VOICE OF THE PERSECUTED

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800 Christian families fled a Christian neighborhood after blasphemy accusation

Christian residents feared a repeat of several previous instances when Christian neighbourhoods have been set on fire following blasphemy accusations (World Watch Monitor)

(World Watch Monitor) Several Islamic clerics and a few Christian leaders held a press conference at a police station in Lahore, Pakistan, (20 February) to send a message to at least 800 families who fled a Christian neighbourhood in the city after a 20-year-old Christian man was accused of posting blasphemous content on Facebook, causing an angry mob to form.

The press conference was held at the Shahdara Police Station, after which a joint statement was signed calling for Christians to return and live peacefully with their Muslim neighbours, as before. The statement also noted that “the Christian community has guaranteed that they would not interfere in the religious matters of Muslims any further. And neither would any such incident [of disrespect] take place anymore. [Christians] will respect the religion of Muslims and holy places and their religious festivals and they [the leaders] will teach this to the members of their community”.

The mob had (19 February) set [tires] alight and blocked part of the Grand Trunk Road, a main artery in Lahore that connects the city with other major parts of the country, demanding Patras Masih be publicly hanged for posting content alleged to have disrespected the prophet Muhammad.

Lahore is a big metropolitan with a population of more than 15 million, including the largest population of Christians in Pakistan – no less than half a million. Around 2,000 Christian families, including Masih’s, live in the Dhair neighbourhood of Shahdara, a northern suburb of Lahore, and Bishop Emmanuel Masih of God’s Church in Lahore told World Watch Monitor that at least 800 fled to stay with relatives elsewhere, fearing a repeat of several previous instances when Christian neighbourhoods have been set on fire following blasphemy accusations.

Patras Masih had a nominal education and has been working as a cleaner in a bank, where his father, Inderyas, also works as a driver.

Masih’s paternal uncle, Arif, told World Watch Monitor his nephew was friends with both Christians and Muslims. “A few weeks ago, Patras posted a picture in a group of his friends that had both Christian and Muslim members,” he said.

According to the First Information Report (FIR) of the crime, lodged by a man named Muhammad Awais, the allegedly blasphemous content was posted more than a month ago, on 16 January, on a Facebook group named PaglonKiBasti (The Town of Lunatics).

“After seeing this post, I asked Muhammad Siddique [moderator of the group], who immediately phoned the suspect, Patras Masih, and asked him to remove the post. But Patras refused to remove the post, after which the area residents are quite upset and angry,” Awais stated in the FIR.

Patras Masih’s mother, Saima Bibi, told World Watch Monitor that on the evening before the trouble started, Sunday 18 February, three men of Pashtun descent came to her home, showed her son’s picture and inquired if he was home. “Patras’s younger brother told them that he was not home,” she explained. “Then again four boys came inquiring about him. When Patras came home, we told him and he could not make sense of why these people were looking for him.

“Early the next morning [19 February], Patras and his father left for work, where his friend told him on the phone that people were gathering outside, after which the two of them fled while I came back home. The police knocked on the door while I was in the washroom. They left after searching, without finding me. I spent all day in the washroom and at night I went to the second floor of the building and jumped to a neighbour’s house.”

Arif Masih told World Watch Monitor: “People had started gathering around 7am, while I heard about what was happening around 11.30am, when things had started getting worse. I live only few streets away and rushed to the place where people were gathering, while Patras and his father had already fled from home.”

Requesting anonymity, a local pastor from the area said that several people with long beards had gathered and demanded that Patras Masih be handed over to them or else they would set their houses on fire, having brought petrol for this purpose.

When the police arrived, they brought a few clerics with them to negotiate with the mob. The police managed to get the road cleared for traffic in the evening, but the mob continued to demand Masih’s arrest and public hanging.

“In the evening, when the angry mob was getting out of control, we went to the superintendent of police’s office and handed Patras to them,” his uncle explained. “Since then we don’t know what is taking place with him.”

“A huge number of people who were extremely angry had gathered and blocked the road, but thank God that no untoward incident took place and now the situation is under control,” Sub-Inspector Haji Munir, leading the investigation, told World Watch Monitor.

“Patras was told by other members of the Facebook group to delete the post, but he remained adamant, after which this issue arose,” Munir added. “Patras is still under investigation but soon will be sent to jail.”

In recent years, social media has become a thorny issue in Pakistan. YouTube remained blocked from September 2012 until January 2016, while in March last year Facebook was told it would be completely shut down if blasphemous content was not removed. Then in May, a 16-year-old Christian, Nabeel Masih*, was accused of posting a blasphemous picture on Facebook, and is now facing jail.

Punjab Assembly parliamentarian Mary Gill, who signed the statement in Lahore on behalf of the Christian community, told World Watch Monitor the younger generation must understand the sensitivity of such issues while using social media. “Our people [Christians] are illiterate and there have been several such incidents in recent years,” she said. “Due to the sensitivity involved, even Christian politicians fear to handle such incidents for fear of reprisals.”

*The name ‘Masih’, which derives from ‘Messiah’, has been used for whole Christian communities for many years in Pakistan. Bibi, meanwhile, is a respectful term for a married or older woman in Pakistan and other parts of South Asia – the most famous Christian example being Asia Bibi, who has been on death row for blasphemy since 2010.

 

 

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Iranian Christian Convert Admitted to Prison to Serve Sentence

Mohabat News — Last May, the Iranian Revolutionary Court had sentenced Naser Navard-Goltapeh to 10 years in prison for his faith. He has now been transferred to the infamous Evin prison in Tehran to serve his sentence.

Mr. Navard-Goltapeh had appealed his sentence but an appeals court upheld his sentence on November 12, 2017 in branch 36 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran. The sentence was approved in the appeals court in spite of Navard-Goltapeh’s attorney providing numerous grounds for his innocence.

The spokesman for the Article 18 organization, a Christian rights advocacy group, Kiarash Alipour told Mohabat News regarding Mr. Navard-Goltapeh’s accusations, “The court based its decision to convict Naser Navard-Goltapeh on a report by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, allegedly providing ample evidence that he attempted to undermine national security through establishing an ‘illegal house church network’. However, when asked for the report to be presented to his attorney, the court refused”.

He added, “In the appeals court, the judge surprisingly asked Mr. Navard-Goltapeh to convince the Ministry of Intelligence of his innocence in order to ease his sentence”!

It appears that the plaintiff in Mr. Navar-Goltapeh’s case is the Ministry of Intelligence itself. In earlier cases as well, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence had asked Christian prisoners to “cooperate” with them in order for their sentences to be eased. It is not clear what the ministry means by “cooperation”.

Mr. Naser Navard-Goltapeh had been arrested on June 24, 2016 in a private gathering along with three Christians from Azerbaijan’s “Word of Life” church in Baku.

All four Christians arrested in that incident were held in solitary confinement for two months and subjected to intense interrogation. They were all charged with “illegal gathering, collusion and evangelism” and eventually released temporarily on a heavy bail. The three Christian citizens of Azerbaijan returned to their home country after being released.

In an interview with the Article 18, Mr. Navard-Goltapeh’s attorney, Hossein Ahmadi Niaz said, “My client has not broken any of the criminal code and is not guilty of his charges. All other Christians arrested with him also confirmed all of their meetings were strictly focused on their faith and worship and nothing else.”

Earlier this year, four UN human rights experts raised concerns over the Iranian judicial system not providing Christians with a “fair and transparent hearing”.

These experts noted, “Members of the Christian minority in Iran, particularly those who have converted to the faith, are facing severe discrimination and religious persecution.”
Open Doors’ 2017 World Watch List has placed Iran among the top 10 countries where Christians are persecuted the most.

The Islamic regime of Iran systematically shuts down anyone trying to spread Christianity in the country. Christians in Iran are regularly faced with arrests that most often leads to long-term prison sentences.

ROME’S COLOSSEUM TO BE LIT RED FOR PERSECUTED CHRISTIANS

The Roman Colosseum Photo: Wikipedia

By Dan Wooding (Assist News)  The Roman Colosseum will be illuminated by red lights later this month to draw attention to the persecution of Christians around the world, and especially in Syria and Iraq.

On Saturday, Feb. 24, at 6 p.m. the Colosseum will be spotlighted in red, to represent the blood of Christians who have been wounded or lost their lives due to religious persecution, according to Crux.

Simultaneously, in Syria and Iraq, prominent churches will be illuminated with red lights. In Aleppo, the St. Elijah Maronite Cathedral will be lit, and in Mosul, the Church of St. Paul, where this past Dec. 24, the first Mass was celebrated after the city’s liberation from ISIS.

The event, sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) — follows a similar initiative last year, which lit-up London’s Parliament building in red, as well as the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris and the cathedral in Manila, Philippines. In 2016, the famous Trevi Fountain in Rome was lit. 

Alessandro Monteduro, director of ACN, told journalists on Feb. 7 that the “illumination [of the Colosseum] will have two symbolic figures: Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian condemned to death for blasphemy and whose umpteenth judgment is expected to revoke the sentence; and Rebecca, a girl kidnapped by Boko Haram along with her two children when she was pregnant with a third.”

“One of the children was killed,” he said, “she lost the baby she was carrying, and then became pregnant after one of the many brutalities she was subjected to by her captors.”

Once she was freed and reunited with her husband, she decided she “could not hate those who caused her so much pain,” Monteduro said. [Read Voice of the Persecuted’s (VOP) report: Held Captive For 2 Years By Boko Haram: Rebecca’s Story and the relief sent to them through VOP’s aid mission, Project 133 Nigeria here.]

Rebecca and family united. Photo: Voice of the Persecuted

Aid to the Church in Need released a biennial report on anti-Christian persecution Oct. 12, 2017, detailing how Christianity is “the world’s most oppressed faith community,” and how anti-Christian persecution in the worst regions has reached “a new peak.”

The report reviewed 13 countries, and concluded that in all but one, the situation for Christians was worse in overall terms for the period 2015-2017 than during the prior two years.

“The one exception is Saudi Arabia, where the situation was already so bad it could scarcely get any worse,” the report said.

China, Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria were ranked “extreme” in the scale of anti-Christian persecution. Egypt, India, and Iran were rated “high to extreme,” while Turkey was rated “moderate to high.”

The Middle East was a major focus for the report.

British Parliament lit up in red.

“Governments in the West and the U.N. failed to offer Christians in countries such as Iraq and Syria the emergency help they needed as genocide got underway,” the report said. “If Christian organizations and other institutions had not filled the gap, the Christian presence could already have disappeared in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.”

The exodus of Christians from Iraq has been “very severe.” Christians in the country now may number as few as 150,000, a decline from 275,000 in mid-2015. By spring 2017 there were some signs of hope, with the defeat of the Islamic State group and the return of some Christians to their homes on the Nineveh Plains.

The departure of Christians from Syria has also threatened the survival of their communities in the country, including historic Christian centers like Aleppo, ACN said. Syrian Christians there suffer threats of forced conversion and extortion. One Chaldean bishop in the country estimates the Christian population to be at 500,000, down from 1.2 million before the war.

Many Christians in the region fear going to official refugee camps, due to concerns about rape and other violence, according to the report.

A man prays in a bombed out church in Aleppo.

ACN also discussed the genocide committed in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State and other militants. While ISIS and other groups have lost their major strongholds, ACN said that many Christian groups are threatened with extinction and would likely not survive another attack.

A spokesperson for Aid to the Church in Need, said, “We invite everyone to attend, either in person or in spirit, on February 24, 2018 at around 6 p.m. in Largo Gaetana Agnesi, Rome.”

About the writer: Dan Wooding, 77, is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, Alfred and Anne Wooding, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for nearly 55 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan has written numerous books, and his most recent reporting trip for ANS was to Kurdistan in Northern Iraq.

HELP SAVE THE PERSECUTED

VOP is on the ground helping persecuted Christian refugees from Nigeria and Pakistan. Together with your generous help, we can reach the goal to alleviate horrific suffering. In darkness and desperation, let us serve in love, with open arms and giving hands to provide light and hope. Every day, we thank God that He is working through you to care for His children and to further HELP SAVE THE PERSECUTEDHis Kingdom! As you greatly bless others, may God continue to bless you. Thank you so much for your support. We couldn’t do it without you!

Pakistani Christians seeking refuge from persecution in crisis

Christian child arrested with mother who holds a UNHCR asylum certificate in Bangkok. Photo: Voice of the Persecuted

(Voice of the Persecuted) 2018 is here and many have started the year with resolutions to do well. We live in a society where we have the freedom to think, speak, pursue our dreams of what we’d like to be and most importantly, believe in our God without fear of persecution. On the other side of the world, there are many who don’t have these freedoms.

Thailand, a country famous for it’s glitzy tourist destination has been at the forefront of persecuting Christians. Thousands of Christians from Pakistan escaped severe persecution to Thailand and have ended up in a whirlpool of crisis. According to World Watch List 2018, Pakistan Is The 6th most difficult country to live as a Christian.

Many Pakistani Christians are living in Bangkok are in a dire situation. They stay in hideous conditions, often times a whole family in cramped single room apartments. Food is scarce and Thailand as made it nearly impossible for them to make ends meet.

Pakistani Christian asylum seekers at risk of arrest

Approximately 150 Pakistani Christians are being held in the Immigration Detention Center (IDC), including men, women and children. On January 23, 2018 another raid took place and 7 children,  4 women and 2 men were arrested from their apartment building at Onnut Soi 54 in Bangkok. They increase the numbers of brothers and sisters who are already inside, some for a long period of time, even years. Please pray for them as they continue to battle the dilapidated conditions of the slums and the prison called, the IDC. Also, pray for them as they share the Good News of the Gospel to the lost in the detention center.

What is IDC?

IDC is the Immigration Detention Center which is located in the heart of Bangkok near a string of embassy buildings. It is designed as a transit place for people to return to their homeland due to violation of visas. They are not equipped with proper sanitation and about 30 people can stay in the one room/cells. Making matters worse, they are being cramped with quadruple the maximum number of people per cell. The diet their offered consists solely of a watery cucumber/rice soup. Not even the babies or children are given milk products. It’s no wonder they suffer from malnutrition, weakness and susceptible to the many illnesses, skin infections and parasites inside the IDC. They rely only on those caring enough and able to deliver the proper nutrition items they need.

Pakistani Christian asylum seekers held in detention center like cattle.

VOP message to our suffering brothers and sisters.

However, there is a glimmer of hope for these detainees. They can receive necessary food items and hygiene products from visitors. That is also the only time they’re permitted to leave their cell and meet with someone from the outside world. Often, some detainees are unable to get any visitations for several weeks, or even months. Voice of the Persecuted has initiated support for the brothers and sisters suffering inside the Immigration Detention Center. We intend to send in more food, hygiene products and the much-needed sundry items not offered to them by the

IDC. Your donations, whether large or small, aid in our ability to carry out this mission and highly appreciated by our persecuted family. Thanks to your help, we were able to give them some relief during the Christmas season. Please pray and share this with your church and others. Help share the light of Christ and bring a moment of joy for those inside.

This sweet little one was sheltered and nourished because of your love!

VOP is on the ground in Thailand. This Join hands with us to spread the love of Jesus. Keep us in your prayers as we try to raise the needed funds for the relief mission. If you feel led to help, please consider our mission and donate, today. Go with us to Thailand through your blessings  to share with these dear brothers and sisters who have suffered so much. God bless you and your families.

HELP SAVE THE PERSECUTED

Together with your generous help, we can reach the goal to alleviate horrific suffering. In darkness and desperation, let us serve in love, with open arms and giving hands to provide light and hope.

HELP SAVE THE PERSECUTED

Every day, we thank God that He is working through you to care for His children and to further His Kingdom! As you greatly bless others, may God continue to bless you. Thank you so much for your support. We couldn’t do it without you!
You may also send your gift to:

2740 Third St
P.O. Box 122
Trenton, MI. 48183

Pastor Found Dead in Tamil Nadu, India

The body of Pastor Gideon Periyaswamy of Maknayeem Church in Tamil Nadu, India. (Morning Star News)

India (Morning Star News) – The body of a pastor in southern India was found hung from the thatched roof of his house early Saturday morning (Jan. 20), a week after he complained to police about opposition from Hindu extremists, sources said.

Congregation members said they found the body of pastor Gideon Periyaswamy of Maknayeem Church hanging from a rope in his one-room house beside the church building in Adayachery village, Kanchipuram District, but that his knees were bent stiff, as if others had placed him in the noose after his death. He was 43.

A convert from Hinduism 25 years ago, Pastor Periyaswamy was single and served as pastor in Adayachery for more than 12 years, his close friend, pastor Azariah Reuben, told Morning Star News.

“The local Hindus were not happy with growing Christianity,” Pastor Reuben said. “They had several times tried to stop the ministry.”

At pastors’ meetings and on other occasions, Pastor Periyaswamy spoke of Hindu hostilities to his church services and requested prayer, he said. Pastor Reuben said that Pastor Periyaswamy once remarked, “I have no problem – if needed, if the Lord permits it, I would die as martyr for Christ, but the ministry should not stop.”

A deputy superintendent of police identified only as Rajendiran told Morning Star News that a week before his death, Pastor Periyaswamy had filed a complaint with police “on some village people troubling him.”

“Our investigation was underway, and now we found him dead,” Rajendiran said.

A congregation member identified only as Indira said that the previous Sunday (Jan. 14), Hindu extremists were upset about a car sitting outside the area designated for church parking.

“They pelted stones at the car, and the pastor made an announcement requesting the church members to park their vehicles within the church premises only,” she said.

For the past six months, the local hard-line Hindus have harassed the pastor every Sunday, Indira said.

“When they see the pastor, they laugh, giggle and crack humiliating jokes at him,” she said. “They would always look for something to pick a fight over. But pastor told us, ‘We should be at peace with our neighbors – let’s not give them a reason to fight.”’

Last year local Hindu extremists kicked and beat him, Regina said. She and Indira found the pastor’s body.

“On Friday night [Jan. 19], our pastor visited the church families,” Regina said. “He told me and other sisters that there will be a fasting prayer on Saturday morning at 10 a.m., so please come early and clean the church hall.”

When they arrived on Saturday morning at 5 a.m. to clean the church building, they were surprised to find the pastor’s room bolted shut.

“We opened the door and were shocked to find Pastor Gideon Periyaswamy hanged,” Regina said. “A rope was fastened to the roof and tied to pastor’s neck, but his knees were slumped towards the ground. When the police came to unhang the pastor’s body, we saw a cut in his neck area. There was blood clotted.”

Police initially refused to file a complaint from congregation members, sources said. After church members and pastors from neighboring villages blocked a road in protest, his body was transported to Chengalpattu Government Hospital, where it has been placed in the hospital mortuary, Pastor Reuben told Morning Star News.

The Vanniyar community and other upper castes in Adayachery hate the lower caste of the pastor and his congregation, said pastor Immanuel Prabhakaran, who worked with the deceased leader of the church, which belongs to the Synod of Pentecostal Churches.

“They threatened the pastor, ‘How dare you set up a church in our locality? This area is of upper castes. Stop running church here. Stop inviting schedule castes to our area. You leave this village else we will make life difficult for you,’” Pastor Prabhakaran told Morning Star News.

Church members suspect Vanniyar and village leaders were behind the killing of the pastor.

“These people had cut the church’s water supply by disconnecting the pipeline,” said one church member.

Originally Pastor Periyaswamy had led the congregation as a house church, and before the current structure was built, they met in a shed. In 2016, area Hindu nationalists demolished the shed, church members told Morning Star News.

“We filed a complaint at Kalapakkam police station, but no action was taken,” one member said.

Pastor Periyaswamy’s cousin, Shiv Shankar, told Morning Star News that Pastor Periyaswamy was involved in many charity activities and led a simple life.

“We come from a Hindu family, and he was the first to convert to Christianity at the age of 18,” Shankar said. “He boldly professed his faith. I can never think my cousin would commit suicide. He was murdered.”

Two weeks ago, he invited all relatives to the church’s anniversary celebrations, he said.

“He was elated. My other cousin and her husband, Gideon’s sister and brother-in-law, gifted him a gold ring,” Shankar said. “He refused, but they forced him to accept. He did. Even that ring is missing.”

Nehemiah Christie, director of legislations and regulations for the Synod of Pentecostal Churches, urged police officials and government to conduct a fair investigation.

“There is urgent need for an autopsy in the presence of a judicial magistrate,” Christie told Morning Star News. “Pastor Gideon Periyaswamy’s death can’t be ruled out as suicide.”

The deputy inspector general of police of Kanchipuram Range, identified only as Thenmozhi, told Morning Star News that officers would carry out a fair investigation.

“There is no doubt in that – we will ensure a fair investigation,” Thenmozhi said. “If there is any troublemaker involved, we are looking at all angles regarding this. We ensure fair investigation. The post-mortem begins once the enquiry starts. Let the family and relatives come out with the facts they have; once we are given the witnesses statements and some supportive material, we will ensure post-mortem.”

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, the hostile tone of his National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), against non-Hindus has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians, religious rights advocates say.

India ranked 11th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of countries where Christians experience the most persecution, up from 15th the previous year, and ahead of Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Egypt.

Chinese Authorities Demolish Evangelical Church in Crack Down

CBN reports that a church in northern China’s coal country that once served as the worship center for more than 50,000 congregants is no longer standing.  All that is left of the Golden Lampstand Church in the city of Linfen in Shanxi province is the church’s steeple and cross which now lays on top of a large pile of rubble. Chinese authorities detonated explosives in an underground worship hall earlier this week, ChinaAid, a U.S.-based Christian advocacy group, reports.

This is not the first time Golden Lampstand Church has come face to face with Chinese government officials. During the church’s construction in 2009, 400 police and other officials attacked church members, defaced the building, and seized Bibles. Several of the church’s leaders, including the pastors and their relatives, were arrested. They were charged with illegally occupying farmland and disturbing traffic order by gathering together. Evangelist Yang Xuan, the founder of the church, spent 3.5 years in prison and Yang Caizhen, his wife, was sentenced to two years in a re-education labor camp and beaten while incarcerated. Read More

Iranian Christians safe if ‘practise faith discreetly’ – European Court of Human Rights

Activists in the Swiss capital of Bern raise awareness of religious persecution of Christians around the world (2014). (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

(World Watch Monitor) The European Court of Human Rights ruled last month that an Iranian who sought asylum in Switzerland based on religious grounds could be deported to his home country because his life was not in danger, despite various reports detailing how Iran persecutes religious minorities and converts to Christianity.

Human Rights advocate Ewelina Ochab, in an article for Forbes Magazine, called it “another blow to the victims of religious persecution”.

The court said “Mr. A” did not have reason to expect torture or to fear for his life, as long as he didn’t pose a threat to the Iranian government and “practise[d] his faith discreetly”.

But quoting from various reports that provide evidence and detail stories of religious persecution in Iran, Ochab said: “It is concerning how the Swiss authorities concluded that converts ‘who practised their faith discreetly, did not face a real risk of ill-treatment upon their return’… The only reasonable conclusion is that by ‘practising faith discreetly’, the Swiss authorities meant not practising faith at all, as the practice requires some degree of manifestation and … this practice is significantly limited if not impossible in Iran”.

Ochab concluded that “the way in which the issue of religious persecution has been dealt with by the Swiss authorities and by the ECtHR shows that religious persecution continues to be misunderstood and neglected”.

Meanwhile an Iranian bishop in Tehran has faced criticism for his claims that Christians in Iran “have freedom of religion”.

“The Islamic government grants its Christian citizens every right to practise their faith, including observing their feasts such as Christmas,” Sibo Sarkisian, Armenian-Orthodox Bishop of Tehran, told Spanish news agency EFE. “They’re just not allowed to share their faith publicly, as it is forbidden under the Islamic government’s law.”

Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, said that “while the Iranian Constitution recognises Christians as an official religious minority, the state continues to persecute believers of the faith, especially converts”.

‘Your problem’

Amnesty International reported last year on the large numbers of Afghan asylum-seekers sent home from European nations, which Amnesty accused of being “wilfully blind” to the risks they face “of serious human rights violations”. It said religious minorities and converts to Christianity face additional risks.

In August an Iranian convert to Christianity was refused asylum in Sweden after she was told by migration board officials that it was her “personal life” and “not our problem if you decided to become a Christian; it’s your problem”.

Aideen Strandsson (who took a Swedish name) said a Swedish migration official told her it wouldn’t be as bad for her in Iran as she is expecting because “it would only be six months in prison”, and, in her words, for the official that was “no problem”.

Determine the ‘real converts’

The challenge for the authorities and also church leaders is to determine the “real” converts among asylum seekers, over those only pretending to help their case.

In September World Watch Monitor reported how Afghan and Iranian asylum-seekers in Germany were finding shelter in churches and how many of them were becoming Christians in the process. According to the Washington Post, “conversion is both a side-effect of church relief and a potential advantage for rejected asylum-seekers, who can claim deeper need for asylum if they are at risk of religious persecution in their home country”.

Meanwhile the Federal German Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has been accused of wrongly rejecting asylum claims, where the applicant’s path to conversion had only taken a few months. German MP Volker Beck also criticised the Office for ruling that weekly church attendance did not amount to evidence of religious conversion, the German daily Handelsblatt reported. Beck accused the BAMF of considering itself more qualified than a parish priest to judge the authenticity of a person’s stated beliefs, based only on a two-hour interview.

A UK Parliamentary group in 2016 reviewed how the UK Home Office processes asylum-seekers’ claims. It found that, too often, “officials are asking about Bible trivia, rather than probing what someone really believes. And this lack of understanding of religion and belief is leading to the wrong people being rejected – meaning they could be forced out when they have genuinely been persecuted”. UK Home Office guidelines have been reviewed in light of the report.

India: Kandhamal Christians back in jail after temporary Christmas release

Bijay Kumar Sanseth (left) and Gornath Chalanseth were able to spent time with their families over Christmas (World Watch Monitor)

(World Watch Monitor) Two of seven Indian Christians who have spent nearly a decade in prison – convicted of murdering a Hindu leader whose death sparked the worst case of anti-Christian violence in India’s history – were granted temporary parole over the Christmas period to spend time with their families. Evidence seems to be mounting that their convictions may be false. Six of the seven are illiterate, and they all continue to maintain their innocence.

Gornath Chalanseth and Bijay Kumar Sanseth returned to prison on Saturday (6 January), after two weeks on parole. It was the third time Chalanseth has been granted temporary release, but a first for Sanseth, who was accused of masterminding the Hindu leader’s murder in August 2008.

His death had been preceded over Christmas 2007 by violent attacks against Christians orchestrated by extremist Hindu nationalists.

None of the five others convicted have spent a day outside prison since their arrest in 2008.

Indian Christians have demanded their release, and Catholic journalist Anto Akkara has written a book, ‘Who Killed Swami Laxmanananda?’, outlining the reasons he believes they are innocent. At its launch in the Odisha capital, Bhubaneshwar, last week, the President of a People’s Forum campaigning for human rights, Prafulla Samantara, challenged local media: “Is there anyone to challenge the findings of this book?” Independent Indian news service The Wire has also covered the findings of Akkara’s book.

Brinda Karat, a senior of leader of the Communist Party of India, speaking during the 28 December launch in New Delhi, said: “Akkara’s book has brought out the absurdities and discrepancies of the judgement convicting seven persons in the case wherein a resolution of a church, that later turned out to be fudged, is the only evidence. The judgement based on manufactured evidences is the most outrageous travesty of justice. This judgement will be known as ‘what a judgement should not be’.”

Akkara was also involved in the creation of a website, which urges readers to sign a petition for the release of the seven. Each online signature generates instant emails to India’s President, the Chief Justice of India’s Supreme Court and the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission.

Background

Nearly 100 Christians were killed and 300 churches and 6,000 Christian homes damaged in the Kandhamal district of Odisha, after the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on 23 August 2008.

By the end of that year, the seven – Chalanseth, Sanseth, Durjo Sunamajhi, Bhaskar Sunamajhi, Budhadeb Nayak, Munda Badamajhi and Sanatan Badamajhi – had been arrested. In 2013, they were found guilty of the murder by the trial court and each sentenced to life imprisonment.

The convictions shocked India’s Christian community, which was still reeling after the deadly attacks, and Christian advocates have been fighting for their release ever since.

“There is absolutely no shred of evidence that links these people to the murder, so my question is: why are these people in jail?” asked Anto Akkara after Chalanseth was granted temporary release for the first time in March 2016. “The whole case is a blot on the face of India’s judicial system – why have these illiterate, innocent people been convicted? If it goes on like this, these poor people will die like convicts in jail and history will say Christians killed the Swami.”

Fifty-six thousand Christians were displaced after the violence in Kandhamal in August 2008. Since then, the local community has struggled to receive adequate compensation from the government, which has been a source of much contention.

A conspiracy?

The website release7innocents.com outlines the major discrepancies and apparent injustices in the case against the Christians.

“The trial court convicted the seven accused and sentenced them to life imprisonment on the basis of a fabricated Christian conspiracy theory despite hardly any credible evidence brought before the court,” it states.

It then adds that in June 2015 “two top police officials – who had relied upon the same conspiracy theory to ensure the conviction of the innocent Christians – have testified before the Kandhamal judicial inquiry commission that the allegations were false.” However, the website notes that the appeal hearing has since been “repeatedly” postponed.

The website complains that discrepancies within the case against the seven were apparent right from the start, when Hindu fundamentalists blamed Christians for the Swami’s murder.

In the days that followed his murder, the Swami’s body was taken across Kandhamal, “accompanied by thousands of Hindus … to incite the primordial passion of revenge among Hindus in one of the least developed districts of Odisha”, notes the website.

“They wanted to make a spectacle of it, and were prepared – as events were to prove – to take full advantage of the passions that would arise. They did not even go by the shortest route, but meandered across [Kandhamal],” noted a report by a group of human-rights organisations. (See route below.)

Three-quarters of the damage done to Christian homes took place along the route of the funeral procession, the website reports. Among the slogans shouted was, “Kill Christians and destroy their institutions.”

“It was obvious that public reaction to the murder of a prominent religious leader like the Swami would be extreme. Yet when options to be followed after the murder were being considered, there is little evidence that high-level political and official leadership offered guidance and support to the local district administration,” said the National Commission for Minorities, after its September 2008 visit to Kandhamal.

 

1. Sanatan Badamajhi

 

Sanatan Badamajhi’s wife Badusi said that a few days before her husband’s arrest, on 4 October, 2008, some of the Hindu village leaders had warned him that he would soon be arrested.

But on the day of the Swami’s murder, Badamajhi, 36, had been tending cattle and sheep, according to a Hindu neighbour, Nakula Mallick.

“Police never came to investigate or ask anything about him. If we had been called, we would have testified for him in the court,” said Mallick.

The judge said a gun was seized from Badamajhi’s house, but his wife says they never owned a gun.

Police also claimed to have seized an axe from the house, but his wife said the police brought the axe from the house of Mukantho Mallick, a Hindu neighbour, who had accompanied the police to identify the house.

“Later, Mukantho has been repeatedly complaining that the police took away the axe. I had only one axe and it is still in my house,” she said.

2. Munda Badamajhi

Munda Badamajhi, 34, was arrested on the night of 4 October, 2008, at his home in the village of Duringpodi.

The prosecution said it recovered a gun from Badamajhi’s home, but his wife, Bandigudali, said her husband did not even know how to use a gun.

“We never had a gun and my husband could not even use a gun,” she said. “This is shocking.”

3. Durjo Sunamajhi

Durjo Sunamajhi, 35, was woken up on the night of 4 October, 2008, when police barged into his house in Budapada village and took him away, as well as the barrel of a broken gun that they found in his house.

His wife Gumili said her husband was on a train towards Kerala on the day of the Swami’s murder and had never touched the gun, which she said was an old and broken hunting rifle last used by her husband’s grandfather.

“The government claim is that they recovered two guns [from the houses of these people], but actually only one barrel of a broken gun, which has not been used for years, had been picked up,” said Akkara. “[Gumili] says her husband never used it, her husband’s father never used it; only her husband’s grandfather used it. Imagine! And there was only a barrel of the hunting gun. Now, the government claims to have recovered two guns from two houses, but in the judgment the judge says he has got the three guns, and he names the three! How is that possible?”

4. Bijay Kumar Sanseth

Sanseth’s wife, Pabitra, said police phoned her on 12 December, 2008, and told him to report to the police station the next day. He did so, and has been detained ever since.

However, police recorded events differently, saying that on 12 December Sanseth met three of the other accused Christians at a Maoist meeting in a jungle near the village of Sartuli. They added that Sanseth, 42, had been overheard discussing plans to murder the Swami outside Kotagarh High School. This claim was attributed to a witness, Mahasingh Kanhar, who initially denied the claim, but eventually endorsed it during a retrial.

“Wherever I go, people tell me: ‘He was a good man. Why he is in jail?’” said Sanseth’s father, Salei. “The popularity of my son and his high contacts with government officials have led to this tragedy. Many were jealous of him.”

5. Bhaskar Sunamajhi

Bhaskar Sunamajhi, 32, was playing cards with his friends in the village of Kutiguda when police came to collect him on 13 December, 2008.

“You can return tomorrow,” his wife heard them say, when they took him away. But after more than seven years, Sunamajhi has not returned home.

The judge said Sunamajhi was “hand in gloves” with the Maoists and had undergone several weeks of training at a Maoist camp. However, his wife Debaki said he “never ventured [far] from home”.

Biracha Paraseth, a neighbour, added: “This is a total lie. He was with us on the day [the Swami was killed]”.

Pavitra Sanseth, another neighbour, added: “He is a good man. He will not do such a crime like killing of a Hindu leader. All of us feel very bad about this. Sir, if we all could have gone [to court] and explained his innocence, please tell us how we can help and ask for his release.”

6. Budhadeb Nayak

 

Before his arrest, one of the village elders urged Nayak, 42, to go into hiding, but he refused, saying he had done nothing wrong.

Police later came to his house, threatening his eldest son, 20-year-old Lingaraj, that they would soon arrest his father.

On the night of 13 December, 2008, they came back and Nayak was arrested.

“He was wearing only a [sarong]. They tied his hands to take him away. He asked for clothes and I gave him a shawl,” recalled his wife, Nilandri.

Three days later, the family visited him in Balliguda jail. The police said he had been with Maoists in the jungle on 12 December, alongside three of the others accused.

7. Gornath Chalanseth

Chalanseth, 41, was taken into police custody on 13 December 2008, but initially suspected nothing as he was active in politics.

His cousin, a pastor, accompanied him to the police station, and saw him taken away.

A couple of days later, after his cousin had not returned, he went back to the station and heard he had been charged with murder.

 

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