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Judge Rules in Favor of Group of Asylum Seeking Iranians

Advocates for a group of nearly 90 Christian and other religious-minority refugees from Iran are praising a ruling by a federal judge in California earlier this week that forces the Trump administration to reconsider their asylum requests after issuing a blanket denial of all of them earlier this year.

(Mohabat News)  The refugees and U.S. human rights activists representing their interests say the decision is a break-through in a troubling case that has left the group of Iranians marooned in Vienna and has earned the sympathy and attention of a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress, as well as high-level Trump administration officials.

Since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) denied their asylum applications en masse in February, the group has been left in limbo in Vienna, unable either to return to Iran out of fear of further persecution and possible death or to reunite with family members or other sponsors in the U.S.

“It’s a step in the right direction, and we’re happy that the court recognizes that the government can’t just use whatever terms it wants [to deny these applicants]. It has to follow what Congress intended this program to be—to give heightened protections to these Iranian Christians and Mandaeans and other religious minorities,” Mariko Hirose, who serves as the litigation director for International Refugee Assistance Project in New York, told the Washington Free Beacon.

The Iranian individuals and their family members applied for refugee resettlement in the United States under the Lautenberg Amendment, a law Congress first passed in 1989 to facilitate refugee admission of Jews fleeing the former Soviet Union. Lawmakers expanded the program in 2004 to include religious minorities in Iran.

The Iranians had traveled to Vienna from Tehran at the invitation of the U.S. government to complete their applications as part of this unique Lautenberg refugee program.

The program has quietly admitted an estimated 30,000 persecuted Iranians, mainly Jews and Christians, but also Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, and Baha’is, over the last decade at a near 100 percent acceptance rate without incident, according to U.S. lawmakers familiar with the acceptance record.

However, the Obama administration first started imposing a new vetting process for all asylum applicants in 2016, the first roadblocks for the group of nearly 90 Iranians.

Then in February, after the individuals had already spent nearly a year waiting at an intermediary vetting facility in Vienna—the same facility used for years for the Lautenberg program without incident—the DHS flatly denied the group without providing the reasons behind the decision.

The DHS denials said only that the applicants were being barred from resettling in the U.S. as “a matter of discretion.”

A State Department spokeswoman earlier this year did not elaborate on why DHS had denied the group of Iranians, saying only the “safety and security of the American people are paramount,” and that “Iranian refugee applicants under this program are subject to the same security vetting processes that apply to refugee applicants of other nationalities considered for admission to the United States of America.”

U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman on Tuesday ordered DHS to disclose individual reasons for the denials within 14 days of her ruling, which allows the claimants to appeal. The refugees have 90 days to file their appeals, which could reopen their cases.

If they are once again denied, DHS would have to follow their own regulations and provide a substantive reason for the denials, according to Hirose.

In addressing the unique aspects of the Lautenberg Amendment, which governs this group’s applications, Freeman wrote that DHS “retains an enormous amount of authority and discretion to adjudicate refugee applications, but they do not have the discretion to violate the law.”

The vague DHS denial notices, the judge said, leaves the applicants in an untenable position.

“Without a reason for the denial, the applicants are left to guess at which factors and circumstances DHS considered,” she said. “Any meaningful review of the denials becomes impossible because plaintiffs are effectively shadowboxing against themselves.”

Evidence that applications of at least 38 of the individuals denied admission in February received “identical notices of ineligibility raises the inference that the denials were not, in fact, individualized,” she continued.

Hirose says Congress was very clear when it passed the Lautenberg Amendment that if the U.S. government denies an asylum claim, it must provide a reason “to the maximum extent feasible.”

The mass denials were such a devastating blow because the group of Iranians had already uprooted from their home country, leaving jobs and selling possessions and expected a smooth transition to the United States.

After previous asylum seekers left Iran, they were able to travel onward to the United States in just a few months, Hirose said.

“That’s how this program used to be, and it was really a surprise and completely unprecedented when these mass denials happened in February,” she said.

The group’s plight has attracted the attention and support of key lawmakers in Congress who called on Vice President Pence to intervene on their behalf in late January.

Reps. Randy Hultgren (R., Ill.) and James McGovern (D., Mass.), co-chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Congress, sent a letter to Pence arguing that the Lautenberg Amendment requires DHS to presume that all Iranian religious minorities are eligible for refugee status in the United States.

“DHS and State must make every effort to continue to accept thousands of Iranian religious minorities currently waiting in Iran and take steps to prioritize and expedite any relevant security checks,” they added.

They also highlighted Pence’s and other Trump administration officials’ repeated promises to come to the defense of persecuted Christians in Iran and throughout the Middle East.

“You have made clear that the Trump administration will take the lead in helping to end these persecutions,” they wrote. “In Vienna, Austria, there are 100 victims of persecution waiting for the United States to act. Thank you for doing what you can to move DHS and State to accept these refugees.”

A White House official told the Free Beacon in January that the administration is paying “careful attention to the issue” and was working to find a solution.

“High-level administration officials are monitoring the progress,” the official said. “Certain complexities exist that the administration has to work through, including human-rights concerns and national security. But the administration is certainly engaged.”/The Washington free beacon

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Iraq: Easter in Qaraqosh

Iraq: Christians celebrate Easter in Qarqosh (Baghdida)

Many of Iraq’s Christians celebrated their first Easter since returning to their homes. With the help of local churches and other organisations, people in the country’s largest Christian city, Qaraqosh (also known as Baghdida), have restored their homes and are now attempting to recover the lives they lost when the Islamic State group took over the city nearly four years ago.

The pastor of the Mar Behnam and Sarah Church, located in the centre of Qaraqosh, talks about how the city, which was deserted following IS’s onslaught, is starting to recover.

‘Finally my father is home’ – Slimane Bouhafs released after 18 months in jail

(World Watch Monitor) The daughter of Slimane Bouhafs, an Algerian Christian who has spent the last 18 months in prison for insulting Islam and its prophet, has announced her father’s release.

“Finally my father … has been allowed back to us,” his daughter, Tilelli, wrote on her Facebook page on Easter Saturday. “Thank you for your support.”

Algerian newspaper El Watan reported that Tilelli and her mother had been on their way to visit him in prison when he called, saying that he had been released and was about to take a taxi home. Tilelli reportedly told him to wait, after which they picked him up and travelled home together.

“I am filled with joy to be reunited with my family, who have suffered tremendously,” El Watan reported Slimane Bouhafs as saying. “It was too much… I suffered a terrible injustice. I did not hurt anyone, I did not kill anyone. I was deprived of my freedom unfairly.”

He added that he had “seen unbearable things in prison” and thanked people from all over the world for sending him letters of support.

Who is Slimane Bouhafs?

Slimane Bouhafs, a convert from Islam, was arrested on 31 July 2016 for posting a message on social media about the light of Jesus overcoming the “lie” of Islam and its prophet. He also published photos showing the execution of a civilian by an Islamist terrorist.

He was adjudged to have insulted Islam, the state religion in Algeria. The penal code provides for a penalty of three to five years in prison, along with a heavy fine, for such an offence. Bouhafs was initially given the maximum sentence, before it was reduced to three years and then, following a presidential pardon, further reduced.

However, the family’s request for parole in October, owing to Bouhafs’ ill health, was rejected.

A source who preferred to remain anonymous told World Watch Monitor at the time of the initial sentencing that a five-year sentence was “severe in view of a rather minor offence”. Such comments on social media are common in Algeria without usually triggering the wrath of the authorities, the source added. In January 2017 a court in Bouira (100km east of Algiers) sentenced another Algerian Christian to a year in prison for items he posted on his Facebook page, adjudged to be insulting to Islam and its prophet.

During his incarceration, Bouhafs spent time in three different prisons. Initially he was imprisoned in the northern city of Setif, but was then transferred to Constantine and later Jijel, despite the family’s request that he be moved to Béjaïa – in the Kabylie region where he is from and where there is a relatively large Christian community.

While in prison, his health deteriorated due to his inflammatory rheumatism, a disease that worsens under stress and requires a special diet. He also reportedly suffered aggression from his fellow prisoners because of his Christian faith.

Protests

Bouhafs’ family protested against the verdict, supported by Algerian and international human rights groups. His daughter Tilelli stressed that her father had only shared someone else’s posts on Facebook, adding: “I wonder why there is this rage against my father, who did not have a high profile on Facebook.”

Another daughter, Afaf, described her father as a man who had always defended the interests of his country from a young age. She said he is known for his commitment to democracy and religious freedom in all his writings published on his Facebook page.

According to Said Salhi, vice-president of Algerian League for Human Rights (LADDH), the verdict was “part of an escalation” and a result of “abusive” use of article 144 (bis) of the Algerian law.

In October 2016, a crowd gathered in the northern city of Tizi Ouzou to lobby for Bouhafs to be allowed access to medical treatment.

They also called for a change to the law that punishes anyone deemed to have insulted Muhammad or “denigrated the dogma or precepts of Islam”.

In May 2017 the LADDH organised a rally in support of Bouhafs in Béjaïa’s city centre. In a statement the group said the Algerian government had been responsible for “repeated violations of human rights and freedoms” and demanded “the release of all detainees of political or religious opinions”.

Bouhafs’ conviction was seen by some as a means of silencing him because of his political activism. He belongs to a movement for the self-determination of Kabylie (known as MAK), a separatist group not tolerated by the authorities. MAK activists are regularly harassed and arrested.

Rejoice, He is risen and Love has won!

Through the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus, God has redeemed us and calls us his children. May God bless us with great joy. Through Christ, we have been saved by grace, our chains have been broken and we now have freedom. Father, lead us and help us to resist temptation, to be united with Christ and life eternal in Your presence. O God bless us, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen and Amen. Have a very blessed Easter Sunday remembering all the Lord has done and accomplished. Rejoice, the victory is won, LOVE wins!

 

5 Who Tried to Stop [Christ’s True Mission]… and Failed

Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man”), Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Pilate presenting a scourged Jesus to the people of Jerusalem. Created: between circa 1860 and circa 1880

Have you ever thought about how many people tried to stop Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, whether for good or bad? Some wanted Jesus dead, and they thought His words were blasphemous. Others looked out for their own interest and rule, but there were some who wanted to protect Jesus—and they were distraught at His death. But God is sovereign over all, and He knew the path that His Son must follow in order to save mankind once and for all. Here are 5 who tried to stop Jesus’ life, death, or resurrection and failed according to God’s plan: read more

NIGERIA – Kidnapped religious sisters released

(Agenzia Fides) – “We are happy; to God be the glory”, said Sister Agatha Osarekhoe, Superior General of the Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Christ, announcing the release of the three sisters and three reverend sisters abducted on 13 November 2017 in the State of Edo, in southern Nigeria (see Fides 18/12/2017). “One was said to have been released on Saturday, 6 January while the others on Sunday 7. Now they are fine. They are receiving some medical check-up in a hospital”, she said.

The first to be released was Veronica Ajayi, around 6 pm on Saturday 6 January. The three sisters, Sister Roseline Isiocha, Sister Aloysius Ajayi, Sister Frances Udi, were released along with two others on Sunday, January 7 at noon.
On November 13, the six religious women had been forcibly taken by some armed men who had invaded their residence in Iguoriakhi. The criminals went away with six of them in a speed boat.

According to the local press, the kidnappers were said to have later demanded a ransom of N20 million (about $ 54.00). However, the Superior General stated that no ransom was paid: “No ransom was paid. We know that the Police did their best because they are aware. They had to do their work. The most important thing is that our sisters are free”.

The police commissioner, Johnson Kokumo, said that the sisters were rescued during an operation by policemen from the command. “Police operatives closed in on the daredevil kidnappers and they had no other option than to release the reverend sisters”.

On Sunday, December 17 after the Angelus Pope Francis had launched an appeal for the release of the religious with these words: “From the heart, I unite myself to the appeal of the Bishops of Nigeria for the liberation of the six Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, kidnapped roughly a month ago from the convent in Iguoriakhi”. (L.M.) (Agenzia Fides, 9/1/2018)

IRAQ – Iraqi Christians celebrate the feast of Mar Behnam, in the shrine devastated by jihadists

Fraternité en Irak

Qaraqosh (Agenzia Fides) – On Sunday 10 December hundreds of Iraqi Christians were able to take part in the celebrations for the feast of Mar Behnam (San Behnam) at the Shrine-Monastery where the relics of the Saint are kept. The Mar Behnam Monastery, a few kilometers from the city of Qaraqosh, in the Nineveh Plain, is being rebuilt after the massive devastation carried out by the jihadists of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (Daesh). The project to rebuild the important place of worship is supported in particular by the French association Fraternité en Irak. The large participation of the faithful in Eucharistic liturgies, celebrated outdoors, was an important sign of the will of the Iraqi Christians to return to live their daily life, marked by the feasts and celebrations of the liturgical year, in the places of its traditional roots.

The jihadist militiamen of the self-proclaimed “Islamic Caliphate” already in July 2014 had driven out the three Syriac Catholic monks who had officiated the monastery until the day before. Even some families residing at the monastery had been expelled. Since then, concerns have been expressed about the fate of the heritage kept in the ancient monastery, dating back to the fourth century and dedicated to the Assyrian martyr prince Behnam and his sister Sarah, which is one of the oldest and most venerated places of worship of Syriac Christianity. After a few months from the beginning of the jihadist occupation, as early as 2014 (see Fides 15/10/2017) the militiamen of Daesh had removed all the crosses and burned ancient manuscripts kept in the monastery. Then, in 2015, they had largely devastated it with explosives, and had not spared the Saint’s grave.

Last July (see Fides 17/7/2017), the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) had arrested some members of the so-called “Babylon Brigades” on suspicion of looting private houses and churches Christians, including the Mar Behnam monastery.
The Nineveh Plain Protection Units represent a local military organization, formed in part by native Christians and established in 2014 as a territorial self-defense militia.

The so-called “Babylon Brigades”, headed by Ryan al Kildani (Rayan the Chaldean), also claim their militia label composed by Christians, even if their connection with Shiite militias such as the People’s Protection Units is documented (Hashd al Shaabi) who also operate in the area. (GV) (Agenzia Fides, 11/12/2017)

Saints Behnam, Sarah, and the Forty Martyrs

…were 4th-century Christians who suffered martyrdom during the reign of Shapur II. They are venerated as saints in the Oriental Orthodox Church and their feast day is 10 December.

Behnam and Sarah were born in the 4th-century in Adiabene, and were the children of Sinharib, an Assyrian king. Whilst hunting on Mount Alfafwith forty slaves, Behnam became separated from his entourage and was forced to spend the night on the mountain. He received a dream in which an angel instructed him to seek Saint Matthew, who lived on the mountain, as the saint could heal his sister Sarah, who was afflicted with leprosy. Behnam met with his entourage the next day, and they discovered Saint Matthew in a cave and requested he join them on their return to the city, to which he agreed.

Behnam and his entourage returned to the city ahead of Saint Matthew and told his mother of his dream and the saint. His mother allowed Behnam and Sarah to return to the saint in secret, and he healed Sarah of her leprosy, after which Behnam, Sarah, and the forty slaves were baptised and Saint Matthew returned to Mount Alfaf. Sinharib discovered Behnam and Sarah’s conversion and demanded they abandon Christianity. Stalwart in their faith, Behnam, Sarah, and the forty slaves, fled to Mount Alfaf, but were slain by soldiers sent by Sinharib.

Following his children’s death, Sinharib was afflicted with madness. Behnam spoke to his mother in a dream and instructed her to seek Saint Matthew, as he could heal the king. The queen took the king to the place of Behnam and Sarah’s death, where he met with Saint Matthew and was cured. Sinharib and his wife returned to Assur with the saint and were baptised. The king had a monument to the martyrs built at the place of their martyrdom, and, at the request of Saint Matthew, constructed a monastery on Mount Alfaf, which later became known as the Monastery of St. Matthew. Sinharib had the martyrs buried at the monastery atop Mount Alfaf. In the 6th century, a Persian merchant constructed a shrine to the martyrs alongside Sinharib’s monument, and would later develop into the Monastery of Saints Behnam and Sarah. Source: Wikipedia

Underground Churches in China…A Rare Video Clip

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