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Social Media Backlash Reflects New Era of Hostility in Nepal

Pastor receives death threats for sharing his spiritual journey.

Hindu Brahmin priest in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Wikipedia, Ksssshl)

Pastor Sukdev Giri of Trinity Fellowship church in Chitwan District has received death threats, he said. He has changed his phone number, but his family and friends are also receiving threatening calls, he told Morning Star News.

In a sign of how the Himalayan country has become increasingly radicalized, Pastor Giri, 59, has been unable to return home from ministry travels since a video of his comments hit YouTube in mid-August.

“It is the first time a Christian [in Nepal] has been targeted for sharing [on social and other media] about his past religion and introduction into Christianity,” legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom’s allied attorney in Nepal, Ganesh Sreshta, told Morning Star News. “It is turning out to be a high-profile issue, with Hindu fundamentalist groups linked to prominent political leaders taking interest in this video.”

The video shot in March at the International Christian Media Workers Summit in Kathmandu, where Pastor Giri was one of the speakers on a panel, was available only to Christian audiences until a Nepalese Christian woman abroad posted it on YouTube. During the panel presentation on advice for Christian media workers, Nepalese radio journalist Sunil Raj Lama asked Pastor Giri to talk more about belief systems in Nepal.

“It is not something I would discuss with anybody just anywhere, but his question was very genuine,” Pastor Giri told Morning Star News. “Although I had cautioned Lama to edit the video and not to circulate it outside the Christian circle, the [Christian] persons who were the first to watch it on a private channel insisted that, ‘It is a hard truth – people need to hear it.”’

The unidentified Nepalese woman abroad who had access to the private channel posted the video on YouTube on Aug. 11, and the flood of hostile comments began.

“Highly abusive and derogatory words were used against me,” Pastor Giri said. “Calls also started. And I immediately discarded my old SIM card and kept the phone away for some days. I have dedicated my entire time to travel, as my family feels it is unsafe for me to stay in my hometown [undisclosed], in Chitwan. I’m currently busy with my ministry work in other parts of Nepal.”

In the video, the pastor spoke about how, before he became a Christian, he noticed sin and corruption in the world and wondered about their roots. The gospel helped answer that question.

“Moreover, I did not cook up any story on my own on Hindu deities,” he said. “I said that I come from a Hindu family, and that I know the deities worshipped by Hindus and also those shunned from offering worship. For example, you will not find temples dedicated to Brahma, who is believed as the creator god. He is regarded as the deity but is not worshipped. It is written in the Puranas [ancient texts of Hindu literature] that Brahma sexually assaulted his own daughter and married her. Brahmins don’t worship Brahma for this reason.”

Similarly, he said, he mentioned that Shiva, the destroyer god known as Pashupati, husband of animals, committed bestiality.

“If you check Nepal’s Muluki Ain or Criminal Law Code, it is regarded as a heinous crime,” he said, adding that India’s penal code also considers it an unnatural offense.

A third Hindu god, Vishnu, committed adultery, he told the conference. The latest editions of ancient Hindu texts have been edited to increase their appeal to younger generations – the stories have been twisted and dramatized to suit TV soap operas, excluding unsavory parts from the original texts, the pastor said. He encouraged people to refer to the original Puranas.

“The Royal Nepal Community conserved these books,” he told Morning Star News, recapping what he told the conference. “I want the younger generations to read the texts, research about these things – ‘don’t simply follow the wind,’ says an old Nepali saying. On occasions when I spoke to TV channels, I shared my testimony and touched upon the same things, and those interviews have also surfaced now on social media.”

People now mistakenly look at him as a Christian who hates Hinduism, he said.

“I don’t hate anyone – I just want to have an honest conversation about my encounter with Christ,” Pastor Giri said.

He told the conference how when he was 12 years old he went to a church in Kathmandu where some missionaries from Sri Lanka were preaching.

“There, I heard about the love of God and the simplicity and humility of Jesus,” he said. “It was so overwhelming to me. As a boy, I was thinking of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Can any god be so humble? It was hard to digest.”

He read the New Testament in three months, he said.

“My old gods were hard to approach, but Jesus seemed very approachable, simple and near. I accepted Him right then,” he said. “But there were these questions in my heart. I wanted to find out if this my new God, Jesus, is like all those old gods? At first I asked the priests why Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva are immoral, yet they are regarded as gods and are highly respected by us? I would share with them about the texts I had read and their crimes. They told me, “It is all Lila [Sanskrit word loosely translated as “play”]. Whatever gods do is good, but if the man does the same, it is sinful.”’

The Hindu priests called him an “old little boy,” he said.

“‘You are little, but you’re asking questions like old people’” – they found it amusing,” Pastor Giri told Morning Star News. “Since that day, the holiness of Jesus Christ has become very special to me. I was praying, and my new God was answering my prayers, and soon we had built a relationship.”

In social media comments, many “hateful, venomous words” against him have followed, he said, and a mob recently gathered at his farm in Chitwan asking his wife and parents about his whereabouts, he said.

When he consulted a regional pastors’ fellowship as to whether he should file a police complaint about the hateful comments or meet with police officials, they advised against it, he said.

“They also had received phone calls from people asking my whereabouts,” Pastor Giri said. “I have been told that since Hindu fanatics and police are already looking for me, it is not advisable to meet them.”

His neighborhood in Chitwan District has a high population of strong Brahmins, he said.

“My wife feels very unsafe and worried for me,” he told Morning Star News.

The YouTube video received more than 750,000 views before it was removed, and since then a video critical of the pastor by a Facebook user under the name of Abhishek Joshi has gone viral, he said. In the video Joshi calls him “…a son of Hindu saints who now fell in the hands of Adam and Eve.”

“You were born in a Hindu family and have a Hindu name,” Joshi says. “Grew up being a Hindu person, carrying a Bible for a few years and changing your religion to Christianity doesn’t give you the right to bash Hindu gods.”

Pastor Giri said he hoped that he would at least be given the opportunity to fully explain his views.

“But there is so much hate built up against me already that Facebook user Abhishek Joshi and a few others are picking up verses from the Bible and interpreting it wrongly,” he said. “I want to tell them that it is not about two religions or finding fault with each other.”

He is simply trying to recount his personal journey, not critique religions, he said.

“I was the devotee of the gods they defend, and I chose to abandon the practices, superstitions etc. – I am here to tell my story and all the research I have done about the gods I once worshipped,” he said. “If they don’t give me the opportunity, if the Lord enables me I will write a book.”

Sreshta, ADF’s allied attorney in Nepal, said Christians who were once primarily hit with false accusations of “forcible conversion” are now being charged with preaching or speaking about their faith publicly. Article 26 of Nepal’s constitution prohibits religious conversions, he noted.

“There is a lot of impact of Indian media channels on Nepal’s Hindu population,” he added. “The Hindu extremism in Nepal is taking its shape from observing the Hindu fundamentalist RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] operations in India.”

An increase in persecution of Christians in Nepal began after a new criminal code was passed in October 2017, which took effect in August 2018.

“Many Christians are restricting prayer services to closed doors of their homes, as they feel insecure to expose or disclose their faith in public,” Sreshta said. “Article 18 proscribes discrimination on grounds of religion, caste, race etc., but it’s only on paper and can nowhere be seen implemented in case of Christians.”

By criminalizing conversions, Nepal has infringed on the fundamental freedom of religion or belief which is guaranteed not only by its constitution but also secured by several international covenants, according to ADF-International.

“Nepal’s constitution prohibits the attempt of religious conversion,” according to an ADF press statement. “At the same time, Nepal is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international treaty explicitly protecting freedom of religion and expression.”

Nepal was ranked 32nd on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

Source: Morning Star News


NIGERIA, Schoolgirl Leah Sharibu captured by Boko Haram is alive

Leah Sharibu, a Christian girl abducted by Boko Haram from a secondary school in Nigeria’s north-eastern town of Dapchi, is alive, Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari has announced in a statement. 

The federal government continues the negotiations with Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP), a breakaway faction of Boko Haram, about Leah’s release. The statement said: “Lines of communications remain open with the kidnappers, ISWAP, to secure the release of Leah Sharibu. Contrary to false reports, she is alive – [we have been] given assurances by our security agencies – and the government is committed to her safe return, as well as all other hostages to their families.”

Leah was abducted along with over 100 of her classmates from the Government Girls Science and Technical College in Dapchi, Yobe state, on 19 February 2018. While the others were released within a month, Leah, the only Christian in the group, remains in captivity as she was ordered, but refused, to give up her faith. In October 2018, ISWAP announced that it will keep Leah as a slave for life.

Dr Matthew Rees, Head of Advocacy at Open Doors UK and Ireland, said: “Leah Sharibu was kidnapped because she is a girl and held captive because she is a Christian. She embodies the incredibly vulnerable position of Christian women in northern Nigeria. It is outrageous that Leah remains in captivity, abused as a PR tool and negotiating pawn by Boko Haram. However, the government’s assurance that it will make more efforts to secure her release is encouraging.”

The president’s spokesperson said in the statement that the government is pursuing many options to ensure Leah’s release committing to law and communication and using the strategies at their disposal such as legal initiatives and the use of the latest hostage negotiation techniques.

“Kidnapping for ransom should never be encouraged. This means not capitulating to the demands of terrorists and refraining from rewarding their heinous crimes with payment,” the statement said. 

In October 2018, for the first time since Leah’s capture, President Buhari had addressed Leah’s mother via Twitter: “Today I spoke with Mrs Rebecca Sharibu, to reiterate our determination to bring her daughter Leah back home safely. The thoughts & prayers of all Nigerians are with the Sharibu family, & the families of all those still in captivity. We will do everything we can to bring them back.”

Prayer for Leah

“Heavenly Father, thank you for this good news that Leah is alive. We pray You continue to protect her. Give her strength and courage. Give her the peace that passes understanding. Give her joy unspeakable! We pray that You would touch the hearts of her captors to be softened and convicted. Please comfort her family. Father, provide a swift and safe way for Leah to return to her, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Source: Open Doors International

Three churches closed down in two months in Indonesia

By Cara Bentley

The Indonesian government is using building planning rules to close churches and limit any more being built.

A 2006 housing ruling – the Joint Ministerial Decree on Religious Building Permits – states that religious groups must get approval from their local community, by way of signatures, to build a ‘house of worship’.

It says there must be 60 signatures from households of a different faith and a list of 90 potential members, as well approval from higher district authorities.

However, Christians say they cannot get enough signatures from Muslims in their communities, who make up 79 per cent of the nation, and that churches are therefore not getting built.

According to religious freedom charity Open Doors, a Baptist church on the island of Java had building work stopped in August because their building permit – granted in 1998 – had expired.

Government offices also broke up a church service in August in Riau, on the island of Sumatra where a Pentecostal congregation was worshipping in the yard of their church because the building had been sealed off by the authorities citing the lack of a building permit.

The church’s pastor, Ganda Damianus Sinaga, has applied for a permit but is finding it difficult to get one issued.

A Pentecostal church in Yogyakarta, also on Java, had applied for and obtained a permit but local authorities revoked it because the church failed to meet the requirement of using its building ‘frequently’.

Before the decision, threats had been made to church members from local hard-line Muslim groups not wanting the church in their community.

An Open Doors spokesperson said: “Failure to obtain a building permit has been widely used as an excuse by the Islamic religious authorities to justify closing churches in Indonesia. For minorities, like Christians, it is hard to gather enough signatures from the majority Muslims. And, even if they succeed, approval from the government may take years, even decades.

“But the real challenge for President Jokowi’s government, which has started its second term, is the increase in conservative and radical Islam among the population.

“Reports on the changing attitudes of Indonesian citizens are pointing to the fact that the Islamic population is becoming religiously more conservative and that ‘religious harmony’ is valued higher by many Indonesians than ‘religious freedom’.

“Although the idea of ‘religious harmony’ might seem appealing, it is dangerous if it means that the majority religion has the right to not be disturbed by minority religions.”

Indonesia is currently number 30 on the Open Doors World Watch List, a ranking of 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.

Christians do not normally face violence there but there is increasing pressure on Christian from Muslim backgrounds and some regions operate under Islamic law.

Source: Premier

Christian woman who refused to renounce faith starts prison sentence at notorious Iranian jail

A Christian woman started a prison sentence in Iran on 31 August for “propaganda” against the government after earlier refusing pressure from judges to renounce her faith.

Fatemeh Bakhteri was told she would serve one year in prison in September 2018 after her Christian activities led to her being convicted.

Fatemeh Bakhteri, a convert from Islam, has started a one-year prison sentence in Iran after her Christian activities led to her being convicted of “propaganda” against the government (Image credit: Article 18)

In an initial appeal hearing in January 2019, Fatemeh, also known as Ailar, was pressured by the two judges to renounce her faith, but she refused to do so. In May 2019, her appeal was then rejected. She was finally summoned to start her jail term at Evin Prison in Tehran on 31 August. The prison is notorious for prolonged interrogations and the abusive treatment of inmates.  

Fatemeh was also banned for two years from engaging in any social activity with more than two people.

She had been appearing in court with a fellow Christian convert from Islam, Saheb Fadaie, who was convicted of “acting against national security” and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment and two years in exile in Hamedan, a city and province about 160 miles west of the capital Tehran. Saheb, who also refused to renounce his faith, is already serving a ten-year prison sentence for other Christian activities.

Another Iranian Christian woman, Roksari Kanbari, 65, was handed a one-year prison sentence on 29 July after being convicted two days earlier for “propaganda against the system”. Friends who witnessed proceedings said that the judge was rude and tried to humiliate Roksari, previously a Muslim, when she disagreed with him. Roksari had been forced to go to an Islamic religious leader to be “instructed” and “offered the opportunity to return to Islam” before she was sentenced.  She will appeal, according to a Barnabas contact.

The appeals against prison sentences of three Assyrian Christians, Pastor Victor Bet Tamraz, his wife, Shamiram, and their son, Ramiel, imposed for “acting against national security” were postponed on 3 September after the judge failed to turn up.

From Barnabas Fund contacts and other sources

Source: Barnabas Fund

PM appoints Rehman Chishti as new Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief

By Cara Bentley

The Prime Minister has appointed Rehman Chishti MP to a role which will involve implementing the report recommendations for persecuted Christians by the Bishop of Truro.

The Conservative MP has frequently raised questions in House of Commons debates about the problems religious minorites face, particularly focusing on the case of Asia Bibi who faced the death sentence in Pakistan for blasphemy against Islam.

Chishti cited the Government’s response to Bibi’s case, and its seeming reluctance to grant her asylum in the UK, as one of the reasons he resigned as Vice-Chair of the Conservative party.

In his new position, Chishti will promote religious tolerance abroad and lead the implementation of the recommendations from the recent review into the Foreign Office’s support for persecuted Christians led by the Bishop of Truro.

He will also advocate for the rights of individuals in the UK who are being discriminated against for their faith or belief and his appointment means the Government now has a dedicated person on the issue of religious freedom.

The Envoy role was previously held by FCO Minister Lord (Tariq) Ahmad, who will continue to cover human rights in his Ministerial capacity as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict and as Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the United Nations.

Before he became Prime Minister, Boris Johnson said he would implement the recommendations of Bishop Philip Mountstephen’s report. 

Mr Johnson said of the new appointment: “People across the world deserve the chance to practise their beliefs freely. I’m delighted to appoint Rehman as my new Special Envoy and look forward to him building on the important work we have already done on this issue. The UK will always be a passionate advocate for greater tolerance, respect and understanding internationally.”

Source: Premier