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Rep. Frank Wolf Introduces Bill To Reauthorize U.S. Commision On International Religious Freedom

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Washington, D.C. (May 9, 2014) – Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) today introduced legislation to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which he helped establish in 1998 as the author of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).  The commission was last reauthorized in September 2011.

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal government advisory body charged with monitoring the status of the freedom of religion or belief abroad and providing policy recommendations to the president, Secretary of State and Congress.

“Religious freedom is America’s first freedom, and a vitally important human right enshrined in international law,” Wolf said.  “It should be a bedrock of U.S. foreign policy.  Too often that is not the case.”

“The Commission plays an invaluable role in giving an unvarnished picture of religious freedom violations the world over,” Wolf continued.  “It is well respected on both sides of the aisle for its thoughtful analysis and policy recommendations, and its commissioners are regularly called upon to provide expert testimony at congressional hearings and briefings.  Simply put, the commission’s research informs the work of many in foreign policy-making circles.”

As recent as April 30, 2014, the USCIRF released its annual report which documented religious freedom violations in 33 countries and made a number of policy recommendations, including that 16 countries and recommended that the State Department add eight more nations to its list of “countries of particular concern,” defined under law as countries where particularly severe violations of religious freedom are tolerated or perpetrated: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam. USCIRF also recommended that the following eight countries be re-designated as “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.  for particularly severe violation of religious freedom.  The report also examines U.S. international religious freedom policy and recommends way to strengthen U.S. engagement and promotion of religious freedom.

Wolf said he looked forward to swift passage of this critical legislation.

Representative Wolf deeply cares and has worked diligently to protect the human right, Freedom of Worship for all people in the world. 

He has long believed that the United States has an obligation to speak out for religious freedom, often referred to as the “first freedom.” Recognizing that religious freedom was often sidelined in our bilateral relations and diplomatic engagement with other countries, in 1998, he authored the International Religious Freedom Act, which created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and established the International Religious Freedom Office at the State Department headed by an ambassador-at-large. This was a critical first step in integrating religious freedom into our broader foreign policy, but he says “Much remains to be done.” 

“Sadly, religious freedom advocacy has never been more needed. A landmark report on religious freedom, released by the Pew Forum in 2009, found that “nearly 70 percent of the world’s 6.8 billion people live in countries with high restrictions on religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities. Pew has done subsequent studies on the issue and it’s 2014 report found that incidents of abuse targeting religious minorities were reported in 47% of countries in 2012, up from 38% in 2011 and 24% in the baseline year of the study.” 

“If the international community fails to speak out and advocate for those whose basic human rights are being trampled, the prospects for religious pluralism and tolerance are bleak.”

In January 2013 I reintroduced bipartisan legislation to create a special envoy within the State Department to advocate on behalf of vulnerable religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia.

In countries like Iraq and Egypt, ancient Christian communities are being driven from the lands they have inhabited for centuries.  In Iran, Baha’is are imprisoned and in some cases executed simply because of their faith. In Pakistan, Ahmadi graves are desecrated.  In Afghanistan, a country where America has sacrificed greatly in both blood and treasure, the most basic right to freedom of religion or belief is not recognized in the constitution. This is but a snap shot of the grave challenges facing these communities.

 In January 2011 following a Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing during which sobering testimony [was heard] about the challenges facing religious minorities in Iraq and Egypt, Wolf introduced the special envoy, bill – along with Democrat Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who is of Armenian and Assyrian heritage. The hearing predated the so-called “Arab Spring.” But arguably, the dramatic changes in the region have only made these communities more vulnerable.

Over 20 special envoy posts exist to protect a range of groups and interests, but none is dedicated to the plight of Middle East religious minorities.

On September 18, 2013 the House again overwhelmingly passed the Special Envoy vote by a vote of 402-22, but  it has languished in the Senate.

Wolf is actively working to press for swift Senate action. Each day that passes without a dedicated special envoy to advocate for these besieged religious communities, America’s first freedom, religious freedom, is under assault around the globe.

“I renewed my efforts in the 113th Congress to press for passage of this important legislation and to mobilize faith leaders in the West to advocate for these imperiled communities. In January I sent a letter to more than 300 Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox leaders in the West, calling for them to use their influence to speak out on behalf of the persecuted Church around the globe, specifically in the Middle East.”

On Wednesday, the Christian leaders  joined forces  to call for an end to the silence over persecuted Christian communities in Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Rep. Wolf has regularly met with beleaguered Christians from this part of the world. He said, “Their stories are eerily similar: believers kidnapped for ransom; churches–some full of worshipers–attacked; clergy targeted for killing. In the face of this violence, Christians are leaving in droves.”

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In countries where Christians must deal with harsh persecution, many are silenced by fear and abuse. The oppressors wish to hide the atrocities from the international community. Those standing up for religious rights and revealing the abuse are threatened to be silent or face severe persecution—death threats, pressured to convert to Islam, beaten, tortured, shot at and even lose their lives. It is not uncommon for them to be fired from their jobs when the employer is pressured to do so by the persecutors. And to further strike fear, their families likely experience all of the above.

The growing radicalism in these countries has forced many religious minorities to live in fear. In Pakistan, where false blasphemy charges have escalated and are abused, Christians asks us, “What has happened to humanity and what have we done to deserve such treatment?” (John 15:18, John 15:20) Simply being in disagreement with the prophet of Islam can wrongfully be proclaimed as blasphemy, denying their freedom of worship.  As seen in recent cases, subjecting them to possible death sentences has also intensified.  Too often and now more frequently, Pakistani citizens trying to make a difference by promoting peace and religious equality are forced to flee the country to spare their lives and that of their families. While Pakistan loses one more of the brave few willing to stand up and be a voice for Christian rights and that of other religious minorities.

In the Bible there is much written about the oppressed and persecuted. Jesus had more to say about the poor than any other group of people. He had great concern for this critical issue and taught us that we should too. As American Christians, if we are earnest about our faith, then we should be compelled to aid the oppressed in the world. Being blessed by God living in a nation of great freedom, should we not use this gift and ability to be a voice for those who don’t?

VOP and persecuted Christians appreciate the work of Rep. Wolf. May the Lord bless him in his efforts.

Engage and inform others on the topic of Christian persecution. And get them praying for our suffering brethren!

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What Happened to Christians in the Middle East this August?

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“After torching a Franciscan school, Islamists paraded three nuns on the street ‘like prisoners of war,’ before a Muslim woman offered them refuge.” — Associated Press

While not all, or even most, Muslims are involved, the persecution of Christians in the Islamic world is on its way to reaching pandemic proportions.

The attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christians and their churches that began in July on the heels of the popular June 30 Revolution — which saw the ousting of President Morsi and prompted the Muslim Brotherhood to scapegoat and incite violence against the Copts — became even more brutal in mid-August after security forces cleared out Brotherhood “sit in” camps, where people were being tortured, raped, and murdered. Among other things, over 80 Christian churches were attacked and often torched. (Click here for a brief video of one of these many churches set aflame.)

Upper Egypt, especially Minya, which has a large Christian minority, was hit especially hard, with at least 20 attacks on churches, Christian schools and orphanages. “The Islamists,” one resident said, “burnt and destroyed everything. Their goal was to erase all the traces of a Christian presence; even the orphanages were looted and destroyed.” After storming the Prince Tadros el-Shatbi Church, Morsi supporters turned their attention to two homes for disadvantaged children located near the parish church; there, they stole church offerings, clothes, and children’s games before torching the entire building in a fire that lasted over five hours.

The Al-Anba Mousa Church in Minya, Egypt, after being torched by Islamists. (Image source: Screenhot of Human Rights Watch video)

The attacks were not limited to inanimate objects. According to the BBC, 10-year-old Jessi Boulus, an only child, was walking home from her Bible class in a working-class area of the capital when a gunman killed her with a single shot to the chest. Her mother, Phoebe, devastated, believes Jessi was targeted purely because she was Christian.

The attacks on Egypt’s Christians were so fierce that, at one point, when they started to run out of food, they were afraid to come out of their homes for fear of being killed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Many churches canceled services. Even at the Virgin Mary monastery, which was also torched, one priest said, “We did not hold prayers in the monastery on Sunday for the first time in 1,600 years.”

Although some in the West assert that the Christian minority needs to fight fire with fire, when one 60-year-old Copt tried to do just that, firing a gun in the air to scare away an invading Islamic mob, “It proved a fatal error,” the Sunday Times reported: “They took offence at the fact that a Christian fired in the air against them, and they stormed his home and shot him to death before taking his body away and hacking it into parts.”

Scenes reminiscent of the original Islamic conquest of Seventh Century Egypt replayed themselves: an Evangelical church in the village of Bedin was not only attacked but converted into a mosque. Similarly, as reported by the AP, “After torching a Franciscan school, Islamists paraded three nuns on the streets like ‘prisoners of war’ before a Muslim woman offered them refuge. Two other women working at the school were sexually harassed and abused as they fought their way through a mob.”

Meanwhile, the Western mainstream media sympathized with the Brotherhood while ignoring the Coptic victims. Even the Coptic Church criticized the “false broadcast by Western media” and called for an “objective” revision to be made of the actions of those “blood-thirsty radical organizations…. [I]nstead of legitimizing them with global support and political coverage while they are trying to wreak havoc and destruction upon our beloved land, report all events truthfully and accurately.”

One activist said of the U.S. and the EU, that they “almost daily issue statements threatening to take further actions against our interim government and army, portraying the Muslim Brotherhood as victims while not even mentioning the destruction of over 80 churches, as well monasteries, orphanages, businesses and Coptic schools by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Father Rafic Greiche, the chief spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt, criticized President Obama for not speaking out against the worst violence against Egyptian Christians in nearly 700 years: “President Obama when he made a speech he just touched on the burning churches instead of telling the Muslim Brotherhood that they are terrorists and they are making terror on Egypt. He did not speak loud for this and shame on him if he is a Christian that he does not speak out loud.”

Even more telling, although human rights activists and lawmakers have long been asking that U.S. aid to Egypt be made contingent on the respect for the human rights of minorities such as the Copts, the Obama administration failed to include such a condition. In a direct response to the ousting of the Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, however, the administration did reduce U.S. aid to Egypt by hundreds of millions of dollars.

The rest of August’s roundup of Muslim persecution of Christians around the world includes (but is not limited to) the following accounts, listed by theme and country in alphabetical order, not according to severity:

Attacks on Christian Places of Worship

Nigeria: A report revealed that, since January 2012 alone, 50 Christian churches were attacked and 366 people killed in those attacks. (Attacks on churches, however, have been going on for well over a decade; hundreds if not thousands of churches have been destroyed.) In August, a Muslim mob with knives and iron rods injured several members of the St. James Anglican Cathedral in Nasarawa—including three pastors, four elders and choir members. According to a source, a “Muslim woman sent her children to purchase water from the church’s borehole, and then a misunderstanding over about 5 naira [less than 1 cent US$] occurred. The Muslim woman then went and invited some of her Muslim neighbors, who stormed the church and attacked the members of the church” as well as damaging Bibles and other property.

Syria: The Antiochian Orthodox church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, one of only two churches that served many Christians, was demolished after the Free Syrian Army took over the region of Thawrah. According to one Christian refugee: “They [FSA] tore up the sanctuary curtains, Bibles and other holy books, and broke all the crosses, chairs and icons of Jesus and the saints. They stole electrical appliances like fans, chandeliers and lights. They took whatever was in the church, and sold it all. There is nothing there now.”

Turkey: After the Christian staff of the Saint Abraham monastery told a group of Muslims that visiting hours were over, the Muslims threatened, cursed, and ultimately attacked the staff, saying “we own this land, obey us or you will be sorry.” According to a member of the monastery, “The monastery was attacked two months before this incident by young [Muslim] Kurds from the town of Batman, but we decided not to go public about it, this time we decided it’s enough. We gave the police the footage from the surveillance camera from the previous attack and now it is gone and no one was punished. They promised us to put guards here but we don’t see any and when they [the police] came yesterday, they attacked us with pepper spray instead of the attackers. Certainly all this cannot be merely coincidences.”

Apostasy, Blasphemy, and Proselytism

Iran: Mohammad-Hadi Bordbar, known as Mostafa, an Iranian convert to Christianity, was sentenced to ten years in prison under the pretext of “crimes against state security.” Court documents state that the man confessed to “having abandoned Islam to follow Christianity … considering evangelization his duty, he distributed 12,000 pocket gospels.” According to Agenzia Fides, “After having received baptism, Mostafa had set up a ‘house church,’ an assembly of home worship, with prayer meetings at home, which are considered ‘illegal.’ Mostafa was arrested in Tehran on December 27, 2012, after a police raid at his house. The security officers detained and interrogated all those present at the meeting for hours, about 50 Iranian Christians. In his home the police found material and Christian publications, such as movies, books, CDs and over 6,000 copies of the Gospel. Mostafa had already been arrested in 2009 for conversion to Christianity, found guilty of apostasy, then released on bail. Similarly, Ebrahim Firouzi, another young convert from Islam to Christianity, was sentenced to one year in jail followed by two years in exile, after being accused of starting and directing an evangelism group, launching a Christian website, distributing Bibles and Christian literature, and attending house churches. The judge described such activities as “propagating against the Islamic regime” and said that Ebrahim was “an anti-Islamic Revolution agent inside the country.”

Uzbekistan: In the Samarkand region, some 30 police officers along with 60 other officials raided a Christian children’s camp, subjecting all 22 children to questioning. Brandishing their batons, police collected statements from the nine adults present at the camp, and all the children, including the youngest, and took them all to the police station for further questioning before releasing them. Officials confiscated a number of items including Christian literature and Uzbek-language New Testaments. Next, police raided the homes of the four adults who organized the children’s camp, and confiscated more Christian literature. It is believed that anti-proselytism related charges will be leveled against the four.

Slaughter of Christians

Central African Republic: Anywhere from 15 Christians to dozens, including a five-month-old baby, were slaughtered and 14 Christian villages emptied, after the Islamic group Seleka, which earlier seized the African nation’s leadership, raided their villages. According to Fr. Gazzera, a local missionary priest from Italy, “It was terrible. Many villages are like ghost towns because they are completely empty. Witnesses told me that the rebels had thrown the bodies of those killed in the river.” During a sermon, the priest lamented how the Islamic takeover of the country is producing “victims of the worst kind of barbarism” who “are being tortured and killed,” while “our mothers and sisters are being raped.”

Nigeria: A former Muslim terrorist recounted in detail the jihad on Christians and how Islamic organizations in the nation, not just Boko Haram, see the slaughter of Christians as one of the loftiest goals to which Muslims can aspire. He also explained how, “If we ask our victim, ‘Will you become a Muslim or not’ and he or she refuses, we will slaughter him like a goat…”

Somalia: Suspected al-Shabaab Islamic militants kidnapped and sexually abused a 28-year-old Christian wife and mother, while calling her an “infidel.” They also texted her husband, who had fled with their small children, writing: “Your wife has told us all about your Christian involvement and soon we shall come for you too.”

Syria: Islamic rebels killed Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who had earlier disappeared in the east of the country. Before being slaughtered, the priest had served for three decades in the Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian. Activists say he was killed by the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Dall’Oglio’s disappearance follows the kidnappings of the Greek Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox archbishops of Aleppo; Paul Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim were both kidnapped after gunmen intercepted their vehicle and killed its driver near Kafr Dael as the clergymen returned from a humanitarian relief mission on April 22. They are both believed to be held by Chechen jihadists. Aside from religious leaders, hundreds of regular Christians have been abducted and held for ransom, an activity that is legal according to Sharia in the context of the jihad.

Dhimmitude

[Infidels as Tolerated, Second Class Citizens in the Islamic World]

Indonesia: During celebrations marking the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and praying, an unidentified person hurled two Molotov cocktails into the compound of the Assisi Catholic School in South Jakarta, the same school U.S. President Barack Obama attended as a pupil before moving to another facility located in Central Jakarta. According to police sources, the Islamic extremists responsible for the bombings and attacks on religious minorities in Java are linked to the same Islamic groups that beheaded three Christian girls on their way to school in 2005.

Malaysia: A three-member panel of the Court of Appeal ruled unanimously in favor of the proposed ban on Christians publications from using the word “Allah.” In 2009, when this issue of Christians using the word “Allah” was popularized, churches were vandalized and those supporting the Christians’ using the word “Allah” threatened with death. Also in 2009, the government seized shipments of local language Christian Bibles because they contained the Arabic word for the deity.

Pakistan: A Christian woman and her children are under great pressure to convert to Islam or die by the Muslim family of their deceased husband and father. According to the mother, Martha Bibi, “When I got married, the relatives [of my husband] began to exert pressure so that I convert [to Islam]. But my husband stood up for me, saying that ‘my wife and my children should feel free to profess their faith.’ However, after his death his brothers have begun to terrorize us. They have sworn to kill us if we do not convert to Islam.” Also, approximately 30 armed Muslims attacked a Christian colony by opening fire at residents and throwing projectiles at their homes and local church. The colony, Shah Bagh, is near Joseph colony, where earlier nearly 200 Christian homes were torched by rampaging Muslims. The attack was prompted after a local Christian tried to stop the cable operator from charging Christians more money for cable access. Many Christians were injured, often with bullet wounds.

Sinai Peninsula (Egypt): In the Sinai Peninsula, now populated with jihadis, members of the Muslim Bedouin tribes are abducting Christians and holding them ransom for exorbitant sums. When their often destitute families are unable to pay for their release, the Christians are tortured to death—including by crucifixion. Shahar Shoham, director of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, told CBN News : “Sinai was always a place for human smuggling, but since around two years ago—even a bit more—it started also to be a place of human torture. They torture them in horrible methods, like hanging upside down from the ceiling, like using electric shocks, like burning them on their bodies.”

Syria: Concerning the Islamic rebel takeover of Christian regions, one refugee lamented how “if any Christians want to go back they have to become Muslim or else they will be killed.” Displaced Christians further report their property stolen, their homes confiscated, and their possessions sold on the black market. Another refugee lamented they were running out of places to flee: “All the roads are full of rebel fighters. It’s really dangerous. We have lost everything. There is nothing for us over there now, nothing to return to. We just need help to get out of here and settle in a country that is safe.”

by Raymond Ibrahim for Gatestone Institute

About this Series

While not all, or even most, Muslims are involved, the persecution of Christians in the Islamic world is on its way to reaching pandemic proportions. “Muslim Persecution of Christians” was developed to collate some—by no means all—of the instances of persecution that surface each month. It serves two purposes:

1) To document that which the mainstream media often seems to fail to report.

2) To suggest that such persecution is not “random,” but systematic.

These accounts span different ethnicities, languages, and locations.

raymond-ibrahim-crucified-again-smRaymond Ibrahim is author of Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War in Christians (published by Regnery in cooperation with Gatestone Institute, April 2013). He is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, an associate fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Media Fellow of the Hoover Institution, 2013

UZBEKISTAN: State tries to take one children’s summer camp, raids another

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is attempting to deprive the registered Baptist Union of land it owns and uses to run summer camps for children and families, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The state is claiming – without any apparent legal foundation – that the land was “illegally” bought in 2000. Baptists have complained to the Prosecutor-General that “the future of Uzbekistan cannot be built on the plundering of religious organisations”. Separately in Samarkand Region, an unrelated children’s camp organised by local Protestants was raided.

The raid on a camp of 31 adults and children involved 30 ordinary police, 20 riot police, and 30 officials from the regional tax authorities, Fire Brigade, Sanitary-Epidemiological Department, and the regional administration. Police “began brandishing their rubber batons, and collected statements from everyone – even from small children separated from their parents”. After over six hours of questioning and raids on the alleged organisers’ homes, it is expected that charges will be brought against six Protestants. Police have refused to discuss the raid with Forum 18.

Uzbekistan is attempting to deprive the registered Baptist Union of a plot of land it owns and uses to run summer camps for children and families, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The state is claiming – without any apparent legal foundation – that the land was “illegally” bought in 2000. The hearing of an appeal by the Baptist Union against the state’s allegations has been postponed to 15 August.
Separately n the central southern Samarkand [Samarquand] Region, an unrelated children’s camp organised by local Protestants was raided. The authorities also raided the organisers’ homes, confiscating books and other material for “expert analysis” by the state Religious Affairs Committee in the capital Tashkent. It is thought that legal charges and punishments against the organisers will follow.
Police have also recently violently physically assaulted a local Protestant, and the state is imposing large scale restrictions on Muslims marking Ramadan throughout the country (see F18News 2 August 2013).

Summer camp land bought illegally?

The DPD – which sold the land to the restaurant chain in 1993 – now claims that in 2004 (four years after the Baptists bought the land) some local residents complained that “in violation of religious and legal norms Baptists use the land, which in the past was a cemetery, as a resort area”.

On 18 June the DPD brought a legal case based on these claims to the Tashkent Economic Court, arguing that the Baptist Union must return the land to the state as the Baptist’s purchase of it was illegal. The DPD’s head, Jamshid Tursunov, personally brought the claim before the Court. His claim was based on the April 2006 Deregulation and Privatisation of Property Law.

Baptists, who wish to remain unnamed for fear of state reprisals, noted to Forum 18 on 5 August that:it is unlawful to base claims on a law that entered into force six years after the alleged illegality; no such claims or complaints were ever brought against the restaurant chain between 1993 and 200; the restaurant chain was given state permission to build the buildings the Baptists now use;  no documents or other evidence (eg. archaeological remains) appears to exist proving the existence of what Baptists describe as the “mythical cemetery”; even if the “mythical cemetery” exists, its existence should in law have been asserted within 20 years – i.e. by 2003 – of the original transfer of land from state ownership; the DPD has not explained why it waited nine years until 2013 before raising the allegations; and that the DPD’s action is unlawful, as under the statute of limitations in Civil Code Article 150, such actions must be brought within three years of the land purchase – i.e. by 2003.

In short, the Baptists argue that there are very strong legal grounds to immediately dismiss the DPD’s case. Judge Malika Kalandarova of Tashkent City Economic Court on 6 August postponed to 15 August the hearing of the case brought by the DPD.

Judge Kalandarova on 5 August declined to comment to Forum 18 on the case saying that “only after we make a decision we can comment.” Kamoliddin Toirbekov, Deputy Head of the DPD also declined to discuss the case with Forum 18 on 5 August, referring enquiries to the DPD’s lawyer Bobyr Mukaddamov.

Asked why the DPD insists on confiscating the Baptist’s land, Mukaddamov on 6 August told Forum 18 that “you will see when the Court makes a decision.” Asked how he justified the DPD’s breach of the Constitution and published laws, he replied: “Let’s wait until the end of the case. Let the Court conclude whether or not our claim is unfounded.”

Other officials in Tashkent Region between 5 and 7 August refused to discuss the case with Forum 18. Similarly, Shovkat Khamdamov, Press Secretary of the Religious Affairs Committee on 7 August refused to comment on the case.

“Uzbekistan cannot be built on the plundering of religious organisations”

The Baptists in mid-July wrote to the Prosecutor General, complaining about the DPD’s actions without apparent legal foundation. They also stated that the DPD had broken the Constitution Law and other laws, including the Religion Law and the 2012 Law on the Protection of Private Property and Guarantee of the Rights of Owners. They note that “the future of Uzbekistan cannot be built on the plundering of religious organisations”.

No reply has been received from the Prosecutior-General.

Children’s camp in Samarkand Region raided

On 23 July in Samarkand Region, police raided a children’s camp in the village of Mironkul organised by local Protestants, a Protestant who wished to remain unnamed for fear of state reprisals told Forum 18 on 6 August. “Four full buses with 80 officials and police, 30 of whom wore police uniforms and 20 in black OMON riot police uniforms arrived.” The other 30 officials were from the Samarkand regional tax authorities, Fire Brigade, Sanitary-Epidemiological Department, and the regional administration.

The raid began at 11 am in the morning and those in police uniforms “began brandishing their rubber batons, and collected statements from everyone – even from small children from their parents”. After six hours of questioning, the police took all nine adults and 22 children from the camp to Mironkul Police Station for further questioning before eventually releasing them.

The officials also confiscated two laptop computers, four mobile phones, a Yamaha electric guitar, a Toshiba overhead projector, a Canon camera, one sound amplifier, one speaker, one microphone, an internet modem, four memory chips, as well as two New Testaments in Uzbek, 10 private notebooks, and four posters.

Passport confiscation without informing Ukrainian Embassy

Police also took away passports of two Ukrainian citizens without informing their Embassy. The passports were taken as the two, husband and wife Aleksandr and Oksana Starosiuk were detained at the children’s camp.

“I don’t understand your question”

Senior Lieutenant Gayrat Norov, the local police officer in Mironkul, on 7 August refused to discuss the case with Forum 18. Asked about the reasons of the raid, he told Forum 18 that he “cannot hear well,” although Forum 18’s end of the line was very clear. He then hung up the phone.

Police Captain Shaukat Zaripov from Samarkand District, to whom Senior Lieutenant Norov reports, on 7 August also refused to discuss the case with Forum 18. Asked why the police and other authorities raided and harassed the Christian campers in Mironkul, he claimed to Forum 18, “I don’t understand your question.” When Forum 18 repeated the question giving the details of the case, he put the phone down. Subsequent calls to him went unanswered.

Samarkand Regional Administration on 7 August referred Forum 18 to Shukhrat Kulmatov, Deputy Hokim (Head of Administration) overseeing religious issues. Isroil Jabbarov, an official from the Religious Affairs Division of the Administration on 7 August told Forum 18 Kulmatov was not available to comment, and that he also could not comment on the case. He asked Forum 18 to call the number of one of the Assistants of Kulmatov. The Assistant (who refused to give his name) on the same day also refused to comment saying that he “had not heard about the case”.

Shovkat Khamdamov, Press Secretary of the Religious Affairs Committee, on 7 August refused to comment on the case.

Police search homes of camp organisers

After releasing the camp participants, police raided the private homes in Samarkand itself of the four adults the police consider to have organised the camp: Damir Hojaev, Eldor Muzapparov, Farida Hojaeva and Gulshan Kamalova.

From Hojaev’s home the police confiscated two Christian books, including a personal Uzbek-language New Testament, two magazines, a laptop computer, and a copier machine.

From Muzapparov’s home the police confiscated a desktop computer, 19 Christian books, including a personal Uzbek-language New Testament, 10 private notebooks, 62 leaflets with words of wisdom from the Bible, 52 CD and DVD disks of various fiction movies and video clips openly available in Uzbekistan.

From Hojaeva’s home police confiscated 78 Christian books, including a personal Russian-language Bible and New Testament in Uzbek, and other books in Uzbek, Russian and English.

From Kamalova’s home police confiscated a desktop computer, 18 Christian books, including a personal Russian-language Bible, 2 Uzbek language New Testaments.

Charges and punishments to follow?

The Protestant told Forum 18 that all the confiscated materials were sent to the Uzbekistan’s Religious Affairs Committee in Tashkent for “expert analysis”. It is thought that charges will then be brought against the four alleged organisers and Ukrainian husband and wife the Code of Administrative Offences.

The articles local Protestants think will be used are:

– 184-2 (“Illegal production, storage, or import into Uzbekistan with a purpose to distribute or distribution of religious materials”). Punishments are a fine of between 50 and 150 times the minimum monthly wage, “with confiscation of the religious materials”;

–  240 (“Violation of the Religion Law”) Part 1 (“..unauthorised religious activity .. the organisation and conduct of special children’s and youth meetings..”). Punishments range from fines of 50 to 100 times the minimum monthly salary to administrative arrest for up to 15 days;

– and 241 (“Teaching religious beliefs without specialised religious education and without permission from the central organ of a [registered] religious organisation, as well as teaching religious beliefs privately”). Punishments range from fines of 5 to 10 times the minimum monthly salary, or administrative arrest for up to 15 days.

It is also expected that the Ukrainian couple may be deported. The court case and punishments are expected to take place at some point between now and mid-September.

By Mushfig Bayram, Forum 18 News Service

Secret Believers Share Faith under Fire

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BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — One-hundred-thousand Christians are murdered because of their faith each year. In many cases, governments are to blame because they pass laws that restrict religious freedom.

Recently, CBN News gained exclusive access to a gathering of secret believers inside a former Soviet Republic to get a close-up look at what life is like for Christians who face daily persecution.

Secret Strategy

The setting in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan could not have been more ideal.

“This is a beautiful location,” Vitaly, a secret believer, said. “Seventy percent of the country is mountainous. Locals call it the second Switzerland of Asia. Our goal was to find a safe place away from the city to not draw attention of the authorities.”

For a few days Vitaly and a handful of Christians gathered in a secluded villa tucked away in the mountains about a two-hour drive outside the capital city Bishkek.

We worship, pray, and strategize how to effectively share the love of Christ in our countries,” Vitaly said.

CBN News cannot show you their faces or reveal their real names for security reasons, but in a room inside a secret getaway are underground believers from Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. All are former Soviet Republics in Central Asia experiencing a rising tide of hostilities against believers.

They are members of a Christian ministry that’s reaching young people in the former Soviet Union.

“It’s practically impossible to openly share about Jesus Christ. Doing so will get you beaten, arrested, or killed,” Vitaly warned.

Youth Not Allowed

But that has not stopped Marat, a youth leader from Uzbekistan, who said last year was a difficult year for him.

“Fortunately I wasn’t arrested,” Marat said. “But I was repeatedly interrogated by secret police accused of gathering people in my house. They said what I am doing is illegal.”

Marat runs an informal Christian school training Uzbek leaders. He told CBN News that “the pressure is unrelenting.”

“You can’t relax. You are constantly under stress,” he said. “You cannot trust anyone because you don’t know if they’ll turn you in or accuse you of proselytizing.”

Doud is from Kazakhstan, the largest of the five Central Asian countries. There were no Kazakh Christians in 1990. Today there are about 15,000. But strict religious laws make it difficult for churches to register.

“According to our law you cannot attend church until you are 18 years old. That means we cannot hold youth meetings, discipleship classes or Bible study,” Doud said.

One Life at a Time

Firuz is from Tajikistan. He gave CBN News exclusive access to home video of his secret house church that was smuggled out of the country. The meetings are small and typically held in a believer’s home.

“The people in this video know exactly what’s at stake,” Firuz told CBN News in an undisclosed location.

“Our parents taught us from childhood that one day we may have to sacrifice our lives.”

Seven million people live in Tajikistan and only 1,000 are Christian.

“Each life counts,” Firuz said. “God says, ‘Be thankful every day, rejoice in every soul that comes into heaven.’ That’s what keeps us going: one life at a time.”

Radical Islam On the Rise

Religious freedom exists in all five countries under the constitution, but barely. While Islam is the dominant religion, a more radical expression is taking root in Central Asia.

Dmitry Kabak is a human rights lawyer in Bishkek. He said fear of radicalism has led governments to adopt laws controlling all religions, including Islam and Christianity.

“Groups from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and elsewhere come in with a different interpretation and practice of Islam. That worries the authorities. Some of the radical groups have engaged in terrorist activities,” Kabak told CBN News.

Oleg works in remote villages of Kyrgyzstan. He remembers what it was like spiritually after the fall of the Soviet Union.

“There was a lot of freedom in the 90s. People could openly share the gospel. But eventually, Islam started to make a move and gain influence,” he said.

An Oasis from Persecution

All throughout the mountain areas of Kyrgyzstan the horse is another popular mode of transportation, especially to get around some of the tough terrain and step hills.

For the believers, the mountains are a spiritual oasis because it is an opportunity to get away from the almost daily routine, harassment, and persecution from the authorities and to come together in a safe place, a beautiful place, and to get spiritually energized.

“The beauty, the backdrop, (and) the scenery (are) wonderful distractions from (their) daily challenges,” Marat said.

“To see Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Kazakh, and Tajik believers in the same place at one time is so encouraging,” Firuz said.

“We draw strength from each other. We know we are not in this spiritual battle alone.”

After being encouraged, refreshed, and re-energized, the believers must travel back home to the uncertainty of the days ahead.

Yet they stand boldly, convinced of a calling to make the name of Jesus Christ known — no matter the cost.

USCIRF’s 2013 Annual Report on the State of International Religious Freedom Identifies World’s Worst Violators

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

April 30, 2013| By USCIRF

Washington, D.C. — The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent federal advisory body created by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) to monitor religious freedom abuses abroad, today released its 2013 Annual Report.  The Report highlights the status of religious freedom globally and identifies those governments that are the most egregious violators.

“The state of international religious freedom is increasingly dire due to the presence of forces that fuel instability.  These forces include the rise of violent religious extremism coupled with the actions and inactions of governments.   Extremists target religious minorities and dissenters from majority religious communities for violence, including physical assaults and even murder.  Authoritarian governments also repress religious freedom through intricate webs of discriminatory rules, arbitrary requirements and draconian edicts,” said Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, USCIRF’s Chair.

The 2013 Annual Report recommends that the Secretary of State re-designate the following eight nations as “countries of particular concern” or CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.  USCIRF finds that seven other countries meet the CPC threshold and should be so designated:  Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.

“The Annual Report ultimately is about people and how their governments treat them. Violations affect members of diverse religious communities around the world, be they Rohinghya Muslims in Burma, Coptic Christians in Egypt, Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and Falun Gong in China, Baha’is in Iran, Ahmadis and Christians in Pakistan, or Muslims in Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan and in non-Muslim nations like Russia.  We recommend that the White House adopt a whole-of-government strategy to guide U.S. religious freedom promotion and that Secretary of State Kerry promptly designate CPCs, before currently designated actions expire later this year,” said Lantos Swett.

In Burma, ongoing political reforms have yet to significantly improve the situation for freedom of religion and belief.  Sectarian violence and severe abuses of religious freedom and human dignity targeting ethnic minority Christians and Muslims continue to occur with impunity.

In Egypt, despite some progress during a turbulent political transition, the government has failed or been slow to protect from violence religious minorities, particularly Coptic Christians. The government continues to prosecute, convict, and imprison individuals for “contempt” or “defamation” of religion, and the new constitution includes several problematic provisions relevant to religious freedom.

In both Pakistan and Nigeria, religious extremism and impunity have factored into unprecedented levels of violence that threaten the long-term viability of both nations.  Targeted violence against Shi’i Muslims in Pakistan is pervasive, while repeated Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria exacerbate sectarian tensions.

“Many of these countries top the U.S. foreign policy agenda, and religion is a core component in their makeup.  Successful U.S. foreign policy recognizes the critical role religious freedom plays in each of these nations and prioritizes accordingly. Religious freedom is both a pivotal human right under international law and a key factor that helps determine whether a nation experiences stability or chaos,” said Lantos Swett.

USCIRF also announced the placement of eight nations on its Tier 2 List for 2013.  The Tier 2 category replaces the Watch List designation USCIRF previously used.  These nations are: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia. USCIRF found the violations these governments engage in or tolerate are particularly severe, and meet at least one criterion, but not all, of IRFA’s three-fold “systematic, ongoing, egregious” CPC standard.

In Russia, religious freedom conditions suffered major setbacks in the context of growing human rights abuses. In Indonesia, the country’s rich tradition of religious tolerance and pluralism is seriously threatened by arrests of individuals the government considers religiously deviant and violence perpetrated by extremist groups. Federal and provincial officials, police, courts, and religious leaders often tolerate and abet the conduct of religious freedom abusers.

The USCIRF report also highlights the status of religious freedom in countries/regions that do not meet the Tier 1 (CPC) or Tier 2 threshold. These include: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Ethiopia, Turkey, Venezuela and Western Europe. The Annual Report also addresses in-depth thematic issues:  Constitutional Changes; Severe Religious Freedom Violations by Non-State Actors; Laws against Blasphemy and Defamation of Religions; Imprisonment of Conscientious Objectors; Legal Retreat from Religious Freedom in Post-Communist Countries; Kidnapping and Forced Religious De-Conversion in Japan; and Religious Freedom Issues in International Organizations.

ABOUT USCIRF

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government advisory body with its commissioners appointed by the President and the leadership of both political parties in Congress.  The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) requires that the United States annually designate as CPCs countries whose governments have engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of the universal right to freedom of religion or belief.  IRFA also tasks USCIRF with assessing conditions in these and other countries and making recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress.

In accordance with IRFA, USCIRF uses international standards, as found in UN conventions and declarations, for assessing religious freedom conditions.

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