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India passes new anti-conversion law

Photo by David Pearson/REX (743376aj) Church of our Lady of Immaculate conception in Pondicherry, India India

By Heather Preston

India has passed a new anti-conversion law in Himachal Pradesh that freedom Christian charity says contradicts the country’s Constitution.

The Himachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly has passed a bill to criminalise religious conversion in the northern Indian state.

The Bill, which was passed on 30th August intends to extend a law that was introduced in 2006 which criminalised conversion by “fraud,” “force” and “inducement,” by adding “coercion” to its terms.

Inducement has also been redefined under the new bill as the “offer of any temptation in the form of any gift or gratification or material benefit, either in cash or kind or employment, free education in reputed school run by any religious body, easy money, better lifestyle, divine pleasure or otherwise.”

Freedom charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide have raised concerns over the wording of the amended terms, saying their loose definition could leave them open to misuse.

Anyone found attempting to convert a person from one religion to another in the Himalayan region could face up to seven years in prison, compared to three years under the old law.

The proposed law would also not recognise the marriage of two people from previously different religions, where a conversion has taken place either before or after their wedding day.

CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas has spoken out against the new legislation, saying: “This Bill is a clear expression of the state’s intention to restrict the right to freedom of religion or belief. As a multi-ethnic nation made up of diverse religious groups, India must respect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion for all people.

“Citizens must be free from state propagated narratives about the individual’s right to choose.

“We urge the state legislators to reconsider this heavy-handed move which dishonours India’s foundational Constitution.”

Anti-conversion laws, known as ‘Freedom of Religion Acts’ are currently enforced in seven states in India. These laws fail to protect a person’s right to practice, profess and communicate their faith.

Source: Premier

EU Envoy’s threat of trade sanctions played crucial role in Asia Bibi’s freedom

EU Envoy on religious freedom, Jan Figel, meets with Asia Bibi’s lawyer Saif ul Malook in Lahore, December 2017. (Photo: Jan Figel)

Freed Pakistani Christiana Aasiya Noreen, known to the world now as Asia Bibi, has pleaded for the many others like her accused of blasphemy who, she says, are still “lying in jail for years – their decisions should also be done on merit. The world should listen to them.

“The way any person is alleged (to have committed) blasphemy without any proper investigation, without any proper proof, that should be noticed. This blasphemy law should be reviewed and there should be proper investigation mechanisms while applying this law. We should not consider anyone sinful for this act without any proof.”

She made this appeal in written answers from her refuge in Canada to this week’s Sunday Telegraph.

It’s hard to get a specific tally of the numbers known to be imprisoned, either awaiting trial -sometimes for years – for blasphemy, or already convicted. Many are Muslims. One figure World Watch Monitor saw quoted but could not get confirmed, after Asia Bibi was finally freed in May, was that Christians make up 17 of the 40 current ‘blasphemy’ prisoners. Christians form around 2% of Pakistan’s total population according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, its Co-Director Gina Zurlo told World Watch Monitor.

One couple who hit the spotlight immediately after Asia Bibi’s acquittal was Shafqat Emmanuel and his wife, Shaguftah, of Gojra, Punjab, both accused of sending blasphemous text messages. Shafqat has to use a wheelchair and has a catheter, after his backbone was fractured in an accident in 2004. Shaguftah was the main breadwinner for their four children.

Lawyer Saif ul-Malook, who – at the risk of his own life – defended Asia Bibi and successfully argued her appeal in Pakistan’s Supreme court, then promptly left Pakistan for the Netherlands (he was reported to have said that he was forced to flee) but said that he would return if her successful appeal was challenged. At the same time, he said he would now take up Shafqat and Shagfuftah’s case.

‘Justice and dignity for all Pakistanis’

The Sunday Telegraph article also referred to the crucial role for Asia Bibi’s freedom played by the EU Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), Jan Figel, from Slovakia, who’s worked tirelessly on her case, as well as for prisoners in Sudan and other countries.

He told World Watch Monitor that he had tried to visit Pakistan in his new role ‘from the start’ but that it had taken a year until a Pakistani high-level delegation (Minister of Trade and Attorney General) had visited his Brussels office. They invited him to Pakistan.

Jan Figel with human rights lawyer Asma Jehangir in Lahore during his visit in December 2017. (Photo: Jan Figel)

As a result of the week-long visit Figel made there in December 2017, an inter-faith advisory council was started in the country to look at the misuse of the blasphemy law – often to ‘grab’ disputed land or to settle personal grudges, business rivalries and so on.

One recent tactic reported by World Watch Monitor has been the apparent ‘planting’ of fake images or texts on the mobile phones of sometimes-illiterate Pakistani Christians.

Figel visited Pakistan again in May 2018. “I spoke about the importance of justice and dignity for all Pakistanis, especially minorities. I spoke tirelessly on the importance of clear signs that the Pakistani authorities are moving towards justice and the rule of law and justice for all. Justice delayed is justice denied, I used to repeat,” he told World Watch Monitor. “Asia’s Bibi’s case was a closely-watched one [globally]. No decision, or an unduly pending appeal on capital punishment without the response of the Supreme Court was a big problem”.

Pakistan’s Trade Agreement with the EU was due for re-assessment in 2018 “bringing Pakistan billions of euros trade-offs and income”, he said. “There was serious and growing concern in Europe about Pakistan’s human rights record. I told too many ‘The status quo is not enough! The country has to move forward in implementation of important international treaties and commitments’”.

Life at risk

Figel told World Watch Monitor that real progress finally started after Imran Khan became Prime Minister in summer 2018: he seemed willing to challenge some of the extremist Islamic leaders, unlike previous governments.

Asia Bibi won her appeal against her death penalty on 31 October, 2018.

However, immediately massive street protests against her, again calling for her to die, effectively paralysed life in Pakistan for several days. Prime Minister Imran Khan, who at first appeared to take a hard-line against the religious parties, appeared to give into them under pressure.

The EU Envoy realised how his life too could be at risk, when a press statement, in English, by a militant Pakistani Islamist network signaled that Imran Khan’s government had ‘caved into the EU’.

(In May 2018 Pakistan’s then-Minister for Interior, Ahsan Iqbal, who is known to support minority groups, survived an assassination after meeting with a group of Christians. Seven years earlier both the then-Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, and the Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were targeted and killed for defending Asia Bibi). That particular Islamist network has many members outside Pakistan.

Following her acquittal Asia Bibi was detained for another seven months. Mr. Figel told the Sunday Telegraph “I think Imran Khan’s government and Pakistan’s military used this delay to get the situation in the country under real control.”

In December Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau publicly announced willingness to offer asylum at the Peace Centennial of World War I.

In January, in Pakistan’s capital, the “Islamabad Declaration” signed by over 500 Muslim clerics, publicly condemned terrorism, violence committed in the name of religion and fatwas (sacred edicts) widespread by radical Islamic leaders. Fides reported that “observers said it represents a turning point especially in the attitude towards religious minorities and sects such as Ahmadi Muslims. In fact, Fides wrote, ‘the Declaration recognizes that Pakistan is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, and notes that “it is the responsibility of the government to ensure the protection of the life of non-Muslim citizens in Pakistan”’.

In February, Pakistan’s Attorney-General again visited Brussels where he again met Jan Figel; the latter tweeted that he raised the fact that Asia Bibi, now freed by the Supreme Court, was still detained in effective ‘house arrest’.

Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari also visited Brussels. Figel liaised with Asia Bibi herself via Muhammad Amanullah, a human rights activist.

The EU Envoy confirmed directly to World Watch Monitor that the UK was not on the list of possible countries for her asylum, but that ‘there were a lot of rumours and problems around this’.

Asia Bibi was announced to have finally left Pakistan on 8 May, although it was not clear for a few days whether she had in fact joined her daughters who were already in exile in Canada.

Figel told WWM “Canada deserves international acknowledgement for its spirit of solidarity and real hospitality, also for the professionalism of its diplomacy and its immigration services. Security conditions are crucially important for Asia Bibi and her family”.

On June 25, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, signed the Fourth EU-Pakistan Strategic Engagement Plan (SEP) with the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini in Brussels.

Amongst points relevant to Asia Bibi’s plight were to “Develop mutually agreed co-operation on the implementation of the UN Security Council on Women, Peace and Security”, and (under ‘Democracy, Rule of Law, Good governance, and Human Rights’) the plan mentioned “Working together to ensure…protection of human rights at national and international levels” and “Enhancing…inter-faith dialogue and understanding to promote tolerance and harmony”.

Jan Figel, a former EU education and culture commissioner, was appointed in May 2016 when the post was created by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Twice extended for an additional year, Figel’s current mandate ends next month.

A report by Polish MEP Andrzej Grzyb, accepted by the European Parliament, but yet to be formally implemented, argued that Figel had “developed effective working networks” within the EU institutions and praised him for “continuous engagement and co-operation and complementarity of actions with the EU Special Representative for Human Rights”.

It also recommended that the Special Envoy’s role needs to be substantially reinforced, and that his new remit should include extending his term to match that of Commission’s five-year term, and “consolidated with sufficient human and financial resources”.

Figel does not currently have a budget and formal status in the EU institutions, beyond serving as a special advisor to the EU’s Development Commissioner. His staffing budget covers minimal assistance, less than the German government’s Commissioner for Global Freedom of Religion.

Campaigners also argue that freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is not given the importance it deserves in the EU institutions.

The MEPs’ report also recommends the setting up of a “regular advisory working group of member states’ FoRB institutions and European Parliament representatives, together with experts, scholars, and representatives of civil society, including churches and other faith-based organisations”.

After the US, Canada was among the first countries to appoint a Special Envoy who could focus on the issue of Freedom of Religion or Belief, Andrew Bennett, although his role per se did not last into Justin Trudeau’s government. Since then, the UK has appointed Lord Ahmad to the first-ever UK FoRB role, the need for which has recently been highlighted by the Bishop of Truro’s independent review into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s response to the persecution of Christians globally.

This summer, the Netherlands has appointed its own Ambassador with an emphasis on FoRB, Jos Douma, a former Ambassador to both Iran and the Holy See.

Source: World  Watch Monitor

Myanmar: Pastor facing imprisonment for revealing horrors of religious persecution

Attendees look on at the State Department’s second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the Harry S. Truman Building in Washington, D.C., on July 16, 2019. | State Department

A Baptist minister from Myanmar who spoke with President Donald Trump about being “oppressed and tortured by the Myanmar military government” during a visit to the White House could be prosecuted for his comments. 

Pastor Hkalam Samson, president of the Kachin Baptist Convention and a leading rights advocate for a predominantly Baptist ethnic group in northern Myanmar known as the Kachin, was part of a group of international religious leaders that recently met with the president to express concerns about religious freedom in their home countries. 

“As Christians in Myanmar, we are oppressed and tortured by the Myanmar military government,” Samson said. “We don’t have chance, many, for religious freedom.”

During his 60-second speech, the pastor also thanked Trump for imposing sanctions on four top generals for their role in a campaign against ethnic Muslims and called on the U.S. government to focus on bringing “general democracy and federalism” to his country. 

Now, Lt. Col. Than Htike, is seeking to prosecute Samson for his criticism of the country’s military, according to the New York Times. The colonel’s complaint accuses Samson of “knowingly giving false information” and notes that the minister’s remarks were posted on the Facebook page of ABC News, violating Myanmar’s “criminal defamation laws.”

A judge is expected to rule next week on whether the case can proceed. If found guilty, Samson could face several months or years in prison. 

“There is no freedom of expression for Myanmar citizens wherever you are because you can get in trouble even when you talk about the truth in the White House,” Samson told the Times. 

Over the last three years, the country’s military has filed dozens of defamation complaintsagainst its critics, mainly over comments they posted on Facebook. All of the complaints have been brought by colonels.

Samson said the legal process was a big improvement over decades of military impunity in ethnic areas such as Kachin State, when critics of the military would simply vanish.

“If the military was not happy with what we said, they wouldn’t file a lawsuit,” he said. “They would take you anonymously and you would disappear anonymously.”

The Kachin Post reported that Samson rejected an offer to drop the suit if he apologized for his comments, stating, “I do not want to trade off the truth for my own individual escape.”

In July, Samson was in Washington for the U.S. State Department’s three-day Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom when he and about 20 other attendees were invited to the impromptu meeting with Trump.

“With us today are men and women of many different religious traditions from many different countries,” Trump said at the time. “But what you have in common is each of you has suffered tremendously for your faith. You’ve endured harassment, threats, attacks, trials, imprisonment and torture.”

Privately, according to the Times, Trump officials expressed concern that speaking about religious persecution in the Oval Office could open testifiers up to increased persecution in their homelands.

Samson is not the only attendee to receive backlash for his comments: Priya Saha, an organizing secretaries for the Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council in Bangladesh, was temporarily expelled for “anti-disciplinary activities” after she told Trump that 37 million people have disappeared from the Asian nation. 

“Sir, I am from Bangladesh. Here is 37 million Hindu, Buddhist and Christian are disappeared,” Saha told Trump during the meeting. “Please help us, the Bangladeshi people. We want to stay in our country. Still, there is 18 million minority people. Please help us. We don’t want to leave our country.”

“I have lost my home, they burned my home and they have taken my land,” she continued. “But no judgment has yet taken place.”

The president followed up by asking Saha who took the land and the home. 

“The Muslim fundamentalist group,” she responded. “Always, they are getting the political shelter. Always.”

A statement from the foreign ministry claimed that Saha’s comments were “blatant lies.” The government also accused Saha of having an “ulterior motive” and said that it expects the U.S. organizers of the ministerial to invite responsible individuals.

Persecution watchdog group Open Doors USA ranks Myanmar at No. 18 on its World Watch List of 50 countries where it’s most difficult to be a Christian. Bangladesh is ranked as No. 48. 

Source: Christian Post

Please pray for those affectd by Hurricane Dorian

Please pray for the families of all those who lost their lives in the Bahamas, and all who are suffering hardship and loss due to Hurricane Dorian.

It’s reported that Dorian is now expected to bring “life-threatening storm surges” up the US east coast. It’s estimated that at least 100,000 people are without power and more than 2.2 million cirizens have been ordered to evacuate along the eastern seaboard.

Please pray for a miraculous intervention, for the protection of life and property and that this hurricane force will be stripped of its destructive power. Also that the damage and danger that has been predicted will be prevented. Let’s pray boldly, with unwavering faith that our prayers will be answered

 And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him. 1 John 5 : 15

Graphic of Dorian's path

Australia releases new religious freedom bill following Christian rugby star sacking

Australia’s Israel Folau Adam Davy/PA Wire.

By Heather Preston

A new bill to protect a person’s freedom of religious expression is being considered in Australia, after Christian rugby player Israel Folau was fired for posting comments about hell on social media.

The former Wallabies star had his multi-million dollar contract terminated earlier this year, after posting “hell awaits” for “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters” on his Instagram account.

Ruby Australia dismissed Folau for being in breach of their Professional Players’ Code of Conduct.

According to the news organisation Reuters, the proposed legislation would allow Australians to express their faith outside of the workplace, as long as there is no financial damage towards their employer.

Following the release of a draft of the bill last Thursday, Australia’s Attorney General Christian Porter said: “Australia has a strong anti-discrimination framework with specific protections for people against discrimination on the basis of their age, sex, race and disability.”

He continued: “This draft bill released today extends those protections to provide protection for people against discrimination on the basis of their religion or religious belief, or lack thereof.”

The bill would see businesses with a turnover of more than $50m be unable to enforce limitations on a person’s religious expression in private, unless that company can prove it would cause “unjustifiable financial hardship to the business”.

A business would need to prove that a limitation on their freedom of speech was necessary to avoid this unjustifiable financial hardship, for them to be deemed as non-discriminatory to an employee.

Religious expressions that are malicious or incite hatred will not be protected under the new law.

LGBTQI advocates have criticised the government for the proposed bill, arguing the “radical” laws would give greater power to religious groups and encourage discrimination.

Rugby Australia’s (RA) decision to fire Folau for his social media post has sparked controversy over the rights to freedom of speech and religion.

Folau launched legal action against his former employers RA and the New South Wales Waratahs club on the grounds of unlawful termination in June.

Pending a settlement, his case will go to trial in February 2020.

Legislation for the religious freedom bill is expected to be introduced into parliament in October.

Source: Premier