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Sri Lanka churches hold first Sunday Mass since Easter bombings

A security officer stands guard outside St. Anthony’s Shrine where bombing was carried out on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

By Press Association

The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has held the first regular Sunday Mass since the Easter suicide bombings of churches and hotels killed more than 250 people.

Military forces and police armed with assault rifles patrolled the streets leading to churches and stood guard outside the compounds.

Everyone entering was required to produce identity cards and be body searched.

Volunteers were stationed at the gates of churches to identify parishioners and look out for any suspicious individuals.

Parking was banned near the churches and officials urged worshippers to bring only minimum baggage.

Seven suicide bombers struck two Catholic and one Protestant church and three luxury hotels in the attacks last month.AP Photo

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the bombings, which were carried out by a local radicalised Muslim group.

Sunday services were cancelled in the two subsequent weekends amid fears of more attacks, leaving the faithful to hear Mass via live TV transmission from the Colombo residence of Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith.

Church authorities are also considering the reopening of church-run schools on Tuesday if they can be satisfied with security.

AP Photo/Chamila Karunarathne

President Maithripala Sirisena said last week that “99 per cent” of the remaining suspects in the Easter attacks have been arrested and their explosive materials seized, and it is safe for tourists to return to the Indian Ocean island nation.

Police say two previously little-known radical Islamist groups – National Towheed Jamaat and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim – conspired in the attacks.

Officials say Zahran Hashim, a vitriolic preacher from the country’s east, may have led the attackers and was one of the bombers to die

Source: Premier


Persecution of Christians ‘coming close to genocide’ in Middle East – report

Millions uprooted from homes, says UK-commissioned report, with many jailed and killed

 The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was mentioned in the report for denigrating Christians. Photograph: Reuters

Pervasive persecution of Christians, sometimes amounting to genocide, is ongoing in parts of the Middle East, and has prompted an exodus in the past two decades, according to a report commissioned by the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt.

Millions of Christians in the region have been uprooted from their homes, and many have been killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against, the report finds. It also highlights discrimination across south-east Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and in east Asia – often driven by state authoritarianism.

“The inconvenient truth,” the report finds, is “that the overwhelming majority (80%) of persecuted religious believers are Christians”.

Some of the report’s findings will make difficult reading for leaders across the Middle East who are accused of either tolerating or instigating persecution. The Justice and Development (AK) party of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for instance, is highlighted for denigrating Christians.

Hunt described the interim report – published on Thursday, based on a review led by the bishop of Truro, the Rt Rev Philip Mounstephen – as “truly sobering”, especially since it came as “the world was seeing religious hatred laid bare in the appalling attacks at Easter on churches across Sri Lanka, and the devastating attack on two mosques in Christchurch”.

Hunt, an Anglican, has made the issue of Christian persecution one of the major themes of his foreign secretaryship. “I think we have shied away from talking about Christian persecution because we are a Christian country and we have a colonial past, so sometimes there’s a nervousness there,” he said. “But we have to recognise – and that’s what the bishop’s report points out very starkly – that Christians are the most persecuted religious group.”

He added: “What we have forgotten in this atmosphere of political correctness is actually the Christians that are being persecuted are some of the poorest people on the planet. In the Middle East the population of Christians used to be about 20%; now it’s 5%.”

“We’ve all been asleep on the watch when it comes to the persecution of Christians. I think not just the bishop of Truro’s report but obviously what happened in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday has woken everyone up with an enormous shock.”

The interim report is designed to set out the scale of the persecution and a final report in the summer will set out how the British Foreign Office can do more to raise awareness of the issue.

The report shows that a century ago Christians comprised 20% of the population in the Middle East and north Africa, but since then the proportion has fallen to less than 4%, or roughly 15 million people.

In the Middle East and north Africa, the report says, “forms of persecution ranging from routine discrimination in education, employment and social life up to genocidal attacks against Christian communities have led to a significant exodus of Christian believers from this region since the turn of the century.

“In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage. In Saudi Arabia there are strict limitations on all forms of expression of Christianity including public acts of worship. There have been regular crackdowns on private Christian services. The Arab-Israeli conflict has caused the majority of Palestinian Christians to leave their homeland. The population of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 15% to 2%.”

 Palestinian Christians attend an Orthodox Easter service in Gaza. Photograph: APAImages/Rex/Shutterstock

The report identifies three drivers of persecution: political failure creating a fertile ground for religious extremism; a turn to religious conservatism in countries such as Algeria and Turkey; and institutional weaknesses around justice, the rule of law and policing, leaving the system open to exploitation by extremists.

 Read more

The report says: “The rise of hate speech against Christians in state media and by religious leaders, especially in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, has compromised the safety of Christians and created social intolerance.”

In findings that may pose difficulties for the UK as it seeks to build relations across the Middle East, the report states: “In some cases the state, extremist groups, families and communities participate collectively in persecution and discriminatory behaviour. In countries such as Iran, Algeria and Qatar, the state is the main actor, where as in Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Egypt both state and non-state actors, especially religious extremist groups, are implicated.”

“In 2017 a total of 99 Egyptian Christians were killed by extremist groups, with 47 killed on Palm Sunday in Tanta and Alexandria. Egyptian Christians were continuously targeted by extremist groups during 2017 and 2018.

“Arrest, detention and imprisonment are common in Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. For example in the course of six days before Christmas 2018, 114 Christians were arrested in Iran with court cases left pending as a form of intimidation. Though most cases in Iran involve converts, indigenous Christians such as Pastor Victor, an Assyrian Christian, with his wife, Shamiram Issavi, have also been targeted and imprisoned.”

It also highlights how states, and state-sponsored social media, sometimes incite hatred and publish propaganda against Christians, especially in Iran, Iraq and Turkey. “The governing AK party in Turkey depicts Christians as a ‘threat to the stability of the nation’. Turkish Christian citizens have often been stereotyped as not real Turks but as western collaborators.”

In Saudi Arabia, the report says, school textbooks “teach pupils religious hatred and intolerance towards non-Muslims, including Christians and Jews”.

The report says freedom of religious belief can also act as a means of helping those suffering gender discrimination, since there is clear evidence that female Christians suffer disproportionately.

Defending the claim of genocide, the report says: “The level and nature of persecution is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide, according to that adopted by the UN.”

The eradication of Christians and other minorities on pain of “the sword” or other violent means was revealed to be the specific and stated objective of extremist groups in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, north-east Nigeria and the Philippines. An intent to erase all evidence of the Christian presence was made plain by the removal of crosses, the destruction of church buildings and other church symbols.

“The killing and abduction of clergy represented a direct attack on the church’s structure and leadership. Where these and other incidents meet the tests of genocide, governments will be required to bring perpetrators to justice, aid victims and take preventative measures for the future. The main impact of such genocidal acts against Christians is exodus.”

Referring to the universal declaration of human rights, the report concludes: “The challenge that faces us at the beginning of the 21st century is not that we need to fight for a just legal system, it is rather that to our shame, we have abjectly failed to implement the best system that women and men have yet devised to protect universal freedoms.”

Source: The Guardian

Read full independent review

Pakistani Christian girls trafficked to China to fulfill demand for brides created by abortion

Hundreds of impoverished Christian girls have been trafficked from Pakistan to China in the last year to fulfill the growing demand for female brides, partly because so many girl babies were killed in their mothers’ wombs as a result of China’s one-child policy.

One evil has fomented another evil, as the sinful practice of abortion produces bitter fruit in the next generation.“Brokers are aggressively seeking out girls for Chinese men, sometimes even cruising outside churches to ask for potential brides,” according to a report by AP.

They are being assisted by Christian ministers paid to identify likely candidates in their churches with promises of thousands of dollars for the parents (with cuts to brokers and pastors) in exchange for their daughters.

“Parents receive several thousand dollars and are told that their new sons-in-law are wealthy Christian converts,” according to the AP report.Sadly, they are being lied to, and the grooms turn out to be neither Christian or wealthy.

AP interviewed brides, their parents, an activist, pastors and government officials to document their story.

The teenage girls are usually married against their will. When they arrive in China they are often settled in remote rural regions, subject to abuse, and have difficulty with the language.“This is human smuggling,” Ijaz Augustine, a Pakistani government official, told AP. “Greed is really responsible for these marriages … I have met with some of these girls and they are very poor.”

Augustine charges that the Chinese embassy in Pakistan is ignoring the practice by freely issuing visas and documents to the new brides.There is “increasing evidence that Pakistani women and girls are at risk of sexual slavery in China,” Human Rights Watch noted recently.

On May 6th, Pakistani officials arrested eight Chinese nationals and four Pakistanis in raids in Punjab province in connection with trafficking, Geo TV reported. The raids transpired following an undercover operation that surveilled an arranged marriage.

AP interviewed more than a dozen Christian Pakistani brides and prospective brides who were able to escape before their arranged marriages. All testified the practice involved brokers and shockingly, Christian ministers.

To fulfill the demand for Chinese brides, many have come from nearby countries such as Vietnam, Laos and North Korea. Now Chinese men are broadening their search area, with Pakistan targeted in the last year.

Since October 2018, an estimated 750 to 1,000 Christian girls have been married to Chinese men, according to Saleem Iqbal, a Christian activist.“Pakistan’s small Christian community, centered in Punjab province, makes a vulnerable target. Numbering some 2.5 million in the country’s overwhelmingly Muslim population of 200 million, Christians are among Pakistan’s most deeply impoverished.

They also have little political or social support,” AP noted.It is a traditional practice in Pakistan for parents to decide a daughter’s marriage partner.

Girls are considered less desirable than boys because the bride’s family must pay a dowry and the cost of her wedding. New brides may be abused by husbands and in-laws if the dowry is considered to be lacking.“By contrast, potential Chinese grooms offer parents money and pay all wedding expenses,”

AP noted.Sums of $3,500 to $5,000 are typical in these transactions, paying parents, pastors and a broker, Iqbal told AP. He said some of the brides are as young as 13.

Pastor Munch Morris said he knows a group of pastors in his neighborhood in Gujranwala (north of Lahore) who work with a Chinese marriage broker.One of the pastors said, “God is happy because these Chinese boys convert to Christianity. They are helping the poor Christian girls.”

But Pastor Morris opposes the arrangements. “We know these marriages are all for the sake of money,” he told AP.Brokers also seek brides at Pakistani brick kilns, where the poorest work as indentured servants to pay off debts. The brokers offer to pay off their workers’ debts in exchange for daughters as brides.

Source: World Watch Monitor

Asia Bibi: Christian leaves Pakistan after blasphemy acquittal

Asia Bibi

Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who spent years on death row after being convicted of blasphemy, has left the country, officials have confirmed.

Her conviction was overturned last year by the Supreme Court.She was originally convicted in 2010 after being accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a row with her neighbours.Asia Bibi has always maintained her innocence in a highly sensitive case that has polarised Pakistan.

Pakistani government officials did not reveal her destination, or say when she left. But her lawyer Saif ul Malook told the BBC she had already arrived in Canada, where two of her daughters are understood to have been granted asylum.Asia Noreen – commonly known as Asia Bibi – was kept at a secret location while arrangements were made for her to leave the country.

In a statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he wishes Asia Bibi “all the best” now she has been “safely reunited with her family”. 

The Supreme Court’s quashing of her sentence last October led to violent protests by religious hardliners who support strong blasphemy laws, while more liberal sections of society urged her release.

Last year, Pakistani authorities arrested prominent Islamic cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, whose Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) party led mass protests over Asia Bibi’s acquittal. Dozens of his supporters and TLP leaders were also detained.Officials say they were arrested to maintain public order after the cleric urged his supporters to “jam the whole country” if he was arrested.Islamist groups have regularly called for Asia Bibi to be executed and activists say she would not have been safe had she stayed in Pakistan.

Last year, Pakistani authorities arrested prominent Islamic cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, whose Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) party led mass protests over Asia Bibi’s acquittal. Dozens of his supporters and TLP leaders were also detained.Officials say they were arrested to maintain public order after the cleric urged his supporters to “jam the whole country” if he was arrested.Islamist groups have regularly called for Asia Bibi to be executed and activists say she would not have been safe had she stayed in Pakistan.

What was she accused of?

The trial stems from an argument Asia Bibi had with a group of women in June 2009.They were harvesting fruit when a row broke out about a bucket of water. The women said that because she had used a cup, they could no longer touch it, as her faith had made it unclean.

Prosecutors alleged that in the row which followed, the women said Asia Bibi should convert to Islam and that she made offensive comments about the Prophet Muhammad in response.She was later beaten up at her home, during which her accusers say she confessed to blasphemy. She was arrested after a police investigation.

Acquitting her, the Supreme Court said that the case was based on unreliable evidence and her confession was delivered in front of a crowd “threatening to kill her”.

The Pakistani government’s muted, though willing, admission of Asia Bibi’s departure indicates the closure of a case that brought the country much embarrassment. There is also a sense that justice may finally have been done in an area where religious fanaticism has long overruled due process.

Asia Bibi is one among hundreds of Pakistani citizens who have been charged with blasphemy over the past few decades. But her case stood out when a prominent politician and governor of the country’s largest province, Salman Taseer, was murdered in 2011. He had publicly expressed sympathy for her and vowed to reform the blasphemy law. This propelled her to the centre of a raging controversy.

It was international attention which ultimately forced the Pakistani authorities to work behind the scenes to neutralise the forces that were expected to kick up a fuss if she were freed.Canada, whose Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has reportedly offered her asylum, told the BBC it has no comment on her case or whereabouts.

In November 2018, Mr Trudeau said talks were under way with Pakistan over Asia Bibi, saying Canada is a “welcoming country”.Mr Trudeau confirmed the negotiations after Asia Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, pleaded for asylum from the UK, US or Canada.He said Pakistan was “very dangerous” for him and his family after Pakistani authorities struck a deal with TLP to end protests over his wife’s acquittal.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said she was “safe” and would be departing the country “very soon”.Islam is Pakistan’s national religion and underpins its legal system. Public support for the strict blasphemy laws is strong.

Hardline politicians have often backed severe punishments, partly as a way of shoring up their support base.But critics say the laws have often been used to exact revenge after personal disputes, and that convictions are based on thin evidence.

The vast majority of those convicted are Muslims or members of the Ahmadi community who identify themselves as Muslims but are regarded as heretical by orthodox Islam.Since the 1990s scores of Christians have also been convicted. They make up just 1.6% of the population.

The Christian community has been targeted by numerous attacks in recent years, leaving many feeling vulnerable to a climate of intolerance.

Since 1990, at least 65 people have reportedly been killed in Pakistan over claims of blasphemy.Asia Bibi, who was born in 1971 and has four children, was the first woman to be sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws. 

Source: BBC News

Iranian intelligence minister concerned with growth of Christianity; converts summoned

An Iranian flag flutters in front of the United Nations headquarters in Vienna June 17, 2014. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

Iran’s intelligence minister, Mahmoud Mahmoud Alavi, openly expressed concern last weekend about the spread of Christianity in the Islamic republic and said that some converts to Christianity were “summoned” to explain why they have converted.

The 65-year-old Alavi gave a speech before Shia clerics on Saturday, the day before the beginning of Ramadan.According to the International Shia News Association, Alavi blamed “evangelical propaganda” as being complicit to the increase in Iranian Muslims converting to Christianity in certain areas of the country.Despite Christianity being criminalized in a country where the government is entangled with hardline Islam, the nation is experiencing one of the fastest evolving underground church movements in the world.

Alavi told the clerics that the Intelligence Ministry and Qom Seminary, the country’s largest Islamic seminary, have dispatched individuals and institutions that are active in “countering the advocates of Christianity” to areas where Muslims are being converted.”People tend to become Christians who are ordinary people of the community, for example, their sandwich shops and the like, and they became a Christian family,” he was quoted as saying.

Alavi also said that in a city like Hamadan province in northwestern Iran, the government was given no choice but to summon Muslim converts to Christianity to ask why they have embraced the religion over Islam.“Some of them said that ‘we were seeking a religion that would calm us and establish ourselves with us and brotherhood,’” Alavi was quoted as saying. “We told them that ‘Islam is a religion of brotherhood.’ They said that ‘we see that the scholars of Islam and those who talk behind the podium talk continuously against each other, if Islam is a religion of [peace], then first of all, one must create [peace] between his scholars.’”

The intelligence minister reportedly said that although the agency is not responsible for finding the root cause of the mass religious conversion to Christianity in Iran, it is “happening right before our eyes.”Radio Farda, the Iranian affiliate of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, surmises that the converts who spoke with the intelligence ministry must have been referring to ongoing disputes between Iran’s ruling clerics.

Underground house churches continue to spring up across Iran, although they must do so in secrecy because they risk torture and imprisonment in the Islamic republic. Believers can be arrested for preaching the Gospel or having a copy of the Bible translated into Farsi.
report this adAlthough it’s hard to get an accurate read on how many Christians are in Iran, estimates have ranged from 800,000 to over 1 million.

Open Doors USA, an organization that operates in dozens of countries to help the persecuted church, reports that converts to Christianity “bear the brunt” of the Christian persecution in Iran — by the government or their own family members.“The government sees them as an attempt by Western countries to undermine Islam and the Islamic regime of Iran,” an Open Doors fact sheet reads.

“Many Christians (especially converts) have been prosecuted and sentenced to long terms in jail. Others are still awaiting trial. During this time, their families face public humiliation.”Open Doors notes that several house churches were razed during the 2019 World Watch List reporting period, including instances in which entire congregations have been arrested.“Most are no longer functioning as house churches,” Open Doors explains.

Iran is designated by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom.”Open Doors ranks Iran as the 9th worst country in the world when it comes to the persecution of Christians on its 2019 World Watch List.

Source: The Christian Post