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Villagers in India Deprive Five Christian Families of Farmland, Food, Water

(Morning Star News) – Village leaders in eastern India prohibited five Christian families from working on their farms or walking on the main road before district authorities this month revoked the order, sources said.

Leaders of Banhardi village, in Jharkhand state’s Latehar District, told the five families in April to either convert back to their ancestral Sarna religion or face punishment, Christian leaders said. When the Christians refused to renounce their faith, the village on April 10 issued a decree instructing that their farmland be confiscated and prohibiting them from interacting with anyone, fetching water and buying or selling, they said.

Before district officials arrived on May 13 and annulled the April 10 decree, the Christians had to go outside the village to look for food and other items to meet daily needs and were on the verge of starvation, said Motilal Oraon, one of the persecuted Christians.

“We had to carry drinking water from some other village to our homes,” Oraon told Morning Star News. “They did not allow us to enter our own farmland or work in it. We went searching for work in somebody else’s farmland in a distant village, as we could not find work in our own village. Our families were starving.”

After District Collector Rajiv Kumar intervened and annulled the order, the villagers agreed to let the Christians receive government rations and water, but they said they will continue to refuse to associate with all who have converted to Christianity, area pastors said. The villagers also said that they will forbid any Christian preacher from entering the village.

Along with Motilal Oraon’s family, the other Christian families punished were those of Madhwari Oraon, Banarasi Oraon, Lukku Oraon and Rajesh Lohara.

Sarna, also called Saranaism, is recognized as the indigenous religion of Adivasi tribes in eastern India. All Banhardi villagers followed the Sarna tradition of their ancestors until one family put their faith in Christ eight years ago, said Asaf Surin, senior pastor of the main Believers Eastern Church in Bariatu Jagir, 12 miles away. Gradually, four other families followed, he said.

“These five families are the only Christian families in the village of about 500 homes, and they attend worship at a small fellowship belonging to the Believers Eastern Church,” Pastor Surin said. “The fellowship meets at the house of a Christian about a mile away from Banhardi in village Riche, jointly with five Christian families of Riche.”

Beneswar Oraon, pastor of an area Believers Eastern Church, said that retaliation to this extent was unprecedented.

“Initially there was no persecution until 2016, but then the villagers noticed the increase in the number of families turning to Christ,” Pastor Oraon told Morning Star News. “They got together and discussed their concern, saying that if they did not stop Christianity from spreading, the whole village will soon become Christian.”

More than 30 families attended the village meeting on April 10 in which they decreed that land owned by the Christians be confiscated and distributed among their non-Christian relatives; the Christians would not be invited to any marriage ceremony in the village or be allowed at any funeral; any villager found taking part in or attending any function in Christians homes would have to pay a fine of 1,000 rupees (US$14); and the Christians’ grocery ration card under the government distribution program, and all women’s self-help group memberships, would be cancelled.

“While the Christians where helplessly struggling to meet the basic needs of their families, Newswing [a local newspaper] published the news of this boycott, which then caught the attention of the authorities,” Pastor Surin said.

District Collector Kumar, along with an investigation team, reached the village on May 13 and initiated talks between both parties, the pastors said. He then ordered that all the local leaders’ decisions be annulled.

Sub-Divisional Police Officer Virendra Ram, who headed an investigating team, instructed the villagers to follow their own religion and let the five families practice their faith. Police also said that everyone could equally access government rations.

After the visit from the district authorities on May 13, the ration distributor approached the Christians on May 15 and insisted that they collect their share of the ration allotted for them.

“We are so delighted at the way God has heard our prayers,” Motilal Oraon said. “We got help even when we had approached nobody. God opened a way, and the authorities themselves walked inside our village and rescued us from starvation.”

Jharkhand’s population is 26.3 percent tribal, of which 14.5 percent follow Christianity, 39.8 percent Hinduism, 0.4 percent Islam and the rest other ancestral religions including Sarna, according to the 2001 census.

India is ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position has been worse each year since Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014.

Photo: Five families in village in Jharkhand state, India punished for becoming Christians. (Morning Star News)

Pastor Brunson case increased ‘hate speech’ against Turkey’s Protestants

Turkey’s high-profile criminal case against Protestant pastor Andrew Brunson has triggered a significant increase in public hate speech against the nation’s small Protestant community, creating what its church leaders last week called a ‘climate of insecurity’ for its congregations and individual members.

World Watch Monitor shared that according to the Turkish Association of Protestant Churches’ annual human rights report for 2018, the number of attacks designed to incite hatred of Protestants “purely due to their beliefs” in Turkey’s local, national and social media outlets had seriously increased during Brunson’s arrest, jailing and two-year trial.

The report said that the Protestants’ 150 congregations watched the US pastor’s case closely “with great sadness and concern”, disturbed by the media’s repeated practice of linking churches and individual Christians with terror organisations, without providing any substantiating evidence. Instead, the accusations by secret false witnesses against Brunson were “reported as if they were true,” and local and national publications refused to allow the slandered churches and individuals their constitutional right of reply or correction.

Although the government has enacted a Personal Data Protection Law, during the Brunson case the Turkish media published names, personal details, photographs and specific church activities openly in a negative context, the report said, targeting both Protestant churches and their members in direct news reports.

Open publication of the name and company of one Protestant church member, accused by a national newspaper of supporting a terrorist organisation after he visited a church in the eastern city of Van, led to the loss of a number of his business contracts.

Protestants in the cities of Diyarbakir, Mardin, Izmir and Manisa attempted legal action against the “insidious propaganda” linked to the Brunson case that targeted their churches and leaders, the report said. But local authorities either declined to investigate or failed to punish the perpetrators.

Negative Malatya atmosphere recalled

The Protestant Association explained their particularly “serious concern and apprehension” over this recent surge in religious hate speech because of its similarity to widespread Turkish media coverage against Christian churches and activities 12 years ago, just before the 2007 torture and murder of three Christians. Two Turkish citizens and one German resident were stabbed to death by five young Turks in Malatya, in southeast Turkey.

The 2018 report reiterated a number of unresolved problems faced by the Turkish Protestant community over the past decade. They include the longstanding difficulty of establishing recognized places of worship, legal restrictions prohibiting seminaries or other formal religious education for non-Muslim faiths, and the absence of a legal path to obtain official identity as a religious congregation.


Malatya’s Kurtulus (Salvation) Church posted message after an attacker heaved a brick through the church’s display window on 11/24/2017: “’Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.’ Jesus Christ.” (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

The Turkish government persisted again this past year in failing to invite the Protestant community or any of its church representatives to meetings of religious groups organized by the government or official organisations. Local churches within the Protestant community are not linked with a hierarchical structure like the Orthodox and other ancient Christian traditions in Turkey. Accordingly, the government has yet to acknowledge the Association of Protestant Churches formed in 2009 as the religious group’s representative institutional body.

The report noted that an unspecified number of Protestant foreign church members residing in Istanbul, Izmir, Mersin and other cities were deported or denied re-entry back into Turkey during 2018, or told to leave Turkey within 10 days after renewal of their residence permits was refused.

On a positive note, for the first time since the year 2000, a Protestant church was approved during the past year to form a religious foundation; another Protestant church’s application for foundation status is currently pending.

The Protestant community currently consists of some 150 churches, mostly concentrated in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. Only 10 congregations meet for worship in official church buildings, most of them historical buildings. Another 67 fellowships either rent or purchase facilities designated as legal “association” meeting places. A total of six Protestant foundations with five representative branches have been formed and registered. The remaining congregations, including some 25 house fellowships, have no legal entity status.

Photo 1: Pastor Andrew Brunson

Two Iranian Christian converts arrested in Mashhad and Karaj

Informed sources reported to Mohabat News that “Behnam Ersali, a Christian convert living in Karaj, traveled to Mashhad and was arrested by security guards at a friend’s home on Friday, November 16, 2018 and taken unknown location.

Six plain-clothed security officers entered the house without a legal decree and arrested him along with the another person. The second was released a few hours later.

Behnam Ersali, was a former member of the Assemblies of God church in Tehran. Mohabat New also reported that several years ago Ersali had been fired from his job because of his Christian faith.

Davood Rasooli, known among the believers as “David”, was also arrested on Friday by two plain-clothes officers on in front of his home in Karaj. He too was transferred to an unknown location. Informed sources, quoted by the Christian convert’s family, say that the officers returned to the house two hours later with Rasooli.  They searched his home and confiscated some of his books and personal belongings.

MEC reported that Rasooli had planned to meet Ersali in Mashhad that same day. It’s believed that Iranian intelligence had intercepted their calls and learned of the arrangement.

Since the arrest of these two Christian converts there has been no contact with their family members. Mohabat news shared that no information is yet available on the cause of their detention or where they are kept. According to MEC, friends of Rasooli believe that he is in solitary confinement and undergoing interrogation in Rajai Shahr Prison.

Mohabat news shared that reports indicate Iran’s intelligent agencies have summoned and arrested a number of believers in the northern cities of the country. There are still no details on this issue, but it is said that some of them were released on their recognizance’s.

The Islamic Republic is under international pressures, and government officials are at an impasse, but they continue to harass religious and ethnic minorities without any understanding of their own conditions. It seems that there is a new wave of arrest and pressure against Christians.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has recently adopted a resolution indicating the increase in the number of executions, especially executions of criminals under the age of 18, violations of the right to freedom of expression and violations of the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, repression of protesters and journalists, torture and ill-treatment in prisons, detention and the condemnation of dual nationality and the violation of women’s rights in Iran, and that the human rights situation has become worse in Iran. However, Iran’s President, Hassan Rowhani, has claimed that he intends to improve the situation of religious and ethnic minorities./FARSI

Where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were preserved in the midst of a blazing furnace fire in the presence of the Lord. A land where God saved Daniel when he sent his angel to shut the mouths of the lions. Today, this same land has one of the fastest growing number of Christians in the world—second only to China. Please keep our Iranian brothers and sisters in your prayers.

North Koreans ‘betrayed’ by human rights omission in Trump-Kim agreement

(World Watch Monitor) North Koreans were “betrayed” by the failure of US President Donald Trump to include human rights provisions in his agreement with the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, following their historic meeting in Singapore, according to Human Rights Watch’s Asia Director, Phil Robertson.

“The North Korean people have suffered for so long,” he told the BBC World Service, “and it looks like they’ll have to suffer for a little longer.”

But after the meeting Trump said the many North Koreans currently being held in forced-labour camps were “one of the great winners today”.

Responding to a question from ABC News’s Jon Karl about whether North Korea’s oppression of its people was worse than any other regime on earth, Trump said: “It’s a rough situation over there; there’s no question about it, and we did discuss it today pretty strongly.

“I mean, knowing what the main purpose of what we were doing is – de-nuking – but we did discuss it in pretty good length.

“We’ll be doing something on it. It’s rough; it’s rough in a lot of places, by the way, not just there, but it’s rough and we will continue that, and I think ultimately we will agree to something, but it was discussed at length. Outside of the nuclear situation, [it was] one of the primary topics.”

‘Very deep resentment’

John Choi*, a Christian human rights advocate who escaped from North Korea and now lives in the UK, was more optimistic.

“Hopefully denuclearisation will lead to more money available to feed the everyday citizens of North Korea and provide them with a better life. President Trump said that the human rights issues are a continuing process. I am glad it is now on the agenda. But Kim Jong-un has to be committed to it too. Kim Jong-un has not yet referred to the prison camps or religious freedom. This is an ongoing process and I will continue to advocate and pray for it,” he told the Christian religious freedom charity Open Doors International.

But Yong Sook, whose husband died in a North Korean prison and who now lives in South Korea, told Open Doors she watched the meeting between the US president and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un “with very deep resentment”.

“How many innocent people have died because of the development of the nuclear weapons they are talking about now?” she said. “So far, none of the leaders of North Korea have really taken care of their people. They let them starve to death. Why? Because they don’t want to give up those nuclear weapons. They need them to survive and survival is Kim Jong-un’s desire. Now he wants to give up those weapons? Maybe, but again, he will only give them up if his survival is guaranteed.

“Kim Jong-un should confess what he and his regime have done. He should open the doors of the political camps and kneel down to apologise to those who have suffered due to its regime. The lives of North Korean citizens are just as important as Kim Jong-un’s life.”

Christian roots

Historically, North Korea has a rich Christian heritage, but after Japan’s formal rule from 1910-1945, followed by the Korean War (1950-53), any form of public Christian worship has been banned, and surviving Christians have had to take their beliefs “underground”.

Today North Korea is atheistic and totalitarian, and since 2002 it has been the most dangerous place to be a Christian, according to Open Doors.

If you “merged the Soviet Union under Stalin with an ancient Chinese Empire, mixed in The Truman Show and then made the whole thing Holocaust-esque, you have modern-day North Korea”, Tim Urban wrote in the Huffington Post after visiting the country in 2017.

“It’s a dictatorship of the most extreme kind, a cult of personality beyond anything Stalin or Mao could have imagined; a country as closed off to the world and as secretive as they come, keeping both the outside world and its own people completely in the dark about one another — a true hermit kingdom.”

‘70,000 Christians detained’

There are approximately 300,000 Christians in the country, with almost a quarter of them (70,000) being held in prisons and labour camps, where they face “unimaginable torture, inhumane and degrading treatment purely because of their faith”, according to Zoe Smith, Head of Advocacy at Open Doors UK & Ireland.

Leading up to the summit, North Korea released three American citizens who had been put in labour camps for “anti-state activities”. One of the detainees, Kim Hak Song, recently said his captors had told him he was imprisoned because of his “hostile act” of prayer.

“The systematic persecution of Christians is just one of many heinous human rights violations perpetrated by the North Korean regime,” Smith said. “If true change is to come to that country – and we hope it will – any further negotiations must confront the desperate human rights situation.”

Meanwhile North Korea appears to be upgrading its longstanding neighbourhood-watch system, or ‘inminban’, whereby every North Korean is called upon to report on any criminal activity or political disobedience that they see. According to the South Korea-based news service Daily NKinminban leaders now receive special rations in return, while in some places, like the capital Pyongyang, they have the authority to expel families who have engaged in illegal activities.

According to the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2017, there were more than 1,300 religious-freedom violations in North Korea last year, while it is estimated that its camps hold more than 120,000 political prisoners.

In December three jurists called on the International Criminal Court to establish a special tribunal to prosecute North Korea’s leader and his top officials for committing “crimes against humanity”.

(*) Name changed for security reasons

Eritrea: Rights groups call for renewal of UN Special Rapporteur’s mandate

(World Watch Monitor) Rights groups have called for the mandate of the UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur for Eritrea to be renewed in June.

The human rights situation in the East African country has been monitored by the UN Human Rights Council since 2012, when it appointed Ms Sheila B. Keetharuth as the Special Rapporteur. In March this year she, however, acknowledged that during her tenure the human rights violations in the country have “continued unabated”.

Father Thomas Reese, of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, told a US human rights commission in April that Eritrea remained “one of the worst examples of state-sponsored repression of freedom of religion or belief in the world”.

“The State Department estimates that between 1,200 and 3,000 individuals are held on religious grounds,” he said. Among them are several Evangelical and Pentecostal pastors who have been detained for more than 10 years.

Evangelicals and Pentecostals in Eritrea have been at particular risk of detention since a 2002 law was passed prohibiting Churches other than the Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and also Sunni Islam.

“The situation in the country is only getting worse”, Dr Berhane Asmelash told World Watch Monitor.

The Eritrean pastor who was imprisoned for his Christian activities and moved to the United Kingdom 18 years ago, said, “We’re seeing the abused becoming abusers. They know it is wrong but it was done to them too. The government, the president, has been successful in sowing division and creating mistrust. You can’t speak in Eritrea because it might make you end up in jail at any time”.

The rare protests that were seen in the streets of the capital Asmara in November, following the government’s plans to turn all schools public, were not a sign of a possible ‘Eritrean Spring’, according to him. It won’t be repeated again soon, he said, “because of what happened to the protesters: they were arrested, jailed, and tortured. They [the authorities] will make sure you won’t do it again. And it discourages anyone who has similar ideas”.

‘Who needs people?’

The pastor was visiting a refugee camp in Ethiopia three weeks ago. At the end of 2017 Ethiopia was host to 164,668 Eritrean refugees with most of them in transit to other destinations.

People are “streaming out of [Eritrea]”, he told World Watch Monitor. Just the week before about 5,000 people had crossed the border, he said.

World Watch Monitor reported last month that an estimated 10 per cent of Eritreans have fled the country since the turn of the millennium, finding refuge in neighbouring countries or crossing the Mediterranean in search of safety in Europe and beyond. They have become the ‘top group’ of African asylum seekers in 2017.

People leaving their country “is exactly what the government wants”, the Eritrean pastor said. “They say: ‘Who needs people? They only cause trouble’.”

He says that there are hardly any young people left in the country. “The regime makes it impossible for them to stay. They leave the country because they can’t find a job or have a normal family life because of the mandatory conscription. Or they are kidnapped, like the son of a friend of mine. He was sold to someone in Sudan and his father had to pay a ransom to get him back”.

It is a bleak picture the pastor paints of his home country, which has been dubbed the “North Korea of Africa”.

“The kind of people the government want in the country are like the woman I saw in a disturbing YouTube video”, he told World Watch Monitor.

“In an interview with the Eritrean state television she said she had been paralysed but that, after having washed herself in a dam that was built by the government, she had been healed. She praised the president for that. For her it was now first the president, then Jesus.”

Brunson’s lawyer: secret witness practice ‘absolutely outlandish’

Lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt speaking with journalists at the entrance to the Sakran Prison complex on 7 May, 2018. (World Watch Monitor)

(World Watch Monitor) At the close of Turkey’s second trial hearing against US pastor Andrew Brunson, his lawyer has sharply protested the Izmir court’s reliance on secret prosecution witnesses against his client.

Jailed for the past 19 months, the 50-year-old Evangelical Presbyterian minister was sent back to his cell in a maximum-security prison for another 10 weeks, until the third hearing set for 18 July.

“This secret witness issue is absolutely outlandish. It is not just related to our case; the secret witness issue has a very serious problem,” his lawyer, Ismail Cem Halavurt, told a Deutsche Welle reporter after the hearing.

“This case cannot proceed by just relying on secret witnesses’ testimony,” Halavurt said.

“Supporting evidence must come alongside these allegations. Our Supreme Court decisions regarding this are very plain: witness testimony claims are not sufficient to prolong a jailed person’s detention. In spite of reminding the court of this repeatedly, [Brunson’s detention] is being continued. This is not acceptable.”

“There is not a single piece of evidence,” he added, referring to the latest sensational allegations thrown against his client just that morning by a secret witness called ‘Serhat’. The witness claimed Brunson was plotting to set up a Kurdish Christian state, helping transfer US weapons to a Kurdish militia in Syria with his “missionary team”, and collaborating with well-known supporters of Fethullah Gülen, the Muslim cleric Turkey has demanded be extradited by the US in exchange for Brunson.

“Brunson’s release was obligatory, but unfortunately today [7 May] his release did not happen,” Halavurt said, vowing to file the necessary petitions before the third hearing “so this illegal detention will be brought to an end”.

“We will struggle to get Brunson set free,” he added.

The lawyer told reporters he had listened to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s comments about Brunson’s case just hours before the second hearing began.

“They say ‘the [Turkish] government should release him,’” Çavuşoğlu told CNNTURK. “Is it up to me? This is a decision the judiciary will make.”

But Halavurt said that to think the government’s political statements and opinions will not influence the judiciary is illogical, saying: “This case has been overly politicised.”

“Honestly, I don’t have any satisfaction that this court is able to make an independent, unbiased decision,” Halavurt said. “If you look at the [legal] obligations of the court, this issue is crystal clear; to continue imprisonment is illegal.”

The lawyer said he would persist in demanding Brunson’s legal right to be released from custody for the duration of the trial, expressing concern that the court’s refusal has caused the pastor serious psychological distress.

Sensational political allegations

During the 10-hour hearing on Monday, 7 May, the prosecution presented two secret witnesses who testified via video linkage, with their faces blurred on huge overhead screens and voices altered. Another five witnesses testified openly in person in the courtroom.

At the outset of the hearing, the presiding judge noted that missionary activity is in fact legal in Turkey. But the prosecution witness testimony revealed each individual’s distrust of ‘hidden’ motives behind Brunson’s Christian activities, which they linked to his alleged involvements with Kurdish terrorism and the now-banned Islamic network of the Fethullah Gülen movement, accused by Ankara of launching the failed 15 July, 2016 coup to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government.

For nearly two rambling hours, the secret witness referred to as ‘Serhat’ recounted events and activities in which he claimed Brunson was involved. Although he described himself as a Christian, Serhat admitted repeatedly that he had not himself heard or witnessed the claims he was relating. Rather, he had “seen social-media accounts” displaying the sympathies of some people attending the church for the illegal Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), or been told things by various sources.

As coordinator of the ‘religious arm’ of the PKK, Serhat said, Brunson was arranging the transfer of arms being sent by the US to the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) affiliates of the PKK. “I learned this from the son of a diplomat who had worked for years at the US Embassy [in Ankara],” Serhat claimed.

Saying Brunson talked about forming a new state and preparing for a great war, Serhat claimed he had chosen a “Kurdish pastor” for south eastern Turkey who was working among the Syrian refugees to establish Kurdish Christians in all 81 provinces of Turkey.

Categorically denying Serhat’s claims, Brunson told the court: “This witness gave not a single piece of evidence. He said, ‘I heard all this from second- or third-hand individuals.’”

Looking up at the state prosecutor and panel of three judges seated on the bench above him, Brunson said: “I am helping refugees, and they say I’m aiding the PKK. I am setting up a church, and they say I’m being supported by the Gülen network. But this is just verbal testimony from these witnesses. Where is the proof, the evidence?”

The presiding judge sharply reproved Brunson’s demand for evidence, declaring that physical proof, such as photographs or documents, was not required for the court to decide what was credible evidence.

Prosecution chooses jailed thief to testify

Brunson declared that he had never seen or met the first three open witnesses, two of whom were prisoners brought from jail under guard to testify. One of them, Ali Daloğlu, claimed he had observed Brunson three times along the Turkish border when the pastor was going back and forth between Suruç, Gaziantep and Şanliurfa, involved with Syrian Kurds. He also said he had seen Brunson meeting in a hotel in Gaziantep with an active Gülenist, who he said was giving the pastor financial aid for Syrian refugees.

Brunson flatly denied ever seeing or knowing Daloğlu or any of the four Gülenist suspects he had named, declaring his testimony “disgusting”. When Halavurt was invited to cross-examine Daloğlu, the lawyer quoted from research documents he handed over to the court, revealing that Daloğlu had an ongoing prison record of 14 arrests for automobile thievery.

The last two witnesses were personal acquaintances known to Brunson. A young neighbour living near Brunson’s home testified he had seen many foreign visitors coming and going, and had “heard” from Turks who attended another Protestant church that the pastor was supporting PKK propaganda.

The last prosecution witness named Eyüp Çakir said he had known Brunson for six years and regularly attended his church for some time, but then became uncomfortable about the influx and active involvement of Kurds in the church leadership and worship, which he considered a “provocation” among the Turkish congregation.

“The Turks were humiliated in the church,” Çakir claimed, saying other Turks like him decided to leave because PKK sympathisers formed a separate group and were praising the PKK. “In the church there were flags to support the PKK,” he claimed. “The church was like the camp of the PKK… For the past three years, his church has been promoting division.”

Brunson was asked by the presiding judge, “Why did you have relations with a person who was sympathetic to the PKK?” The pastor responded: “In our church there were both radical [Turkish] nationalists and Kurds. I am related the same way to both of them. Actually, to be Kurdish is one thing; to be PKK is another.”

“I responded to all these false charges in the first hearing of this trial,” Brunson continued. “I want to say clearly, the PKK is a terrorist organisation. I never thought differently.” Çakir admitted on the witness stand that he opened a fake Facebook page in Brunson’s name and began posting pro-terrorist items on it, vowing to Brunson: “I will destroy your PKK church.” The pastor said he told Çakir, “You are the most dangerous person in our church,” and refused to accept him back into the church.

The Brunson family’s pastor, Richard White from North Carolina (left), outside the Sakran Prison complex before the hearing for Andrew Brunson began, 7 May 2018.

Three defence witnesses rejected

At the close of the hearing, the 20 local observers seated with Brunson’s wife at the back of the courtroom were clearly disappointed with the judge’s ruling to decline the pastor’s request to be sent home under house arrest. But they were shocked to learn that the judicial panel had just rejected three of the 10 defence witnesses prepared to testify on Brunson’s behalf at the next hearing, because their names appear in the indictment.

The closing paragraph of the indictment lists more than 60 individuals or organisations named throughout the document, declaring them all “suspects” because of witness allegations that they were associated with Andrew Brunson and his activities. Halavurt told World Watch Monitor he is filing a formal protest over the exclusion of these three key witnesses from his defence portfolio.

Representing the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which has publicly campaigned for Brunson’s release as the innocent victim of false criminal charges, Vice Chair Sandra Jolley came from Washington to observe the trial. She was joined by Charge d’affaires Philip Kosnett and several consular officials from the US Embassy in Ankara.

Speaking to Turkish reporters outside the courthouse afterwards, Jolley said: “We leave the courthouse with serious concerns. Today’s 11 hours of proceedings were dominated by wild conspiracies, tortured logic and secret witnesses, but no real evidence to speak of. Upon these rests a man’s life.”

“The truth is that this case is part of a larger decline in personal freedoms, including religious freedom and human rights, that we are witnessing in Turkey in recent years,” Jolley noted. “We are looking to the Turkish judiciary to uphold Pastor Brunson’s innocence.”

Brunson’s US-based pastor Richard White also flew from North Carolina to attend the hearing. When he returned home, he reportedly told his congregation (which includes Brunson’s parents) that he was “sad, angry, and resolute” after watching the proceedings.

Official UN inquiry begun

This week the American Center for Law and Justice, leading US advocacy efforts for Brunson, confirmed that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has taken up his case. Accordingly, before the first trial hearing on 17 April, this independent panel of international human rights experts sent an official inquiry to the Turkish government, requesting that it refute within 60 days the allegations that Brunson’s detention is arbitrary.

Brunson’s trial highlights Turkey’s ‘hostage diplomacy’ tactic

A photo of the Rev. Andrew Brunson during his time in prison. Photo courtesy of World Witness

(World Watch Monitor) On the eve of jailed US pastor Andrew Brunson’s second court hearing in Turkey, growing international comment has focused on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s transparent “hostage diplomacy” tactic, one of several issues seriously souring his nation’s relations with the United States.

The upcoming 7 May hearing near Turkey’s third-largest city of Izmir marks Brunson’s 19th month in custody. According to statistics released last week by the Turkish Justice Ministry, the Protestant pastor is one of 35,000 suspects under arrest and awaiting trial in Turkey on suspicion of supporting the accused perpetrators of a failed coup attempt against the Turkish government nearly two years ago, on 15 July 2016.

After 23 years in open church ministry in Turkey, Brunson was detained during Ankara’s widespread crackdown against the government-labelled Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation (FETO), led by a self-exiled Turkish cleric living in the US for the past two decades and accused of launching the deadly coup attempt.

Erdoğan has insisted repeatedly that Gülen be extradited back to Turkey, declaring 14 boxes of documents had been sent to the US Justice Department to prove Gülen’s guilt. The US has cited a lack of sufficient judicial evidence to authorise US courts to expedite the aged imam’s forced return to Turkey.

Last September, Erdoğan publicly proposed Brunson as a political bargaining chip, suggesting that if the US would send Gülen back to Turkey, the American pastor could be sent back to the US. The offer came four months after US President Donald Trump had surprised the Turkish President during his state visit to Washington, asking him in person to release Brunson. Most recently, after the first trial hearing against the pastor, Trump declared in an April 18 tweet that Brunson was “on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason”.

Reporting from Washington, Hurriyet Daily News columnist Cansu Çamlibel said on 28 April: “There has been no single conversation between Trump and Erdoğan where the US President did not [say] Brunson’s name.”

Only seven weeks ago, the pastor and his Turkish lawyer finally learned the specific allegations on which his charges of alleged espionage and terrorism are based, most of them from “secret witnesses”. The prosecution has demanded 35 years in prison if Brunson is convicted of these charges, all of which he denied in his six-hour defence before Izmir’s 2nd Criminal Court on 16 April.

More than 50 members of the European Parliament wrote to President Erdoğan today (4 May), protesting Turkey’s treatment of the Protestant pastor “as a bargaining chip”. Expressing “deep concern about the wrongful imprisonment of Pastor Andrew Brunson,” the letter reiterated the Parliament’s resolution on 7 February, urging Turkey to respect its European and international commitments on the prohibition of arbitrary detention by releasing Brunson.

The letter also protested the indictment’s association of “Christianization” with terrorism, implying the Christian faith to be endangering Turkey’s unity. The signatories included Lars Adaktusson and Peter van Dalen, the vice-chair and co-chair, respectively, of the European Intergroup on Freedom of Religion.

Just last week, the US Congress passed legislation introducing “hostage-taking accountability” against Iran, notorious for its long-time habit of using this ploy against the citizens of Western nations as a tool of its foreign policy.

The new US laws enacted on 25 April mandate sanctions against Iranian officials responsible for “wrongful, politically motivated jailing of US citizens”. Condemning the practice of prolonged, politically motivated detentions as “a crime against humanity and a violation of customary international law”, the statutes go more strategically beyond blanket sanctions, which penalise all the Iranian people; instead, they target specifically the Iranian officials involved in hostage-taking.

Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, himself held as a political hostage for 18 months in Tehran by the Iranian government during the high-level negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal, applauded what he called “a long-overdue move” to curb “this particular bad habit” of hostage-taking.

“[Iranian officials] have … learned to ignore the personal nature of this crime in large part because none of them have ever been held accountable for it. Hostage-taking destroys lives, tears apart families and leaves lasting trauma in its wake. Are there human-rights abuses that are worse than this?” Rezaian asked. “Undoubtedly. But this is practice that flouts every international convention on human rights and must be ended. It is a tool of terrorists and pirates, not sovereign states.”

After the first hearing in Brunson’s trial, two-thirds of the US Senate members declared in a letter to President Erdoğan: “That a Turkish court could accept such a document as the basis for prosecution removes any shred of doubt that Andrew Brunson … is being used as a political pawn by elements of the Turkish government bent on destroying the longstanding partnership between two great nations.”

VOP note: We are preparing for the 24 hour Prayer Conference Call for Andrew Brunson, which begins tonight at 9 p.m. (EST). We invite you to come on the call as we pray, united, for the Lord to intervene on behalf of Andrew and the persecuted church, globally. Click here for call information.

UN ‘failing’ Eritrea’s detained Christians

“Thousands” of Christians are facing detention as “religious freedom continue[s] to be denied in Eritrea” – UN Watch (Photo: David Stanley)

Eritrea’s human rights record was again in the spotlight at the UN Human Rights Council earlier this week. Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in her opening remarks that over 100 people were arrested in Eritrea in 2017 for practising religions not officially recognised by the state, reports World Watch Monitor.

A monitoring group for the UN, United Nations Watch, said “thousands” of Christians are also facing detention as “religious freedom continue[s] to be denied in Eritrea”. The group also asked why the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth, “failed to closely assess this situation”.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a religious freedom and human rights advocate, mentioned the arrest of dissidents and their family members and noted that the Commission of Inquiry had found that “Eritrea had committed crimes against humanity”.

The Special Rapporteur did highlight the detention this month of hundreds of perceived opponents, some as young as 13, following the death, in custody, of a 93-year-old school director who defied government orders, as Reuters reported.

Haji Musa Mohamednur was the director of a private Islamic school in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. The government orders that he disobeyed included a ban on the veil and stopping of religious teachings.

His arrest in October led to student protests on the streets of Asmara – a rare sight in the strictly governed East African nation.

Video: During peaceful protest, PFDJ shot at civilians as they marched against the dictatorship for their rights. Approximately 28 people were killed.

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