Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced last fall that the Conservative Government will open an Office of Religious Freedom. That decision has led some critics to suggest that the Conservatives are blurring the lines between church and state, that they are more concerned about Christianity than other religions and that they did not consult a wide enough range of religious communities. Don Hutchinson, director of the Centre for Faith and Public Life of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada addressed some of these issues.
Unceasing, accelerating incidents of bloodshed in Nigeria topped Compass’ top 10 news stories of 2011 as Boko Haram and other Islamic extremists lashed out at Christians. Following this top news story was the assassination of Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet member in March 2011; the upholding of the death penalty for a pastor in Iran who refused to recant; Islamist violence unleashed in Egypt; and increased anti-Christian hostilities in Sudan following the secession of South Sudan. The complete list follows.
1 – Firestorms of Violence in Nigeria
A presidential election and an acceleration in Boko Haram Islamic extremist attacks led to firestorms of violence against Christians in Nigeria in 2011. Bomb explosions by Boko Haram came with seemingly unceasing guerrilla-style attacks on Christians by other Islamic extremists in remote areas far from the mainstream media’s view.
The first wave of attacks hit Plateau state in January after Christmas Eve bombings of churches by Islamic extremists, with the resulting tit-for-tat violence killing more than 200 people in Plateau state, according to Human Rights Watch. Then the April 16 election of a Christian president triggered attacks that killed hundreds of Christians and destroyed more than 100 church buildings, again drawing in retaliating youths from Christian families.
While media attention was riveted on a Boko Haram bomb blast of a U.N. building on Aug. 26 and on other attacks on government installations, Muslim extremists with the help of Nigerian army personnel killed 24 Christians in Plateau state that month with little attention from the mainstream press. Plateau Gov. Jonah Jang called for immediate withdrawal of the Nigerian Army, saying Muslim soldiers had taken sides with Islamist assailants. In September, a rash of attacks by armed Muslim extremists on villages in Plateau state left more than 100 Christians dead, and the next month Nigerian soldiers summoned to stop inter-religious fighting between Muslim and Christian youths shot and killed a Christian mother of five in the Yelwa area of Bauchi city. Boko Haram extremists on Sept. 22 killed five Christians in Niger state, and other Muslim extremists killed three Christians the previous week in the north-central state of Kaduna, including a 13-year-old girl.
In November, 200 members of Boko Haram stormed Damaturu, Yobe state, killing some 150 people – at least 130 of them Christians, according to church sources. The destruction included the bombing of at least 10 church buildings. Later in the month, Fulani Muslim herdsmen along with Muslim soldiers killed at least 45 ethnic Berom Christians in Plateau state. Smaller attacks beginning on Nov. 20, reportedly over allegations by Fulani Muslims of cattle theft, preceded an attack on a Barkin Ladi church on Nov. 23 that killed four Christians, and an assault the next day left 35 Christians dead in Barkin Ladi and nearby Kwok village. The attacks began Nov. 20 with the killing of three Christians outside Barkin Ladi, and then two Christians in the town were killed on Nov. 21. The next day, a Christian was beheaded in town behind a popular hotel known as the White House.
A Christmas Day suicide bomb attack by Boko Haram on St. Theresa’s Catholic Church, outside the Nigerian capital of Abuja in Madalla, left at least 45 people dead and 73 others injured. Three of the 45 confirmed dead were policemen on guard duty at the time of the attack, and most of the rest were parishioners.
On Dec. 31, President Goodluck Jonathan declared areas of Borno, Plateau, Yobe and Niger states to be under a state of emergency due to the Boko Haram attacks.
2 – Christian Member of Cabinet in Pakistan Gunned Down
Unidentified gunmen in Islamabad on March 2 shot dead Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, then Pakistan’s only cabinet-level Christian and an outspoken critic of the country’s widely condemned “blasphemy” laws. Suspected Islamic extremists from Pakistan’s Taliban and al Qaeda left a letter at the scene saying those who try to change Pakistan’s blasphemy laws would be killed. The murder came two months after Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer was killed by his bodyguard for supporting Asia Noreen (also known as Asia Bibi), the first Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges.
The assailants sprayed 25 to 30 bullets at Bhatti’s car after he came out of his mother’s home in a residential area of the Pakistani capital to attend a meeting of the federal cabinet. The federal government had provided bodyguards for Bhatti, but they were not present at the time of the attack. A letter found at the scene, purportedly from Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists, claimed responsibility for the killing. Police sources said the letter accused Bhatti of waging a campaign to amend the blasphemy law. Bhatti had defied death threats after the Jan. 4 assassination of Taseer, conceding in several interviews that he was “the highest target right now” but vowing to continue his work and trusting his life to God.
3 – Pastor’s Death Sentence Upheld in Iran
A death sentence was upheld for a pastor in Iran convicted of “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, even though a court determined that he was never a practicing Muslim. Authorities had arrested Yousef (also spelled Youcef) Nadarkhani in his home city of Rasht in Oct. 2009 on charges that he questioned obligatory religion classes in Iranian schools. After finding him guilty of apostasy, the court of appeals in Rasht in November 2010 issued a written confirmation of his charges and death sentence. At an appeal hearing in June, the Supreme Court of Iran upheld Nadarkhani’s sentence but asked the court in Rasht to determine if he was a practicing Muslim before his conversion. The court declared that Nadarkhani was not a practicing Muslim before his conversion, but that he was still guilty of apostasy due to his Muslim ancestry.
The Supreme Court had also determined that his death sentence could be annulled if he recanted his faith. The Rasht court gave Nadarkhani three chances to recant Christianity in accordance with sharia (Islamic law), but Nadarkhani refused to do so. The head of Iran’s Judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, reportedly ordered the presiding judge over the trial in Rasht to do nothing for one year. The nation’s Islamic authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, was to make a ruling on the sentence.
Authorities have also continued to pressure Nadarkhani to recant his faith while in prison. In September they gave him Islamic literature aimed at discrediting the Bible, according to sources, and instructed him to read it. The court reportedly has been told to use whatever means necessary to compel Nadarkhani to recant his faith.
4 – Islamist Violence Unleashed in Egypt
Coptic Christians in Alexandria, Egypt began 2011 with a bomb blast after a New Year’s Eve Mass celebration that killed at least 22 people, and less than two months later the country’s “Arab Spring” demonstrations brought down the Egyptian government – unleashing Islamist aggression that culminated in an Oct. 9 massacre of 27 people, including at least 23 Christians.
In the wee hours of Jan. 1 in Alexandria, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the Coptic Orthodox church of St. Mark and Pope Peter, or “(Two) Saints Church.” Several Facebook sites and other websites sprang up in Egypt in support of the violence, and the sentiment was echoed in the comment sections of the online versions of several Egyptian newspapers.
The political chaos that followed the Feb. 11 resignation of President Hosni Mubarak helped create conditions for a series of attacks, including a Muslim mob in Sool village south of Cairo on March 4-5 burning down a church building and nearly killing a parish priest after an imam issued a call to “Kill all the Christians.” The attack on the Church of the Two Martyrs St. George and St. Mina started on March 4 and lasted through most of March 5. On Sept. 30, a 3,000-strong mob of hard-line and Salafi Muslims attacked Mar Gerges Church in the Elmarenab village of Aswan, torching the structure and then looting and burning nearby Christian-owned homes and businesses.
These attacks set the stage for the Egyptian Army’s Oct. 9 massacre of demonstrators, mostly Christians, protesting the Mar Gerges destruction at the television and radio broadcasting building commonly known as the Maspero Building. The army shot into the crowd and rammed riot-control vehicles into the protestors.
*** Photos of the church bombed on Jan. 1, along with photos of demonstrators injured during the protests, are available for subscribers, to be used with credit to Compass Direct News. High resolution photos are also available; contact Compass for transmittal.
5 – In Sudan, Anti-Christian Hostilities Galvanize in North
The secession of South Sudan in July left Christians in the north more vulnerable to the Islamist bent of President Omar al-Bashir, and territorial warfare in states along the north-south divide targeted Christians. The Sudanese leader, wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, vowed to impose a stricter form of Islam on Sudan, but some local officials and citizens were already emboldened to vent anti-Christian aggression – sending ominous text-messages to Christian leaders, demolishing and threatening to demolish church buildings and attacking Christians. On July 18 Muslim extremists attacked the home of Anglican Church of Sudan Bishop Andudu Adam Elnail in an attempt to kill him and two other pastors, Luka Bulus and Thomas Youhana, who all happened to be out of the house at the time. No one was hurt, but the assailants left a threatening letter warning them of similar attacks.
Muslims in Omdurman West long opposed to a Sudanese Church of Christ near Khartoum attacked Christians trying to finish constructing their building on Aug. 5, claiming that Christianity was no longer an accepted religion in the country. Muslims in the north, where an estimated 1 million Christians still live following the secession of South Sudan on July 9, fear the potential influence of the church. “They want to reduce or restrict the number of churches, so that they can put more pressure on believers,” said one church leader.
In the border areas of Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, Christian communities and church buildings have been targeted. In Sudan’s embattled South Kordofan state, military intelligence agents killed one Christian, and Islamic militants sympathetic to the government slaughtered another in June after attacking churches. Sudan Armed Forces Intelligence (SAF) detained Nimeri Philip Kalo, a student at St. Paul Major Seminary, on June 8 near the gate of the United Nations Mission in Sudan in Kadugli’s al Shaeer area and shot him in front of bystanders. Kalo and other Christians were fleeing the town after Muslim militias loyal to the SAF attacked and looted at least three church buildings in Kadugli, they said. On June 8, Islamic militants loyal to the SAF slaughtered a young Christian man by sword in Kadugli Market. Adeeb Gismalla Aksam, 33, was a bus driver whose father is an elder with the Evangelical Church in Kadugli. The Islamic militias were heard shouting Allahu-akbar (God is greater) as they began shooting at a Roman Catholic Church building the same day.
6 – Shouwang Church Members Arrested Weekly in China
One of the largest unregistered Protestant churches in Beijing was subjected to weekly arrests when it began worshipping outdoors on April 10, after authorities pressured landlords to keep them out of their purchased and rented properties. Leaders of the 1,000-member church said the landlord of their venue had been under mounting pressure from authorities to terminate the lease, and the government also prevented the church from using the premises it had purchased in late 2009. Shouwang had paid 27 million yuan, or about US$4 million, for the second floor of the Daheng Science and Technology Tower in northwest Beijing’s Zhongguancun area. Authorities interfered, and the property developer refused to hand the key over to the church.
The members of the church’s governing committee, two pastors and three elders, and other major co-workers have been under house arrest for the whole or much of the time since April 9. Hundreds of other people, including many Shouwang parishioners and some members of other churches in Beijing and other cities, were detained for between a few hours to two days.
The church was unwilling to be subject to the controls and restrictions of the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), as it disagrees with TSPM beliefs and controls. Many unregistered evangelical Protestant groups refuse to register with TSPM due to theological differences, fear of adverse consequences if they reveal names and addresses of church leaders or members or fear that it will control sermon content.
Shouwang signed a rental contract with a new landlord on Dec. 17, but the landlord terminated the contract due to pressure from “the local police station, the housing management office and leaders of various government agencies,” church leaders announced to members on Dec. 23. Church leaders had arranged to have an indoor meeting on Sunday (Jan. 1) in a room leased from the Beijing Parkview Wuzhou Hotel on Dec. 17, but due to police interference and the cancellation of the lease, they continued meeting outdoors for services – with the arrests also continuing.
7 – Afghan Convert from Islam Released from Prison
After intense diplomatic pressure, Afghan authorities in February released Said Musa, who had been in prison for nearly nine months on charges of apostasy, or leaving Islam, punishable by death under Islamic law. The 46-year-old Musa (alternately spelled Sayyed Mussa) left the country.
Musa had written a series of letters from his prison cell, the last one dated Feb. 13, in which the Christian amputee and father of six said representatives of embassies in Kabul visited him and offered him asylum; after the representatives left, however, Musa was taken to another room where three Afghan officials tried to convince him to recant his faith. They promised to release him within 24 hours if he would do so. He refused and was sent back to his cell. “I told them I cannot [follow] Islam,” he wrote in his letter. “I am Jesus Christ’s servant. They pushed me much and much. I refused their demands.”
Details of Musa’s release remained confidential in order to protect him and his family.
The country’s most popular broadcaster, Noorin TV, broadcast images in May of Afghan Christians worshiping, putting in motion the events that got Musa and other Christians arrested. The hour-long TV show sparked protests throughout the country against Christians and a heated debate in parliament. In early June, the deputy secretary of the Afghan Parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, called for the execution of converts from Islam.
Before being transferred to Kabul Detention Center in the Governor’s Compound in November 2010, Musa had suffered sexual abuse, beatings, mockery and sleep deprivation because of his faith in Jesus in the first months of his detention.
8 – New Level of Violence in Indonesia
A suicide bombing of a church in Central Java, Indonesia on Sept. 25 pointed not only to a new level of attacks on religious minorities in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country but to a political bent accommodating Islamist extremism. Pino Damayanto, aka Ahmad Yosepa Hayat, who blew himself up and wounded more than 20 members of the Sepenuh Injil Bethel Church (Bethel Full Gospel Church) in Solo, apparently believed it was his religious duty to kill “the enemies of Islam.”
Extremism has grown since the fall of the authoritarian President Suharto in 1999, who kept radical groups under control. A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable dated May 9, 2006, published on the WikiLeaks website in May, revealed that a member of the National Intelligence Agency told the U.S. Embassy that a top official of the national police had “provided some funds” to the hard-line Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front or FPI), and that police were using the FPI as an “attack dog.” Extremist groups and officials close to them flout laws and violate the rights of minorities with almost complete impunity, sources told Compass. Extremist groups have infiltrated at all levels, including the clerical body representing all Indonesian Muslim groups to the government. “The government has no will to control extremist groups,” said Rumadi of the Wahid Institute, adding that the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono doesn’t want to be seen as “anti-Islamic.”
This dynamic was most clear in West Java, where the Bogor mayor’s refusal to obey a Supreme Court order to restore a congregation’s permit cast doubt on the ability of the Indonesian government to enforce the rule of law. Muslim demonstrators and area police have continued to obstruct the services of the Indonesian Christian Church (Gereja Kristen Indonesia, or GKI) congregation in the Yasmin area of Bogor, West Java, which was worshiping on a roadside or in a member’s home as the Bogor city government sealed its building in 2010.
9 – Al Shabaab Continues Slaughter of Christians in Somalia
Islamic extremists from the al Shabaab militia vying for control of Somalia continued their campaign to rid the country of Christians, seeking out secret believers and publicly executing them. The extremists cut the throat of a Christian mother of four on Jan. 7 on the outskirts of Mogadishu. Asha Mberwa, 36, was killed in Warbhigly in front of villagers who came out of their homes as witnesses. She was survived by her children – ages 12, 8, 6 and 4 – and her husband, who was not home at the time she was apprehended.
Others known to be killed by al Shabaab in 2011 were Guled Jama Muktar, beheaded on Sept. 25; Juma Nuradin Kamil, whose decapitated body was found on Sept. 2; and 21-year-old Hassan Adawe Adan, shot on April 18. With estimates of al Shabaab’s size ranging from 3,000 to 7,000, the insurgents seek to impose a strict version of sharia (Islamic law), but the government in Mogadishu fighting to retain control of the country treats Christians little better than the al Shabaab extremists do. While proclaiming himself a moderate, President Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed has embraced a version of sharia that mandates the death penalty for those who leave Islam.
Following the Oct. 13 kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers from a refugee camp in Dadaab, on the Kenyan border with Somalia, and the kidnapping and murder of foreigners at tourist sites, Kenya on Oct. 16 began air strikes on al Shabaab territory in southern Somalia.
10 – Christian Leaders in Laos Imprisoned
In one of the more telling of many incidents in Laos, eight Christian leaders in Boukham village, Savannakhet Province, were arrested on Dec. 16 after they had gathered some 200 church members for a Christmas celebration. Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reported that the leaders had secured permission for the event from Boukham’s village chief, but village security forces entered the site and marched the eight leaders to the Boukham government headquarters, where they were detained without being charged. Four of the detainees were placed in handcuffs and wooden stocks, while the other four were left unrestrained. “While they were held without formal charges, it is quite clear that they were arrested for gathering people for worship,” an HRWLRF spokesman told Compass.
Lao Evangelical Church representatives on Dec. 18 managed to negotiate the release of one of the detainees held in stocks, who goes by the single name of Kingnamosorn, after paying a fine of 1 million kip (US$123) to the village chief (the average monthly wage for an unskilled laborer in the province is close to US$40). The chief later ordered the other four unrestrained detainees to be placed in stocks as well. Boukham village authorities later moved six of the detained Christians to an animal pen, blocked visits from family members and banned direct delivery of food. The other detainee was released temporarily to attend a government training session but was then held with the others – all seven in wooden stocks. When last seen, the health of one of the detained leaders, identified as Puphet, had deteriorated; Puphet suffers from a kidney ailment. The legs of six of the detainees, but particularly those of Puphet, Wanta and Oun, were swollen and infected, according to HRWLRF. Family members feared that authorities would employ starvation tactics in order to force the six to give up their faith.