majority region referred to the Christian cross as “an element of the devil,” prompting outrage among Christians and some moderates. Sheikh Abdul Somad made the comment during a videotaped sermon when he was asked why Muslims “felt a chill whenever they saw a crucifix.” “Because of Satan! Was his response: “There’s an evil jinn in every crucifix that wants to convert people into Christianity.” Christians and moderates condemned his words. Even so, “I can’t imagine the reaction if it had been another preacher of a different religion insulting an Islamic symbol,” observed one moderate. “There would have been a tsunami of protests, with the perpetrator severely punished.” Sheikh Somad responded by releasing another video; his excuse was that he was unaware that non-Muslims might hear his words: “The Quran reciting session was held in a closed mosque, not at a stadium, a football field, nor aired on television,” he explained. “It was for Muslims internally. I was answering a question about statues and the position of the Prophet Isa (Jesus) relative to Muslims.”
Burkina Faso: Although most mainstream media downplay the religious element in Muslim on Christian violence in Africa, attacks on the Christians of Burkina Faso have become so flagrantly based on religion that the Washington Post published a report on August 21 titled, “Islamist militants are targeting Christians in Burkina Faso.” Its author, Danielle Paquette, explained that “A spreading Islamist insurgency has transformed Burkina Faso from a peaceful country known for farming, a celebrated film festival and religious tolerance into a hotbed of extremism.” She noted that the jihadis have been checking people’s necks for Christian symbols, killing anyone wearing a crucifix or carrying any other Christian image. In a separate report discussing several deadly attacks on Christians and their churches, Bishop Dabiré said, “If this continues without anyone intervening, the result will be the elimination of the Christian presence in this area and — perhaps in the future —in the entire country.
Egypt: Authorities reinstated Sheikh Yasser Burhami, a notoriously “radical” cleric and hate preacher, to the pulpit (minbar) despite strong opposition. Burhami had previously issued numerous fatwas—edicts based on Islamic scriptures—that demand hate and hostility for non-Muslims, most specifically the nation’s largest and most visible minority, the Christian Copts, whom Burhami has referred to as “a criminal and infidel minority,” and has invoked “Allah’s curse” on them. He once went so far as to say that, although a Muslim man is permitted to marry Christian or Jewish women (ahl al-kitab), he must make sure he still hates them in his heart—and show them this hate—because they are infidels; otherwise he risks compromising his Islam. Burhami has also stated that churches—which he refers to as “places of polytheism (shirk) and houses of infidelity (kufr)”—must never be built in Egypt. He issued a separate fatwa forbidding Muslim taxi and bus drivers from transporting Christian clergymen to their churches, an act he depicted as being “more forbidden than taking someone to a liquor bar.” Burhami’s fatwas also include calling for the persecution of apostates, permitting Muslim husbands to abandon their wives to rape, permitting “marriage” to 12-year-old girls, and banning Mother’s Day. In a video, Dr. Naguib Ghobrial, a Coptic activist, politician, and head of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights Organization—which over the years has lodged 22 separate complaints against Burhami—repeatedly questioned Egypt’s leading religious authorities’ decision to reinstate the hate preaching sheikh:
Is what Burhami teaches truly what Islam teaches—is that why no one has done anything to him [in regards to the 22 complaints lodged against him]? Truly I’m shocked! Please answer Sheikh of Al Azhar; please answer Grand Mufti: are the things Burhami teaches what Islam teaches? Is this why none of you oppose him or joined us when we lodged complaints against him?… Why are you so silent? Amazing!
The Slaughter of Christians
Pakistan: “A ten year old Christian child who chose to work in a dangerous scrap factory so he could support his mother who had to fend for a family of two boys and a drug-addict husband, was raped and tortured before being killed by his Muslim employers,” according to a report (with photos). Badil, 10, worked at the men’s factory in order to support his impoverished mother, Sharifa Bibi:
I worked hard for many hours just for the sake of my two sons so that they would not have to suffer as I have suffered without education. My son Badil couldn’t bear to see the struggle of his mother and insisted on working to help the family—despite my insistence that he avoid work till he was older. Badil was such a responsible son. Daily before leaving for work he asked me what should bring in the evening from his wages. I insisted that he kept his money for himself, but he brought groceries like sugar, rice, flour, ghee daily.
Badil had to walk long distances and work for many hours a day to earn the equivalent of one dollar a day. Soon his employer began to cheat him on his wages. His mother insisted that he quit, but the boy persevered; at one point he took his younger brother, 9, with him to help. When the employers refused to pay his brother anything for his contribution, Badil finally decided to quit—which angered his Muslim employer. His younger brother recalls:
As Mr Akram heard this he ran to hit Badil but Badil ran from the shop and Akram gave chase. However, A friend of Akram was standing nearby on his motorcycle and told Akram to sit behind him, then both men chased Badil till they caught up with him. Akram then got off the motorcycle and dragged Badil back to the store. They took Badil inside the store which is full of scrap. For half an hour I was completely unaware of what was happening with Badil inside. Eventually both men came outside and pretended as if nothing had happened inside. I thought my brother had also left the store from another exit so I went to look for him. I searched vigorously for 15 minutes and then saw my mother [approaching to walk the boys home], so I rushed to her to tell her what had happened.
Sharifa and her younger son searched frantically for Badil and finally found him collapsed on the ground near their home. They rushed to him, thinking he was exhausted from the day’s work and subsequent thrashing, but quickly realized that he was barely breathing: “At this point the whole situation was too much to bear for Sharifa who began to scream and wail hysterically,” the report notes. Badil was taken to a hospital where, seven hours later, the boy was pronounced dead. His brother “has been traumatised following his brother’s death and hasn’t left his house since and often screams in terror thinking the men responsible will take him too.”
Cameroon: A Bible translator “was butchered to death on Sunday morning [August 25] during an overnight attack while his wife’s arm was cut off,” according to a report: “Bible translator Angus Abraham Fung was among seven people said to have been killed during an attack carried out by suspected Fulani herdsmen sometime during the early hours of Sunday morning in the town of Wum, according to Efi Tembon, who leads a ministry called Oasis Network for Community Transformation.” Fulani herdsmen are Muslim and the chief persecutors of Christian farmers in Nigeria. “They went into houses and pulled out the people,” Tembon explained: “They attacked in the night and nobody was expecting. They just went into the home, pulled them out and slaughtered them.” Fung’s wife, Eveline Fung, who had her arm hacked off was last reported as receiving a blood transfusion at a local hospital.
Attacks against Apostates and Evangelists
Iran: Authorities sentenced a 65-year-old woman, a Muslim convert to Christianity, to one year in prison, on the charge that she was “acting against national security” and engaging in “propaganda against the system.” According to the report, “The hearing was owing to her arrest shortly before Christmas when three agents from Iranian intelligence raided her home and took Mahrokh to intelligence offices where she endured ten days of intensive interrogation before she was released after submitting bail of 30 million Toman (US$2,500).” Friends of the woman said that “the judge was very rude and tried to humiliate Mahrokh after she disagreed with him.”
Separately, a Kurdish bookseller in Bokan, Western Azarbaijan province, was arrested for selling Bibles. According to the August 27 report, “Mostafa Rahimi was arrested on 11 June on charge of selling bible[s] in his bookstore, and he was released later on bail until the court issued his sentence. Hengaw Organization for Human Rights has learned that Rahimi is sentenced to 3 months and 1 day imprisonment. Later in mid-August he was arrested again, and he is currently at the central prison of Bokan.” Another report elaborates: “Iran’s government is officially Islamic, and authorities actively restrict access to Bibles and other Christian literature. Sharing one’s faith is categorized as a criminal offense, usually of the national security nature. The authorities often pressure Christians so extensively, routinely violating their human rights, that they are given no choice but to escape their country.”
Somaliland: An August 16 report shares the experiences a married Muslim woman, 32, underwent after her husband discovered a Bible in her possession.
“I told my husband that I found the Bible in Nairobi and wanted to read it,” the woman responded. “He just pronounced the word talaq [Arabic for divorce] to me. I knew that our marriage had just been rendered null and void because I joined Christianity, so without wasting time I left the homestead…. There and then he took our two daughters [ages 4 and 7] away from me and divorced me. He gave me a stern warning that I should not come close to the children, and that if I do, he will take the Bible to the Islamic court and I will be killed by stoning for becoming an apostate.”
Her former husband proceeded to expose the clandestine Christian to her Muslim family. “My brothers beat me mercilessly with sticks as well as denying me food,” she said. “I feared to report the case to the police or the local administration, because they will charge me with a criminal offense of apostasy in accordance with the sharia.” She has since relocated to an undisclosed location: “God has spared my life, and my fellow underground Christians in other regions of Somalia have received me and shared the little they have, but I am very traumatized.” According to the report,
Somalia’s constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and prohibits the propagation of any other religion, according to the U.S. State Department. It also requires that laws comply with sharia (Islamic law) principles, with no exceptions in application for non-Muslims. Somalia is ranked 3rd on Christian support group Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
Pakistan: After opening a summer education program for the youth, a Christian family was “terrorized” and forced to shut down on the accusation that they were clandestinely trying to convert Muslim children to Christianity. According to a family member: “We started a project for interfaith harmony and education teaching marginalized children from different faiths about a year ago. In June, we started a summer camp that provided a free program for children that have dropped out of school. The design of this program was to provide guidance for these children to become civilized and tolerant.” Two weeks into the summer program, a group of men, two of whom were armed, stormed into the academy, did violence to the property and harassed the children, and beat one of the instructors: “They threatened us with consequences if the academy was not shut down. They alleged that we were promoting Christianity and were doing Christian evangelism. For safety and security, we had no other choice but to obey the extremists and shutdown the academy…. I don’t want to lose my son or any family member. This terrorizing incident has already put us into trauma.”
In a separate incident in Pakistan, around 4 a.m. of August 2, seven Muslim men stormed into a parish house, where they tied up and savagely beat two young priests, Fr. Anthony Abraz and Fr. Shahid Boota, all while they “humiliated and abused them for preaching the Gospel in a Muslim-majority neighborhood.” The invaders also vandalized the building—including by breaking windows, bookshelves, and cupboards—and desecrated Christian objects, including Bibles, Christian literature, and icons. Afterwards, “We were told we will have to face consequences if this house is not vacated,” Fr. Abraz reported. “They said, ‘We don’t want a Christian center near the mosque.’”
Finally, increasing numbers of Christian girls continue to be targeted for kidnapping, rape, and/or forced conversion in Pakistan. According to one report,
In August, Yasmeen Ashraf, age 15, and Muqadas Tufail, age 14, were kidnapped and raped by three men in Kasur. The pair of Christian girls were taken when they were on their way to work as domestic workers. Also in August, another young Christian girl, named Kanwal, was kidnapped, raped, and forcefully converted to Islam by a group of Muslim men and a cleric in Lala Musa, located in the Gujart District. After reuniting her family, Kanwal shared that she had been beaten, sexually assaulted, and threatened with the deaths of her brothers if she refused to convert to Islam.
In the previous month of July, at least three similar cases occurred. “Oppression exists in different layers for Christian girls in Pakistan. They are suffering on the bases of gender, religion, and class. It has been documented that young Christian girls face higher levels of sexual harassment and are persecuted for their Christian faith,” Nabila Feroz Bhatti, a human rights defender in Lahore, said in response to the aforementioned incidents. Similarly, the Pontifical charity, Aid to the Church in Need, announced in August that it “is sounding the alarm on the plight of young Christian women, and even teenagers, in Pakistan who are forced to convert to Islam.” “Every year at least a thousand girls are kidnapped, raped, and forced to convert to Islam, even forced to marry their tormentors,” elaborated Tabassum Yousaf, a local Catholic lawyer.
Meanwhile, those who try to protect Christian girls are punished. On August 16, Maskeen Khan and two other Muslim men attacked the home of Bahadur Masih, a Christian. While holding a knife, Khan and his partners tried to rape Masih’s daughter, Rachel, but were prevented by the rudely awoken family that immediately and desperately responded. “Since the Christian family was defending themselves, Khan also got some injuries,” Ahsan Masih Sindhu, a local Christian political leader, reported. “The family handed Khan over to police and he got medical treatment. However, he later died in police custody.” Police arrested and charged four members of the family with murder, even though they were in their own home protecting their daughter from violent intruders. Other members of the family have gone into hiding due to threats from the dead would-be rapist’s relatives. “We are sad about the death of Khan, however, the Christian family did have the right to defend,” Sindhu explained. “The police must conduct a fair investigation into this incident.” Instead, police are denying the family the “right to defend” itself.
Attacks on Churches
Algeria: On August 6, police barged into a church during worship service, evacuated reluctant worshippers, and sealed the church building off. “I am deeply saddened by so much injustice – it breaks my heart,” Messaoud Takilt, the pastor said. “This is not surprising since other Christian places of worship have been closed and sealed as was the case today. But anyway, we will continue to celebrate our services outside while the Lord gives us grace for a final solution.” When police denied, with a veiled threat, his request to at least let the worship service conclude, “The assembly finally yielded and agreed to leave the premises, but with much pain. Some went out with eyes full of tears. ” Police proceeded to empty the premises of all furniture and sealed off every door before the distressed pastor (picture here). Responding to this latest church closure the World Evangelical Alliance issued a statement on August 12 calling on Algeria to cease closing and instead reopen churches. A portion follows:
We deeply regret that two additional churches were forcibly closed by administrative decisions, in May and in August 2019 in the city of Boudjima, northeast of Tizi-Ouzou in Kabylie Region. This brings the number of forcibly closed churches to 6, including one house church…. Many more churches are threatened with closure, amid denial of formal registration and recognition by authorities.
Indonesia: Muslim protestors compelled local authorities to revoke a permit for and cease construction of a Baptist church in Central Java. On August 1, residents went to the partially constructed church and padlocked its fence. A meeting was later held between the church, local residents, authorities, and others. Although the pastor displayed the governmentally issued permit to build a church, Muslim residents insisted that it was wrongly given, leading to a standstill in negotiations. In the previous month, July, two other churches were shut down in Indonesia following local protests.
Turkey: St. Theodoros Trion, an abandoned, historic church—the original Greek congregation of which was purged by the Ottoman Empire—was vandalized, including with genocidal slogans. According to the report,
The vandals sprayed hate speech across the church’s walls. The vandalism was largely a reference to the secularism that Ataturk, modern Turkey’s founder, had forced into the governmental structure…. Just a few years ago, the same church was targeted by Islamist vandals who wrote slogans such as “the priest is gone, he went to the mosque” — a reference to the country’s genocide and the forced conversions which occurred during this time. There are no Christians attending this church. All of the congregants were victims of the genocide. They faced death, deportation, and forced conversions. Those few who survived have since fled the country. The church currently stands as a historic monument to the Christianity that once was commonplace in the region.
Egypt: A Christian toddler was the latest, if inadvertent, victim of Egypt’s draconian restrictions on churches. According to an August 21 report, Youssed Ebid, a 4-year-old Christian boy (photo), was struck by a tractor while waiting outdoors for a bus to take him to church in another village. His own village is currently denied one, forcing its Christian residents to travel long distances to attend church. Many Christians in Egypt are in the same situation, and accidents during their long treks are not uncommon.
Raymond Ibrahim, author of the new book, Sword and Scimitar, Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute, a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and a Judith Rosen Friedman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
About this Series
The persecution of Christians in the Islamic world has become endemic. Accordingly, “Muslim Persecution of Christians” was developed in 2011 to collate some—by no means all—of the instances of persecution that occur or are reported each month. It serves two purposes:
1) To document that which the mainstream media does not: the habitual, if not chronic, persecution of Christians.
2) To show that such persecution is not “random,” but systematic and interrelated—that it is rooted in a worldview inspired by Islamic Sharia.
Accordingly, whatever the anecdote of persecution, it typically fits under a specific theme, including hatred for churches and other Christian symbols; apostasy, blasphemy, and proselytism laws that criminalize and sometimes punish with death those who “offend” Islam; sexual abuse of Christian women; forced conversions to Islam; theft and plunder in lieu of jizya (financial tribute expected from non-Muslims); overall expectations for Christians to behave like cowed dhimmis, or second-class, “tolerated” citizens; and simple violence and murder. Sometimes it is a combination thereof.
Because these accounts of persecution span different ethnicities, languages, and locales—from Morocco in the West, to Indonesia in the East—it should be clear that one thing alone binds them: Islam—whether the strict application of Islamic Sharia law, or the supremacist culture born of it.
Posted on Gatestone Institute
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– An Iranian court has sentenced a pastor and eight fellow members of the big evangelical Church of Iran movement to jail for leaving Islam.
Church leader Matthias Haghnejad and the other believers were each sentenced to five years imprisonment after a short hearing on September 23, trial observers confirmed to BosNewsLife.
Pastor Haghnejad was detained by the feared Islamic Revolutionary Guard following a church service in February this year, said advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), which supports the Christians.
The other believers Shahrouz Eslamdoust, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Behnam Akhlaghi, Mehdi Khatibi, Mohammad Vafadar, Kamal Naamanian, Hossein Kadivar (Elisha) and Khalil Dehghanpour were reportedly taken into custody in the coastal city of Rasht in early 2019.
Confirmation about their sentences came days after jailed Church of Iran pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani, ended a three-week hunger strike, according to Christians familiar with his situation.
Nadarkhani, who is serving a ten-year prison term for church activities, began his action on September 23 to protest against his children being prohibited from continuing with their education.
He described his hunger strike in a letter to prison authorities as “the cry of a father, unjustly imprisoned.” The pastor stressed that the second-generation Christian children are increasingly penalized by educational authorities who do not recognize their faith.
It was not immediately clear whether Nadarkhani would be able to meet the other jailed Christians. Trial observers said the nine men faced a severe July hearing by Judge Mohammed Moghisheh, who activists claim “is notorious” for miscarriages of justice.
He allegedly attempted to coerce Pastor Haghnejad, Eslamdoust, Hosseinzadeh, Akhlaghi and Khatibi, into accepting a court-appointed legal representative.
The judge eventually suspended the proceedings, remanding them in custody on significantly increased bail terms when they refused to do so, reported CSW. “Judge Moghisheh subsequently resumed the trial of Mr. Vafadar, Mr. Naamanian, Mr. Kadivar (Elisha) and Mr. Dehghanpour, who were representing themselves…during which he asserted that the Bible was falsified and called the men’ apostates’,” the term used for leaving Islam, the group added.
During another hearing last month, the defendants’ lawyer was allowed to speak shortly, Christians said. “However, Judge Mogisheh is reported not to have responded to his statement. A source informed CSW that “it seemed as if the judge had already made his decision,” the group explained.
CSW claimed that the judge “allowed this process as a formality before pronouncing a pre-determined sentence.”
All nine Christians are appealing their sentences, but Pastor Haghnejad and those defended by a lawyer were already jailed, CSW said.
CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas told BosNewsLife that his group condemns “in the strongest terms,” the sentences handed to the Christians. “Once again, it is clear from the brevity of the trial and reported lack of interest of the presiding judge that due process was not observed. And the judge was not impartial,” he added.
“The charges against these Christians are excessive, completely unfounded and constitute a criminalization of a religion which the Iranian constitution purportedly recognizes,” Thomas said.
He confirmed that CSW called “for the immediate and unconditional release of these nine men,” and all who are behind bars “for their religion or belief in Iran.”
The detentions are part of a broader crackdown on devoted Christians in the Islamic nation, according to several church sources and activists. Apostasy and spreading Christianity often lead to long prison terms and possibly a death sentence in Iran.
Despite these difficulties, mission groups suggest there are at least an estimated 360,000 Christians in the country. They include many former Muslims who turned to Christianity, seeking freedom from strict Islamic rules. Iran’s government-led Statistical Center reports 117,700 Christians in this nation of just over 82 million people.
The U.S. State Department has classified the Islamic Republic as a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 “for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
Iranian authorities have denied wrongdoing but say they want to protect the country against dangerous outside influences.
By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife