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New CSW report highlights vulnerable religious communities

new report by CSW on the situation of oppressed religious communities in China is released today amid concerns that some of these groups are especially vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus and its wider impact on freedoms in China.

The report, entitled ‘Repressed, Removed, Re-Educated: The stranglehold on religious life in China,’ contends that the level of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in China is rapidly and significantly decreasing. It draws attention to violations against religion or belief communities across the country, including Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners and Uyghur Muslims. The report also outlines government oppression of human rights lawyers and activists who defend the right to FoRB.

CSW’s East Asia Team Leader Benedict Rogers said: “In releasing this report, we want to stand with religious communities suffering violations against their right to freedom of religion or belief in China. This report is based on their stories, their struggles, and their suffering. We will continue to call on the Chinese authorities to uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief for all people in China, and to cease their campaign of harassment against human rights defenders, until we see real and lasting change in the country.”

As the world struggles with the spread of COVID-19, some of the religion or belief communities described in the report are among those most vulnerable to the virus – most notably those detained in the so-called ‘re-education camps’ in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where conditions are dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary. The report describes the detention without charge of between one and three million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in the camps, where they are subject to torture and ill-treatment, and forced to renounce their faith.

Other prisoners of conscience, including Falun Gong practitioners, Christian leaders, Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns, and lawyers and activists who stand up for FoRB or other human rights, are also at risk of the virus and other serious health issues.

Benedict Rogers added: “This report does not seek to provide a simple answer to address the challenges religious communities in China are facing – there are no simple answers. However, CSW remains committed to supporting these communities and defending the rights afforded to them under international law and basic human ethics. This report is dedicated to the countless individuals who have taken a stand for freedom of religion or belief and other human rights in China, often at grave risk to themselves, and with no hope of reward or even thanks. The international community must do all it can to support these individuals as they refuse to accept growing limitations on this fundamental right, and refuse to ignore the suffering of others. We urge governments around the world to press China to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief for all.”

Source: Christian Solidarity Worldwide

Police in Nepal Arrest Pastor for Touting Healing Prayer amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Church leader jailed after video appears of him encouraging congregation.

Pastor Keshab Acharya preaching in Pokhara, Nepal. (Morning Star News screenshot from YouTube)

HYDERABAD, India (Morning Star News) – Police in Nepal arrested a Christian pastor this week, accusing him of giving false information about COVID-19 by saying Christian prayer could bring healing from the disease, sources said.

Pastor Keshab Acharya, 32, was taken into custody on Monday (March 23) from his home in Pokhara, Gandaki Pradesh Province, after a video appeared on social media of him rebuking the novel coronavirus as he preached to his church, according to his wife, Junu Acharya.
Pastor Acharya received a phone call from a man requesting prayer for his sick wife at about 8 p.m., she said.

“The person wanted to come to our home for prayer, and my husband agreed, provided him the address and asked him to come over so we can pray for his wife,” Junu Acharya told Morning Star News.

While they waited, the couple’s 2-year-old son wanted to dance with them to a Christian song, Junu Acharya said.

“We were dancing joyfully when there was a knock on the door,” she said. “Three male police officers and a female police officer were at the door. They told us that they were also Christian and needed prayers, and that they had called Pastor Acharya and came for prayer.”

After coming inside, the officers surrounded the pastor and told them they were arresting him, she said. They said he was being charged based on a video circulating in social media in which he prays against and rebukes the novel coronavirus.

“My husband said, ‘If there was any charge against me, you could have let me know directly, and I would have come to the police station all by myself,’ because our 2-year-old son and I were panicked,” Junu Acharya said. “I immediately called two of the brothers from our church who can drive and followed the police’s vehicle. I was afraid that he would be beaten up by police or would be taken to somewhere else. I wanted to ensure that they were taking him to the police station.”

The Nepal police website states that Kaski police officers arrested Pastor Acharya for misleading the public by posting false information on social media about the novel coronavirus. Police cited a video showing Pastor Acharya calling the coronavirus an evil spirit and rebuking it in the name of Christ. He is also seen speaking in tongues as the congregation repeats after him.

On the day he was arrested, the couple had gone to a church member’s home around noon to pray for them, his wife said. While they were away, a ministry staff member received a call from a female urgently requesting healing prayer for her and two other women. The three women came to the church site, and the staff members prayed for them in the absence of the pastor and his wife, Junu Acharya said.
The women kept asking for the pastor, and staff members told them they would be available later in the day, she said.

“We suspect they must have come to check on us, and subsequently police came after 8 p.m. on the same day,” Junu Acharya said. “It sounds strange, because even the women had repeated the same words as that of the officers who came later in the evening that ‘we are Christians and we need prayers for our health, and we want Pastor Acharya to pray for us.’”

Pastor Acharya has been using YouTube to teach and preach since 2015, his wife said.
“We had received many hateful comments,” she said. “There were days when we would wake up to calls from Nepali-speaking Hindus from Australia, Europe and the U.S. abusing him in extremely vulgar language. They had even threatened us that we would be killed brutally.”

The pastor never appeared to be bothered by the comments and did not respond angrily, she said.
“When I was vexed by their comments and messages, he told me that we are doing the Lord’s work, and we are bound to face opposition, but that we should not let these things disappoint us and serve the Lord joyously; we are called to serve Him, and we shall do it,” Junu Acharya said. “That was his only motive.”

Pleas for Justice

Pastor Mukunda Sharma, executive secretary of the Nepal Christian Society, said he had urged District Superintendent of Police Dan Bahadur Karki to act fairly and not implicate Pastor Acharya in any criminal charges.

“I told Mr. Kargi that the police cannot prosecute the pastor for exercising his faith, and that it is a gross violation of human rights, and he had assured me that the pastor was taken into custody only for an enquiry,” Sharma told Morning Star News.

Later Kargi informed Pastor Sharma that he had presented Pastor Acharya before a judge, who sent him for remand for the seven days.
“It seems Kargi had sought permission from the court to investigate the matter,” Pastor Sharma said.

He said he has been unable to visit the jailed pastor as Nepal government officials announced a lockdown until Tuesday (March 31) to contain the spread of Covid-19.

“I have been sending pleas to authorities for a travel-pass to reach Pokhara,” Pastor Sharma told Morning Star News.

Karki told the Himalayan Times that Pastor Acharya was in police custody and that preparations were underway to take action against him. Police reportedly said the pastor could be sent to prison for six months.

The Himalayan Times made reference to Pastor Acharya preaching in a squatters area, but the police report cites only his comments on social media.

C.B. Gahatraj, president of the Federation of National Christians in Nepal (FNCN), told Morning Star News that the arrest of the Nepali Christian leader is unacceptable and against Nepal’s constitution.
“The entire world is under attack by the Covid-19, and during this time people from across all religions are praying for it to stop,” Gahatraj told Morning Star News. “By this act, religious harmony is in danger during a time when people are already in chaos.”

Nothing in the video indicates any violation of law, he said.
“It is clear that it was a sermon preached by Pastor Acharya within his respective congregation, and our federation asserts that this practice of praying is not in conflict with the laws of Nepal,” Gahatraj said.

In a loose translation of his talk provided by Morning Star News sources, Pastor Acharya says in the video, “Hey, corona – you go and die. May all your deeds be destroyed by the power of the Lord Jesus. I rebuke you, corona, in the name of Lord Jesus Christ. By the power of the ruler of this Creation, I rebuke you…By the power in the name of Lord Jesus Christ, corona, go away and die.”

Secularism is institutionalized in the preamble of the new constitution, Gahatraj said.

Nepal’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and all citizens have the right to profess, practice and protect their faith, Pastor Sharma added. He appealed to the Nepal government to respect basic religious freedom as described in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“I make a request to the body of Christ worldwide to pray him, the Nepal government and the Christian community in Nepal,” Pastor Sharma said.

Junu Acharya said the arrest has been especially difficult during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m back home caring for our 6-month-old son [along with the 2-year-old son], and my husband is imprisoned at district jail,” she said. “I have stepped back from speaking to anyone outside the faith because I am afraid that they might misinterpret my words and put him in more trouble by booking him under serious charges.”

On Sept. 22, 2017, four Christians in Nepal were released after being sentenced to five years in prison for praying for a mentally troubled woman. A high court annulled the convictions of Lali Pun, Bimkali Budha, Suk Lal Pariyar and Ganga Pariyar, who had been charged with witchcraft in Salyan District Court on May 19, 2016 for praying for the woman.

Besides the prison sentences, the Christians had been told to pay a fine of 50,000 Nepalese rupees (US$475), an overwhelming sum in Nepal. A fifth Christian, Rupa Thapa, was arrested with them but was declared not guilty and released in 2016.

While the new constitution passed in September 2015 establishes Nepal as a secular and democratic republic, its definition of “secular” appears to protect Hinduism and allows others only to worship in their own faiths. Article 26 forbids anyone to “convert a person of one religion to another religion, or disturb the religion of other people.”

Advocacy groups have detected increased enforcement and other anti-Christian efforts as officials seek to placate Hindus incensed that the new constitution did not re-establish a more prominent place for Hinduism.

A landlocked country between the giants of India and China, Nepal is said to be more than 75 percent Hindu and 16 percent Buddhist. Christians are estimated to make up nearly 3 percent of Nepal’s population, and Muslims 4.4 percent.

Nepal is ranked 32nd on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

Source: Morning Star News

Four Christian charity workers abducted in Iraq released

The release of four Christian charity workers kidnapped in Iraq was confirmed on 26 March.

Three French nationals, Antoine Brochon, Julien Dittmar and Alexandre Goodarzy, and one Iraqi national, Tariq Mattoka, had been working with persecuted Christians in Iraq when they were abducted in Baghdad on 20 January.

Islamist militants frequently kidnap Christians in Iraq. In 1990 there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Since the 1990-1991 Gulf War and the emergence of Islamic State in 2014, at least 1.1 million Christians have fled Iraq. Targeted kidnappings, murders and attacks on churches and Christian businesses has severely impacted on Christian communities.

Source: Barnabas Fund

Campaign and petition for freedom and justice for Syrias detainees.

Today we’re sharing a request for help to publicise a campaign on behalf of Syria’s detainees.

Dear Ray,

My name is Hala. I am a medical doctor and a co-founder of the Families for Freedom movement which campaigns for freedom and justice for Syria’s detainees.

While my colleagues around the world battle the worst pandemic in living memory, I am terrified of coronavirus spreading into Assad’s underground detention dungeons. Across Syria, tens of thousands of detainees are crowded into squalid, unventilated cells. Their immune systems are exhausted by the regime’s systemic torture and mistreatment. A coronavirus outbreak in these conditions is unimaginable horror.

On top of this, for many years the regime and Russia have attacked Syria’s medical community directly, exactly the people and systems that are most needed to stop the outbreak. My husband was detained and tortured for months just for being a doctor.

The Syrian regime who took our loved ones from us has no interest in protecting detainees — but in these days when the rest of the world is united against a common enemy, I pray that the UN and international health authorities can be pushed into using their powers to stop a coronavirus outbreak in Syria’s detention centers.

Please join Families for Freedom and sign the petition to demand urgent action to release all Syrian detainees — amid the rapid global spread of COVID-19.

I have seen the effects of detention on many former detainees who I treated as a doctor. I will never forget the time a young woman was brought to me after she was released. She was suffering from multiple diseases and her body was covered in scars from the constant torture she had endured. She told me about her friend who passed away from sickness and the inhumane treatment.

I have had to step out of my interviews with detainees like her to cry on many occasions.

Under these conditions, and now amid the rapid global spread of Coronavirus, we ask the UN Special Envoy for Syria and all UN agencies to demand the immediate release of all detainees held in these wretched prisons and unofficial detention centers. At the very least, international health organizations like the Red Cross and the World Health Organization must have regular access to detention facilities in order to provide critical sanitary measures and medical treatment to detainees.

Additionally, the UN must insist that the pardon decree issued by Bashar al-Assad on Sunday, and all future decrees, do not exclude political prisoners and human rights defenders.

The world realizes that COVID-19 can be deadly for those with compromised immune systems and the elderly — but what about those who are broken down by starvation, torture, and who are left to face this virus alone? An outbreak of coronavirus amongst detainees could cause a vast number of deaths and the world must take responsibility to prevent this.

Please sign this urgent petition, coronavirus is spreading rapidly and we don’t have a day to lose.

My brother and my father-in-law were both arbitrarily detained in 2013, and since then I have campaigned tirelessly alongside others in the Families for Freedom movement for their freedom, and justice for all of our loved ones who have been detained and forcibly disappeared in Syria.

For years Syrians have experienced every kind of death: by barrel bombs, chemical weapons, starvation, drowning, and torture. Unless the UN grows a backbone and acts now, countless detainees will experience death by coronavirus in underground dungeons.

Dr Hala al-Ghawi