Korean Christian Peace Festival in Afghanistan Blocked

Korean news site Chosun reports on a plan by Korean Christians to descend on Afghanistan:

A so-called Peace Festival scheduled in Afghanistan in August, which 2,000 Korean Christians are expected to attend, has pitted the government against Evangelical groups after the administration warned the event is a potential target for terror attacks. The Institute of Asian Culture and Development (IACD), which sponsors the event, on Thursday started demonstrations outside government buildings.

The IACD says the event will provide an opportunity to foster grassroots relations between the people of Korea and Afghanistan, citing the Afghan government’s official message of welcome. However, Seoul is reportedly pressuring Kabul and trying to derail an event it says is missionary in nature. Kabul has recently changed tack and is now denying visas to would-be participants.

From its website, the IACD gives the appearance of being a secular development organisation (with an impressive board), but for the “Rejoice! Afghanistan” link on the bottom of the page (details about the event in Korean only). The website explains that the IACD was founded in 1983

…to promote education, culture development and exchanges among developing countries in Asia.

It is oriented to hand over the past invaluable experience of Korean development through scientific activities. IACD also desires to help the northern countries and the Third World, our neighbors, by sending different types of specialists.

Countries where the IACD is active include Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Mongolia, and Turkey.

The Korea Times noted the upcoming event back in March, and gave a bit of context:

The IACD has held an annual “Jesus March” in Jerusalem over the past two years, despite strong opposition from the Seoul government.

The group informed the ministry of its plan to hold this year’s march in Kandahar, Afghanistan on July 30-Aug. 5 with some 2,000 South Korean Protestants from home and abroad intending to take part, they said.

The Jerusalem Post described one of these previous marches:

…The pilgrims, many of whom are college students, traveled from many parts of the world to participate in a rally calling for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Han-Woo Choi, the director of the Institute of Asia Cultural Development (IACD), a cultural and religious organization that participated in the march, said he believes peace that originates in Israel will spread to the rest of the world and resolve conflicts such as that between North and South Korea…In addition to visiting holy sites in Jerusalem, the pilgrims also brought medicine to Palestinians and publicly prayed for peace with them.

…Several marchers carried banners that read “We Pray for Reconciliation of Israel and Palestine,” “March for Jesus, March for Peace,” and “Peace Between Two Koreas.”

The Canadian Jewish News described the march as “solidarity with the people of Israel”, but while the group has been received enthusiastically by the Israeli Tourism Ministry (with minister Gideon Ezra reportedly joining the march), banners such as “We Love Palestine” (see here) suggest that this was no Christian Zionist rally. The IACD  has also held Korean-Palestinian festivals at the Palestinian universities of Birzeit in Ramallah and An-Najah in Nablus.

However, there does appear to a missionary element to the IACD. The online resume of a Korean-Canadian individual includes the following detail about its work in Afghanistan:

I was a part of the first vision team from Korean churches in Toronto. Our goal was to set up ESL schools, medical ministry, and other educational institutions in Afghanistan supported by the church in Toronto and IACD (Institute of Asian Culture Development).

During our visit to Kabul and Megeri-sherif, we made contracts with Kabul and other universities to support their educational systems by sending professors, doctors and other financial support.

In 2003, many short-term and long-term missionaries who were teachers, professors, doctors and other professionals were sent by Korean churches in Toronto and Korea.

I noted problems arising from alleged links between missionaries and development work in Uzbekistan just a few days ago.

Sada Highlights Growth of Evangelicals in Iraqi Kurdistan

Claim: “No Christians in the Kurdish territory are persecuted”

Retired Iraqi General Georges Sada is back in the news. The Washington Times reports:

Retired Iraqi Gen. Georges Sada, a former fighter pilot-turned-Christian evangelist, says Kurds are converting to Christianity “by the hundreds” in northern Iraq.

…The “good news” from Iraq’s turbulent religious scene, consisting mainly of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim militias battling each other, is from the Kurds, he said. Kurds are creating a constitution that does away with Shariah, or Islamic law, a move counter to trends in other Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Iran, where leaving Islam is a capital offense and Christian converts are often killed.

“No Christians in the Kurdish territory are persecuted,” he said yesterday in an interview.

Gen. Sada, 66, who lives in Baghdad, cited growing numbers of evangelical Christians in the Kurdish city of Irbil and a recent church conference of 854 Christians at the city’s Salahaddin University as demonstrations of the Kurds’ willingness to protect religious freedom.

He added that Nechervan Idris Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdish regional government in Irbil and nephew of former Iraqi Governing Council President Massoud Barzani, was extremely positive about evangelical Christians’ efforts among Iraq’s 4 million Kurds.

“He told me he’d rather see a Muslim become a Christian rather than a radical Muslim,” the general said.

Sada was featured on this blog previously, after his claims to have heard about Saddam’s WMDs being moved secretly to Syria received widespread media attention. We noted Sada’s links with evangelist Terry Law, and that Law had help to establish the Kurdzman Church for Kurdish ex-Muslims.

Sada is highlighting an interesting trend in Kurdistan which actually predates the fall of Saddam. Back in 2003, Charisma magazine profiled the Kurdish Evangelical Church:

The Kurdish Evangelical Church now has more than 1,000 believers, mostly converts from a Muslim background.

The church also has three bookshops, two FM radio stations and two international schools, one with 200 pupils in Sulaymaniyah. So impressed were Kurdish leaders with the school that they gave the church a $500,000 plot of land on which to build a church in the city.

However:

The Kurdish Evangelical Church has two martyrs. Mansour Hussein, 41, was gunned down in the Christian bookshop of Irbil in 1997, and Zewar Mohammed Ismael, 38, a taxi driver from Zakho, was shot to death on Feb. 17.

Ismael converted to Christ four years ago and was bold in his witness. He kept Bibles in his car and gave them out to anyone who showed an interest. Most did not mind, but Islamic extremists were outraged.

He was named in the mosques as a menace to Islam, and the imams spread lies about him, claiming, “He has led 500 Muslims into apostasy in our town.” His killer explained he was told by the prophet Muhammad in a dream to kill Ismael. He awaits trial in Zakho.

These kinds of problems remain today; and Sada appears to have overlooked difficulties for Kurdish Christians that come from the regional government itself. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting took at look at Kurdish Christians last summer:

…Sirwan Abdul-Rahman, a member of the Kurdish Christian Church Committee from Erbil, said his relatives looked down on him after he converted to Christianity several years ago.

Abdul-Rahman has also got into trouble for preaching his religion to other Kurds. He said he’s been arrested so often for carrying a Bible “that I’ve got used to it”.

…The region’s religious affairs minister, Muhammed Ahmed Gaznayi, said people who turn to Christianity are “renegades” in the eyes of Islam.

“I consider that those who turn to Christianity pose a threat to society,” he added.

Sada’s rosy view might also be perplexing to Marywan Halabjaye, Iraqi Kurdish author of a book critical of shariah who is now facing Islamist wrath. In March he complained that:

“The Kurdish authorities have not provided any protection from threats and fatwas,” says Marywan. “Apart from phone calls from progressive and freedom-loving people in Kurdistan and abroad I have nothing else…Any moment I am expecting a bullet or a hand grenade to be thrown into where I live.”

The attitude of minister Gaznayi was less than encouraging. Speaking to a crowd of protestors, he opined that

according to the Iraqi law, there is an article in which it states that “defamation” or “criticising” religion and religious figures is a crime and its punishment is severe. “We will give those who attack our prophets a sentence so that they can be a lesson for everyone”.

Members of historic Christian communities in Iraqi Kurdistan have also complained about their situation. Christianity Today reported on the subject early last year:

The Kurds are systematically displacing the Iraqi Christians, says Larry Allen, spokesperson for [International Christian Concern]. “The Kurds have been making a move for the Nineveh plain area and trying to expand Kurdistan out to the west.” The Kurdistan Democratic Party is linked to a paramilitary group that has confiscated homes. “Farmland has been confiscated. In addition, the $20 billion designated for reconstruction in Iraq, the Assyrians have seen none of it. The Kurdish authority is not distributing it,” Allen says.

“The Kurds are literally ethnically cleansing us out of the region,” says Ron Michael. “They are doing to us what the Sudanese government was doing to the Christians in the south of the Sudan. The Kurds are engaged in a push for autonomy and independence. They feel that they can only achieve their national aspirations by ethnic cleansing, either by political maneuvering or through violence, until every shred of Assyrianism in northern Iraq is gone.”

Similar accusations appeared in a 2004 piece by Eden Naby that was published on Juan Cole’s website.

However, Prime Minister Barzani has defended his record against such claims:

Within the Kurdistan Regional Government, there are one Turkmen and three Christian cabinet ministers. Christian parties hold five seats in the parliament.

Assyrian Christians and Yezidis are, he claims, allowed their own educational materials, while accusations emanating from the Assyrian International News Agency are “highly inaccurate” and have been “refuted in correspondence with the US State Department”.

(Hat tip: Christianity Today Weblog)

China-Sponsored Bible Exhibition in USA

Backed by Jimmy Carter, Billy Graham, Rick Warren

Denounced as “PR Campaign” by Chinese Dissident

China Economic Net reports on a Bible exhibition in Atlanta (link added):

…The exhibition in Atlanta, the second stop of a three-leg tour in the United States, provides an opportunity for the American public to get understanding of the development of Christianity in China in recent years.

…Rev. Dr. Cao Shengjie, president of China Christian Council, said that from 1980 to 2005, over 40 million copies of the Bible were published in China. During the exhibition, the art works by Christian artists and performance by China’s Lisu ethnic minority singers reflect the colorful life of the Church in China.

…Dr. David Sapp, the senior pastor of the Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, said the exhibition, while displaying the Bible, also expresses the wishes of the Church in China to conduct friendly exchanges with foreign churches, and is of significance in deepening exchanges and cooperation between churches of the two countries.

Chinese news agency Xinhua adds further details:

…Entitled “A Lamp to My Feet, A Light to My Path — The Bible Ministry Exhibition of the Church in China,” the exhibition reflects the Bible ministry of Chinese churches in different stages, Chinese Christians’ devotion to the Bible, and their faith in God’s words.

“I have a special affinity for China,” former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said at the opening ceremony at the Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church.

…Ye Xiaowen, the director-general of China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs, said at the ceremony that as early as 27 years ago, the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had mentioned during a meeting with Carter the two principles guiding religious affairs in China — to protect the freedom of religious belief and to maintain the independence and self-governance of churches in China.

The two principles, which are like the two sides of a coin, have been written into the Constitution of China, and have ensured a smooth and healthy development of the church in China, he said.

…Dr. David Sapp, the senior pastor of the Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, said the exhibition shows for the first time the real life of the Church in China to the outside world.

The news service of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship provides a bit of background (link added):

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is partnering with the China Christian Council (CCC) to bring an exhibition on the Bible in to three cities this spring and summer.

Originally showcased in August 2004 at an event in Hong Kong that drew more than 20,000 visitors, “A Lamp to my Feet, a Light to my Path” China Bible Ministry Exhibition will debut on American soil at the Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles, Calif., April 27 – May 4.

…The tour is the result of meetings in February and August 2005 between CCC representatives and Carter, evangelist Billy Graham, pastor and bestselling author Rick Warren and others.

Not all Christians are enthusiastic, though. ASSIST Ministries reports (link added):

According to China Aid Association (CAA), “Those who know well about the operation of Chinese government and its sanctioned religious organizations should acknowledge this exhibition is nothing but a PR campaign to cover up the religious persecution image in the US.”

“It’s rather ironic that Beijing House Church pastor Cai Zhuohua is serving for three years sentence in the Chinese prison for printing Bibles in China since last year, while the propaganda message of this Bible exhibition is that there is freedom to print Bibles in China,” said Rev. Bob Fu, President of CAA.

Fu added: “It’s a shame for the organizers to invite the top Communist Party religious persecutor like Mr. Ye Xiaowen and Ms. Cao Shengjie to spread lies to American people.”

CAA says that as the director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) of China, Mr. Ye Xiaowen “is directly responsible for hundreds of arrests of House church pastors and other persecution cases to independent religious groups. Ms. Cao Shengjie is the leader of the Chinese Communist Party controlled organization with religious uniforms, which is called the China Christian Council (CCC).”

Rev Fu was in the news last year, when he demonstrated a Chinese electrical torture device at the U.N. Human Rights Commission plenary session in Geneva, Switzerland. After complaints about this from the Chinese delegation, Fu was removed from the premises and a complaint made against the NGO that had arranged for Fu’s appearance (see here).

Open Doors USA has also voiced misgivings, although less stridently – the Christian Post reports:

…not all Christians welcome the Bible exhibit, with some calling it propaganda by the communist Chinese government and others pointing out that there are unregistered “underground” churches because of lack of religious freedom.

…Johnny Li, Open Doors USA spokesman for China mission, questioned the real degree of religious freedom in China.

Li pointed out that although there has been a growth quantity-wise in Bible printing, the real situation is unknown because there are discrepancies in official figures of how many Christians there are according to the government and the true number.

…”Now in China, there are just around 16 million Christians, but a total of 40 million Bibles were claimed to be printed. It means that the Bible is actually overwhelming in China!” Li explained. He added that the Bibles could be worn out or lost in some natural disasters, but it is still not enough to explain the surplus. In addition, he said the Amity Press continued printing around 5 million Bibles last year.

“Therefore, for the real situation in Church in China, we will leave it for the readers to ponder because it is almost impossible to find an answer for such question,”

The situation of Cai Zhuohua, and Ye Xiaowen’s part in his imprisonment, was reported by Christian Today last November:

Three Christians in China have been sentenced to imprisonment for printing Bibles and other Christian writings without government authorisation.

…During the trial, the defendants were accused by the prosecution of illegally printing 200,000 copies of the Bible, though there was no mention of how many actual copies there were when the verdict was announced, Reuters reported.

Yet in July, a Hong Kong newspaper funded by Beijing, Ta Kung Pao, quoted China’s director of the state bureau of religious affairs, Ye Xiaowen, as saying Cai illegally printed 40 million Bibles and other Christian writings, according to Reuters. Furthermore, Ye accused Cai of illegally selling over two million copies of the Bible instead of giving them away for free.

…Ye asserted that the case is not religious persecution.

“Objectively speaking, religion is a point of penetration through which Western anti-China forces seek to Westernize and disintegrate China,” a Hong Kong newspaper quoted Ye as saying.

Further thoughts of Comrade Ye – a hardline atheist who has advised Chinese Communist Party members to quit the party if they get the religion bug (see here, scroll down) – can be seen here.

Cao Shengjie, meanwhile, is a controversial figure, seen by her detractors as a Communist stooge. According to Forum 18

The appointment of Cao Shengjie as CCC head and…was greeted with dismay both inside and outside of China, as a re-affirmation of political control of the hierarchy…Cao…is an eager propagator of Bishop Ding [Guangxun]‘s “theological reconstruction” which aims to, in Bishop Ding’s words, “weaken all those aspects within Christian faith which do not conform with the socialist society”.

On the other hand, one reviewer of David Aikman’s book Jesus in Beijing describes Aikman’s portrait of Shengjie as “malicious” (I discussed Aikman here). The Gospel Herald has an interview with Shengjie here.

Uzbekistan Accuses Development Orgs of Being Missionary Fronts

Agape Press provides a brief news report from Uzbekistan:

…The government of Uzbekistan has closed down two Protestant churches in Samarkand, the latest in a series of moves to expel foreign-funded institutions from the authoritarian, ex-Soviet state. Uzbek officials say a Seventh-Day Adventist church and a Protestant church run by a Korean pastor have been closed for violations that include illegal proselytizing. On Monday, an Uzbek court closed down a branch of Central Asia Free Exchange, accusing the American-funded group of urging aid recipients to convert to Christianity. Last month, police broke up meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses in seven Uzbek cities, while another American-funded group, Global Involvement Through Education, was fined for what were called “attempts to convert locals to a religion of Protestant character.”

Interfax gives some further details:

“A Kokand district civil court has completed the first hearing into the case of [Central Asia Free Exchange]’s Fergana office,” a local justice department spokesman told Interfax on Tuesday.

The trial was launched following a wide array of complaints from the local population, the spokesman said.

“Witnesses have testified that CAFE officials explained that humanitarian aid was provided to converts to Protestant Christianity. They promoted Christianity and gave poor families in villages foreign-made bicycles,” the source said.

Meanwhile, the complaint against Global Involvement Through Education was that

“Under the pretext of teaching English, the foreign employees persuaded students of local universities to convert to a Protestant-style religion. Material evidence, including educational audio and videocassettes, CDs and various printed materials promoting Protestant ideas, was presented in court,”

According to its website, The Central Asia Free Exchange was

established with the emergence of Uzbekistan as an independent nation in 1991 and is registered as a humanitarian aid organization in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

The organisation believes in working closely with local people to develop “relevant, holistic, locally sustainable development”. Its partners range from NATO to George Soros to the UNHCR to the evangelical Samaritan’s Purse. The president of the organisation, Jeff Liverman, is a Christian, but CAFE does not stress any religious motivation.

Global Involvement Through Education, meanwhile,

…was incorporated in 1990, by a group of friends whose business and vacation travel had opened their eyes to the richness of the cultures of Central Asia, North Africa, Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula. What they had experienced of these countries’ natural beauty, hospitality and culture dismissed stereotypes portrayed in the western media.

Its purpose is described as

…promoting international cross-cultural educational opportunities accomplished through assisting and facilitating various educational projects and programs throughout the world.

Whether or not the two organisations have actually engaged in missionary work is difficult to judge; one can hardly have confidence in the judicial processes of such an oppressive country (and I should add that although this blog has sometimes complained about unethical, endangering or tactless missionary behaviour, I find authoritarian repression of such activity to be far more objectionable). However, posing as educationalists is an established strategy for some missionaries; an interesting article on “Teaching English as a Missionary Language (TEML)” by two Australian academics notes that:

Our own searches have revealed a vast interconnected network of missionary organizations using English language teaching as a key tool. The Mission Finder.org site offers ‘Christian Missionary Opportunities to Teach English as a Second Language’ and provides connections to a wide range of other organizations. A brief sample includes the following:…

  • Educational Services International (ESI) urges people to; “Teach English overseas in Muslim Asia, China, Russia, & Central Europe. Current opportunities in Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgzstan, Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia, Ukraine.” (http://teachoverseas.org/)

Over the border, a blogger who was recently in Afghanistan gave the following account last September:

In Mazar there is a strange organisation deviously called Partnership in Academic Development (PAD) which I had suspected for a while after having gone there to check out their library and English language programme…I spoke to an Afghan friend recently who confirmed my suspicions. They go for students and offer them free English and computer lessons, and then start talking about Jesus and love. I was told recently that the mullahs rumbled them, and they had to move to a different part of the city, near the UN office, and keeping a low profile.

Uzbekistan’s appalling human rights record, meanwhile, is a frequent topic at Forum 18.

Iran’s Latest Move against Academia

The latest casualty in Iran’s war against academic independence: Dr Ramin Jahanbegloo, a distinguished political scientist and philosopher (see his website here), was arrested at the end of April. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports (link added):

At a Tehran airport on April 27, Iranian police arrested Ramin Jahanbegloo, a French-educated scholar who directs the department of contemporary thought at the Cultural Research Bureau, a think tank in Tehran. Mr. Jahanbegloo is the author of books on Hegel, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Isaiah Berlin; he has been a fellow at Harvard University and has taught at the University of Toronto.

No formal charges have been issued, but newspapers aligned with the Iranian regime have denounced Mr. Jahanbegloo as an American agent engaged in “cultural activities against Iran.” He is reported to be in custody at Evin Prison, which has been notorious as a torture center.

Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, Jahanbeglo’s colleague in Toronto, explains:

They are using him as a scapegoat in order to develop a strategy concerning the people who are supposedly receiving the funds that George Bush has made available to topple the Iranian regime. So he has been a victim of that sort of simple-minded policy. His arrest is a way to warn others that they will face the same fate.

Meanwhile, Dariush Mirzai at Asia News adds some further context:

There are many speculations as to the precise reasons behind the arrest of Jahanbegloo: perhaps it was a statement, an interview, one article too many? Perhaps Ramin Jahanbegloo should not have told the newspaper El Pais about his visit to Auschwitz, and talked about “our responsibility to testify to the ‘unqualifiable’ of Auschwitz? Or he should not have raised internal polemics against “religious intellectuals”? Perhaps it’s better not to speculate too much about the “red lines” that should not be crossed: that would mean granting too much respect to the arbitrary, it would mean reinforcing auto-censorship, one of the aims behind the arrest of Jahanbegloo. One Iranian intellectual said: “The problem is that one never knows where the limits are. One must guess.”

Mirzai also reminds us that Evin Prison was where Iranian-Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi was killed, in 2003.

The situation of universities in Iran has been of interest to this blog for a while; back in March I  noted that 40 hard-line ideologues have reportedly been installed at Isfahan University, and that its new chancellor, an obscure “Dr Ramshet”, had spoken of the need to suppress and intimidate. Before that I covered the links between western Holocaust deniers and the Neda Institute in Tehran; a subject later picked up by the media. There was also a report in the Guardian back in March which I missed at the time. It tells us that

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is cracking down on Iran’s universities in an effort to crush a student pro-democracy movement and strengthen the hardliners’ grip on power.

Leading student activists have been jailed or expelled from their studies, and lecturers have been sacked, while the government has proposed subjecting academics to strict religious testing.

…The purge has extended to academics and university administrators. One political science lecturer was dismissed for belonging to a human rights group…A radical cleric was recently appointed to head Tehran University.

A blog highlighting Jahanbegloo’s plight can be seen here.

Evangelicals Target Rwanda

Crosswalk reports on Hope Rwanda, the massive campaign of western evangelisation currently underway in Rwanda (and which was discussed by me here). The missionaries are offering substantial medical and development assistance to the country, but spreading the word is also a central priority:

The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, officially launched Hope Rwanda: 100 Days of Hope at an official function with over 800 dignitaries and guests in Kigali on 15 April. Leading the child and youth effort for the Hope Rwanda effort, Florida-based Book of Hope is coordinating the distribution of over 2 million books to each child [sic!] in Rwanda. “They have already distributed a quarter of a million books,” said Hope Rwanda Project Coordinator, John Fergusson. This week, Book of Hope brought in the first Impact Team from Church of the Harvest in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Team members spent ten days in the province of Butare, visiting schools in some of the farthest, most difficult-to-reach areas of Rwanda, where they met with students, conducted school assemblies, shared the love and healing spirit of Jesus, and distributed over 14,000 Book of Hope Scripture books to every student

The “Book of Hope” was the brainchild of Bob Hoskins (no, not that one), an Assemblies of God missionary. His website explains (links in original):

In 1987, missionary and evangelist Bob Hoskins was asked by the Minister of Education in El Salvador to provide bibles to the country’s 986,000 school children.

(This would have been just after the end of the state of emergency in El Salvador. The civil war was continuing, but there were human rights improvements in 1987. See this report.)

Hoskins was up to the challenge, but instead of bibles, he delivered what is now called the Book of Hope, with tremendous results. The country was caught in a wave of church revivals and students and their families committing their lives to Christ.

…The Book of Hope publication combines the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to tell the life story of Jesus Christ – the most important part of the scriptures. The book reads in chronological order and feature study questions that direct the reader back into the Word. There is also a clear plan of salvation at the end of the book so children know how to accept Christ as their personal Savior.

…To date, more than 270 million Books of Hope have been distributed worldwide, and we are well on the way to reaching our 2004 Faith Goal of distributing more than 56 million books to children and youth around the world.

In Eastern Europe, the books are distributed by Life Publishers. In 2002 Hoskins was particularly active in Chad:

Bob Hoskins says as the country recovers from civil war and faces incredible economic turmoil, opportunities for the Gospel abound. “Some of our colleagues got a license for what’s called ‘Hope Radio’. November the 15th, the Hope Radio station will begin to broadcast from N’Djananja, the capitol of Chad. In connection with the launch of Hope Radio, we’re launching the Book of Hope distribution in the schools there.” While Chad is predominately Muslim, Hoskins tells the government that the Book of Hope can help with AIDS and drug and alcohol abuse. “I say, ‘I know you don’t believe Jesus as God as I do, but your Koran says that Jesus is one of the greatest of the prophets and His teachings are acceptable in Islam. And so, these are the teachings of Christ on ethics and morality and because of the need and because of the rational, they’re accepting it’.”

The Church of the Harvest, meanwhile, which is doing the book distribution in Rwanda, is led by Pastor Kirk Pankratz, who was also the founder of Youth America. The church has interesting mission statement:

Position a People for a Harvest of Changed Lives, Miracles and God’s Promises.

Reproduce Christian Leaders in the Realms of Family, Business, Community, and Ministry.

Build a Progressive Church with Regional, National and Global Influence Founded upon the Word, Faith and Prayer.

Prepare a Prophetic Generation of Young People for Their Role in the Last Days Revival.

Meanwhile, neo-Pentecostal preacher Joyce Meyer is also doing her bit. The Australian Christian Channel reports:

Evangelist and author Joyce Meyer conducted a three-day national rally in Kigali from 28 to 30 April. Amahoro Stadium was packed with 28,000 Rwandans who had travelled to hear Joyce Meyer’s message of hope, making it the largest Christian gathering Rwanda had ever seen. Joining her was a 1,000-strong choir and almost 2,000 trained volunteers.

The previous week Joyce Meyer and her team had conducted outreaches to the country’s 16 prisons which house a total of 87,000 prisoners. They distributed over 70,000 hygiene packs to the prisoners. Hope Rwanda Project Coordinator, John Fergusson, reports that over 1,000 prisoners so far have made decisions to receive Jesus.

Hope Rwanda comes just months after Rick Warren declared his intention to make Rwanda into the first “purpose-driven nation”, following the lead of his best-selling book The Purpose-Driven Life – I discussed that announcement here. However, an article by Andrew Paquin in Christianity Today raised a note of caution:

Warren’s relationship with Rwandan President Paul Kagame is also of concern. Kagame was the leader of the rebel Tutsi forces that brought an end to genocide in 1994. Yet as president, he has overseen a military that continues to occupy parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Human-rights observers such as Amnesty International and even the U.S. State Department accuse Kagame of not only stripping Congo of its natural resources, but also of mass rape, burning villages, and murdering civilians. Rwandan leaders reject these claims, yet the human-rights community maintains their accuracy.

Kagame has also faced the accusation that he ordered the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana in 1993, which sparked the Rwandan genocide. This uncritical enthusiasm for Kagame brings to mind evangelical support for the late Sudanese rebel leader John Garang – a phenomenon which was discussed by Jeff Sharlet here.

Shariah to be Enforced on all non-Muslims in Aceh

Tucked away in the AP’s “Religion News in Brief”:

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — A bill proposed by lawmakers on the tsunami-ravaged Indonesian province of Aceh would impose Shariah, or Islamic law, on all non-Muslims, the military and police, a local law enforcement official said.

…”Based on the equality in law, Acehnese people have formally proposed…to apply the Islamic Shariah Law to all those residing in Aceh, including military, police and non-Muslims,” said Alyasa Abubakar, head of a local government office which enforces the Shariah on Aceh.

The bill is apparently expected to pass. The news comes a couple of months after the Deutsche Presse-Agentur warned of “Taliban-style Islamic police terrorizing Indonesia’s Aceh”:

In the months following the tsunami, the Aceh government inexplicably began vigorously enforcing a three-year-old provincial statute on Sharia, or Islamic Law. The provincial Islamic law department was unleashed to crackdown on ‘immorality’ – alcohol, gambling, women appearing in public without headscarves or venturing out at night without a male escort.

The ‘Sharia police,’ as they are known across the province, have become a power unto themselves – uneducated, arrogant young men operating outside of any legal framework or rules, human and women’s rights activists say.

This is slightly at odds with a 2004 Jakata Post report, which stated that most of the “shariah officers” were in fact themselves women; however, that report also said that they were on a one-year contract, and perhaps things have changed. Back to DPA:

Their illegal detentions and harassment of women, intimidation of the population and violent behaviour – they’ve publicly flogged more than 135 people for various violations in the past nine months – has earned them comparisons to Adolf Hitler’s ‘Brown Shirts’ in Nazi Germany.

…One young Acehnese woman was publicly flogged for kissing her boyfriend in public, while another 23-year-old has been locked up in Acehnese jail for more than two weeks without access to an attorney after being caught drinking beer. She could be flogged up to 40 times if found guilty by a local religious court.

One incident in particular examines the hard life of those given the job of enforcing the regulations:

Sharia policemen barged into the lobby [of leading Banda Aceh hotel] and arrested three women attending an international conference because they were not wearing headscarves. According to witnesses, an officer screamed at one of the women: ‘The way you are dressed makes my penis erect!’

When the Shariah court was set up, it was touted as “moderate” by provincial governor Abdallah Puteh (a man now serving ten years for corruption, as it happens). However, one would have thought that alarm bells would have gone off when Alyasa Abubakar, who is in charge of the shariah implementation, announced plans in 2004 for staff development:

The Indonesian province of Aceh is considering sending judges and prosecutors to countries in the Middle East for training in Islamic justice.

The head of the Islamic sharia office in Aceh, Alyasa Abubakar, named Egypt and Saudi Arabia as possible training locations.

A 2005 report in the Asia Times gives a bit of background to the implementation:

Although Aceh holds the world’s richest onshore reserves of natural gas, estimated at 40 billion cubic meters, and provided an estimated 11% of the country’s total exports in 2001, less than 10% of this wealth was reinvested in the province. Critics said the autonomy package and the right to implement Sharia, which would also give Aceh a greater share of revenue from these rich resources, was simply aimed at dampening separatist sentiment in the province.

But more recently:

…There are also fears that Islamic fundamentalism has been on the rise since Aceh was opened up following the tsunami. Dozens of radical Islamic groups quickly arrived on the scene then, supposedly to guard against any liberal influence emanating from foreign relief workers and troops.

The alleged missionizing activities of some foreign relief agencies were discussed by me here.

Meanwhile, Abubakar sees his role as a benevolent one. Speaking to a crowd before the mass caning of a group of gamblers in 2005, he explained:

“The canings can be a cure for gamblers. The defendants and their family should not be ashamed because they are helping us to…give lessons to the public”.

Later that year, shariah judge Marluddin Jalil offered a wider public health rationale, as reported in the London Times:

“The tsunami was because of the sins of the people of Aceh…The Holy Koran says that if women are good, then a country is good… Another tsunami is possible…The Holy Koran says that if humans don’t listen to Allah they will be punished.”

However, the Times also included one heartening detail:

The religious police have not always had it their own way. In one incident on the island of Sabang, attempts to humiliate a bareheaded girl backfired when angry villagers turned on them. By the time the civil police arrived to rescue the enforcers they were surrounded by an angry mob flicking lighted cigarettes at them.

Meanwhile, the rise of shariah police in Nigeria was covered by me here.

(Hat tip: Christianity Today Weblog)

Contra Fulvus Update

A new angle on the The Da Vinci Code, via the Boston Herald:

“It’s another kind of evil or outcast depiction of a person with albinism,” said Dennis Hurley, 28, who was angered over the homicidal red-eyed character Silas depicted in the “The Da Vinci Code” best-selling novel. “There are regular people like me who happen to have this condition.”

…Albinism is an inherited condition that affects 1 in 17,000 people in the United States, according to the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH). Albinos have very white skin and hair and very poor vision.

NOAH has called for an end to albinos portrayed in films as “mystical freaks” and villains.

Other examples I can think of are the villainous albino Klingon who appeared in an episode of Deep Space 9 and the albino kidnapped by Robert Ryan in God’s Little Acre who’s then put to work using his alleged mystical powers to find gold. Hurley has now made a short film, The Albino Code, which debuts today.

Opus Dei is also fighting back. The Scotsman reports:

Opus Dei has launched a publicity blitz to counter the negative image of the book, hence the reprinting of “The Way” which was first published in Spain in 1939. It has since been printed in 46 languages, with 4.6 million copies in print.

Published by Doubleday which also happens to be Brown’s publisher, “The Way” is a collection of 999 short nuggets of advice, exhortation and philosophy. Doubleday has set a first print run of 10,000 for the North American market.

Bill Barry, publisher of Doubleday’s religious books division, introduced it to a curious mix of priests and publishers, nuns and lay members of Opus Dei, casually-dressed reporters and slick press officers — and a black banker named Silas whom Opus Dei likes to call “the real Silas.”

Conservative Protestants, meanwhile are being marshalled by D James Kennedy. According to WND:

[Paul] Maier is one of 15 scholars, theologians and authors who join Christian broadcaster D. James Kennedy in “The Da Vinci Delusion,” a nationally televised documentary look at Dan Brown’s wildly popular recasting of ancient Gnostic heresies. The one-hour program airs May 13 and 14 – just days before “The Da Vinci Code” movie debuts worldwide.

However, Kennedy’s approach is somewhat unimpressive, if predictable. The “rebuttals” include the following:

“The New Testament is false testimony” (p. 345 of “The Da Vinci Code”). “The four Gospels were written during the life and the times of those who were the eyewitnesses of Jesus. Now, more importantly, they were also written during the life and times of the skeptics, who could refute anything that was said.” – Kerby Anderson

Well, certainly, to call the New Testament “false” is somewhat excessive – but this response fails acknowledge any of the historical problems (and there are many) that exist in the NT – particularly in the Gospel of John. And if Kennedy is so interested in historical truth, why does he continue to work with the pseudo-historian David Barton?

These efforts come a year after David Balsiger’s documentary on the subject, Breaking the Da Vinci Code. Hollywood Update spoke with Balsiger at the time:

Why challenge Brown’s novel? There are people reading it who may be contemplating Christianity, basing their decision mainly on the content of the novel. Also, those who still have questions about their faith could find the book conflicting. Grizzly Adams’ producer David Balsiger believes their videos have adequately addressed the flaws in Brown’s novel. “I think our show sets that record straight significantly, in so many different areas”, Balsiger states.

However, to reiterate a point I’ve made before, Balsiger would be better off setting the “record straight” concerning another book, if he wishes to remove a beam from his eye. Back in the 1970s Balsiger worked as a ghost writer, and he was largely responsible for Mike Warnke’s bogus memoir The Satan Seller. Warnke’s lies made a big contribution to the “satanic panic” that emerged a few years later (oh, and Grizzly Adams would also be the company that has the film rights to the absurd The Nephilim and the Pyramid of the Apocalypse, as I noted here).

Over here in the UK, in contrast, the Church of England is backing a short book on the subject by Steve Hollinghurst, who aims to use the story as an opportunity to evangelise:

Other books analyse the historical or geographical inaccuracies and theological errors, but these are not arguments which will sway most of those influenced by the book.

This study looks instead at how the book taps into a conspiracy culture which distrusts authority and organised religion. It explores how discussion about the book can best be used to build bridges, and how to set up an effective event to which to invite people.

Hollinghurst complains about the

Roman Catholic Church single handedly doubling film attendance and belief in Brown’s thesis by trying to forbid people from seeing it…Ably assisted by a clutch of conservative evangelicals and biblical scholars.

In the Guardian, Theo Hobson describes the story as

a cowardly and inauthentic response to religion, a failure to be serious about what is serious…The phenomenon might be called “camp-attack”. It is camp in the sense of lacking seriousness of purpose, being fatally ambivalent. It lacks self-knowledge. It thinks that it is practicing critique, that it is debunking something, but really it is engaged in a form of cultic celebration. Danbrownism is a camp-attack on the biggest brand of them all. It is a secular myth utterly parasitic on Christianity’s aura of truth. It appeals to people who lack the spiritual seriousness to accept or reject Christianity, who want instead to hang around Christianity, to flirt with it.

I suppose I’d better get around to reading it one of these days…

(Previous entries on the Code here and here)

New Church Constructed in Tel Aviv

ASSIST Ministries reports on an interesting religious development in Tel Aviv:

For what is believed to be the first time, a Christian congregation in Israel is building its own church – in a Jewish area near Tel Aviv.

Although the building plan was hotly contested by Orthodox Jews and the church had to go all the way to the Supreme Court, the Christian congregation, Grace and Truth, won the day.

…The Grace and Truth Christian congregation, a Reformed and Baptist church, is an indigenous Israeli church, reaching out to Jews and Arabs. Founded in 1976, it is one of Israel’s oldest churches and has showed the way for other churches in the country and has led a successful international campaign against efforts to restrict religious freedom in Israel.

…To protect the property against vandalism by Orthodox Jews, it is guarded 24 hours a day. The cost of legal fees, security, insurance, rising prices, changing demands by the authorities and related expenses have made it impossible to afford the completion of a worship centre that will be used seven days a week for prayer, weddings, conferences and seminars.

The situation of Christian Israelis is something I have looked at a couple of times in the past: see here and here. Grace and Truth was founded by Baruch Maoz, who sees himself more as a Reformed Christian than a “Messianic Jew”. A book review at Banner of Truth (a British Reformed publisher best-known for its Puritan reprints) explains:

Baruch Maoz argues that the Messianic Jewish movement has allowed the authority of the rabbis to overshadow the rightful authority of Scripture, and that the movement is in deep trouble. He has done this in his book entitled, “Judaism is not Jewish: A friendly critique of the Messianic Movement”.

…As I understand it, the key argument Baruch seeks to establish, and one with which not all will agree, is that “Judaism” is not “Jewish.” By “Judaism” he means the religious system developed by the Rabbis in the light of the destruction of the Temple, Diaspora existence and the rabbinic rejection of Jesus. This “Judaism” is not properly “Jewish” in the original sense that God intended “Jewishness” to be – a biblical culture and identity which reflects God’s presence and values, and is fulfilled in Christ. As such this “Judaism” should have no recognised authority over the beliefs and practices of Jewish believers in Jesus, and “Messianic Judaism”, in seeking to combine faith in Jesus as the Messiah with a modified form of “Judaism”, inevitably pursues a false trail…”Messianic Judaism”, as opposed to “Jewish Christianity”, fails, according to Baruch, to distinguish between the religious and cultural/national aspects of “Jewishness”, and therefore buys into a rabbinically-imposed set of norms of what is expected to be truly “Jewish”.

This claim that non-Christian Jews have got it wrong, of course, is shared by most conservative Christians, but the belief is seldom stated so bluntly; just recently we saw Jerry Falwell being obliged to disavow a report that he held both religions as equally valid(see my discussion here). Maoz himself adds:

What is more, the creeping error that insists that Judaism is “the root of our [Christian] Faith” undermines our confidence in Scripture and our ability to read the Bible properly. The growing number of adherents to the Messianic Movement who question the deity of Christ, or who are inclined toward a form of legalism that replaces grace with works are disconcerting indications of the direction in which the movement is liable to go – God forbid – if the process is not stopped.

One imagines that Maoz must be particularly appalled by the Noahcide Movement, which I discussed here.

The church’s website gives a bit of background to Maoz – a rowdy youth in Israel followed by conversion to Pentecostalism, and then a rejection of that in favour of Reformed Christianity. Training followed in the UK – through CLC (Christian Literature Crusade) and its associated missionary organistion WEC (then “World Evangelisation Crusade”, but these days the rather more tactful “World Evangelisation for Christ”), and then work with Christian Witness for Israel:

In 1976, with the full encouragement of CWI, the first steps were taken to form what is now Grace and Truth Christian Congregation…The congregation now consists of some 260 adults and their children, and the membership is over 65. Baruch is assisted in the oversight and pastoral care of the church by a body of Elders and Deacons, augmented by a Deacons’ Committee. Most of the congregants are relatively recent immigrants, struggling to establish themselves economically.

And somewhat likely not to have any particular links with Judaism – this Al-Ahram article from 2000 has some useful background.

However, Maoz has not completely cut himself off from Messianic Judaism. Another Banner of Truth article notes:

When members of Israel’s parliament attempted to introduce legislation that would make Christian evangelism a criminal offence, Baruch set up and, for the first eighteen months, led the Messianic Action Committee, to defend freedom of religion in Israel.

This was the anti-missionary bill proposed by the Shas MK Raphael Pinchasi in the late 1990s, and which threatened relations between Christians and Israel (although the outspoken Christian Zionist Jan Willem van der Hoeven has no problem calling Shas “the great upholders of G-ds sanctity”).

Maoz retired last year, leaving elder David Zadok as the main spokesperson for the church.

UPDATE: Looks like a double whammy for Israel: ASSIST also reports that:

Daystar Television Network, which owns and operates 50 television stations across the United States, will be the first Christian network to broadcast into every home in Israel with 100 percent Christian content.

…”This is a first. Never before has the nation of Israel granted a license for a 100 percent Christian Channel to broadcast into all of Israel. Up until now, it has either been: illegal, impossible, or impractical. The message of the Gospel will now be going into every home in Israel 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. This is a moment in time that we will always remember,” said [Daystar President Marcus] Lamb.

New US Religious Freedom Report Out

Afghanistan democracy “in peril”

Iraq law against Baha’is still on books

Commission says Department of State “has not yet acted on or responded” to recommendations on refugees

Li v. Gonzales slammed

It’s time for the new Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Here’s the state of play this year:

It recommended that eight countries remain on the CPC [Countries of Particular Concern] list: Burma, China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Vietnam. It also identified three countries not previously designated by the U.S. government: Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan…In addition to CPC recommendations, the Commission wrote that it was adding Afghanistan to its Watch List. Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, and Nigeria would remain on the Watch List.

The report also contains information about Georgia, Iraq, Laos, and Russia, as well as some assessment of how the USA has responded to the problems. It comes six months after the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report, which was heavily criticized by various lobbies and individuals (including the committee’s chairman) that I discussed here.

The report is packed with information, and so resists a brief summary; however, I’ve cut and pasted what I found to be the most interesting points. So, a longer blog entry than usual:

Afghanistan

…The constitutional concerns are intensified by the fact that the task of interpreting many of these provisions has been left to the Supreme Court, currently headed by Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari, who has shown little tolerance for those who disagree with his hard-line interpretation of Islam. In August 2003, Chief Justice Shinwari told a visiting Commission delegation that he rejects three crucial freedoms—those of expression, religion, and equal rights for men and women—all of which are protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As a consequence of his actions, a sitting Minister in the interim Afghan government was forced to resign after she was charged with blasphemy for questioning the role of Islamic law in Afghanistan, journalists have been jailed on charges of offending Islam, and during the October 2004 presidential elections, a presidential candidate was threatened with disqualification for purported “anti-Islamic remarks” on women’s rights and family law. These incidents suggest that despite the gains since 2002 and the adoption of a new constitution, religious freedom and other human rights, along with democracy itself, remain under threat from extremism.

These constitutional pitfalls have been extended to other legislation also. In 2002, Afghanistan adopted a new press law that contains a sanction against publication of “matters contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and sects.” According to the State Department, the vagueness in the definition of what constitutes offensive material allows for the potential abuse of this clause with the aim of limiting freedom of the press and intimidating journalists. Indeed, incidents of this sort of abuse have already occurred, as when Chief Justice Shinwari in November 2004 successfully appealed to the Afghan government to have cable television taken off the air because of its “immoral” programs that insult religion. Earlier in that year, the Chief Justice had also protested the presence of female singers on radio and television and attempted to have the practice halted, though in this effort he was ultimately not successful. In January 2006, the Afghan Minister of Information, Culture, and Tourism declared that though Afghan law allows citizens access to a free press, limitations exist that are “not imposed by the government but are in line with Islamic and national principles.” That same month, cable television was shut down in Balkh province for broadcasting films and music that were “against Islam and Afghan culture.” In February 2006, the Afghan government, through a special media commission, imposed a fine on Afghan TV, one of four private stations in Kabul, for broadcasting “un-Islamic materials.”

There is also mention of Abdul Rahman, a convert to Christianity from Islam who narrowly escaped the death penalty.

In her testimony, Commissioner [Felice] Gaer described the weak state of human rights protections in Afghanistan today, and cautioned that freedom and democracy are still in peril in that country.

Bangladesh

…In June 2005, there were arson or bombing attacks against Ahmadi mosques in three locations. In July 2005, two Bangladeshis working for a Christian NGO were murdered, allegedly because of showing a film on the life of Jesus. As of this writing, there have been no charges brought in this case or in the murder in September 2004 of a locally prominent Christian convert from Islam…Politically-motivated bombings, assassinations, and other terrorist acts, often ascribed to Islamic militants, have exacerbated partisan tensions and increased the vulnerability of minority communities.

…Anti-Ahmadi activists have been organized under the banner of a group known as the International Khatme Nabuwat Movement Bangladesh. (“Khatme Nabuwat” is an Arabic phrase meaning “finality of the Prophethood” of Mohammed.) There is reportedly a significant overlap of membership between this organization and Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamic political parties. Anti-Ahmadi activists object to Ahmadi houses of worship being called “mosques” and on a number of occasions have organized mass demonstrations against Ahmadi mosques, have attempted to occupy the sites, and have forcibly replaced signs identifying Ahmadi places of worship as mosques, sometimes with the assistance of the police. In some instances, the anti-Ahmadi agitation has been accompanied by mob violence in which Ahmadi homes have been destroyed and Ahmadi converts held against their will and pressured to recant. Although the campaign against the Ahmadis has continued, the violence has diminished in recent months due to improved and more vigorous police protection for the Ahmadis.

Belarus

…Since coming to power in 1994, President Lukashenko has openly favored the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), an Exarchate of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church, resulting in a privileged position for the BOC in relation to other religious communities. This relationship was codified in June 2003, when the Belarus government and the BOC signed a concordat setting out the Church’s influence in government affairs and other facets of public life. Relations between the BOC and the Belarus government have created difficulties for many religious minorities, which have sometimes been denied registration or permission to rent or build a place of worship by regional authorities who have been influenced by local Orthodox leaders. Several “independent” Orthodox churches that do not accept the authority of the Orthodox Patriarch in Moscow have been denied registration, including the Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the True Orthodox Church, a branch of the Orthodox Church that rejected the compromise with the Soviet government made by the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1920s. In March 2004, the Belarusian government granted the BOC the exclusive right to use the word “Orthodox” in its title.

…In January 2006, President Lukashenko reportedly awarded a medal for “spiritual development” to the editor of his presidential administration’s newsletter, a person who has argued that the notorious anti-Semitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is a genuine document. Anti-Semitic literature continues to be sold in government buildings, in stores, and at events directly and indirectly connected with the BOC. In addition, because the 2002 religion law states that religious organizations do not have priority in reclaiming property if a former worship building is now used for culture or sport, only nine of 92 historic synagogues in Belarus have been returned to the Jewish community since the country’s independence in 1991. Reportedly, in January 2006, some 30 neo-Nazis held a march in the city of Grodno and several bystanders were beaten; city police deny any knowledge of the incident.

Belarus has also been of particular interest to this blog several times recently.

Burma

…Tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim communities has resulted in outbreaks of violence over the past several years, some of it instigated by Burmese security forces against ethnic minority Muslims…In addition to violence, overt discrimination against Muslims, particularly ethnic Rohingya Muslims, is widespread and severe. The government has denied citizenship to Rohingya Muslims on the grounds that their ancestors allegedly did not reside in the country prior to British colonial rule…In Rangoon in 2001-2002, authorities closed more than 80 Protestant house churches because they did not have proper authorization to hold religious meetings…Since the 1990s, some Buddhist monks have been active in the pro-democracy movement, resulting in the imprisonment of more than 100 Buddhist monks for advocating democracy and encouraging dialogue between the government and pro-democracy forces.

China

…There are numerous credible reports…of Christian leaders having to refrain from teachings involving the second coming of Jesus, divine healing, the practice of fasting, and the virgin birth because these doctrines or practices are considered by the government to be superstitious or contrary to the Chinese Communist Party’s social policies…The Commission was informed that Uighur Muslims have not received permission to build new mosques for the past six years. The Commission was also told that all imams are required to undergo yearly political training seminars in order to retain their licenses. Commissioners learned of the existence of an “Islamic Affairs Steering Committee,” which is reported to author and approve sermons and censor religious texts and any material with religious content. The purpose of such oversight by the government is to create Muslim religious leaders who will “ardently love their country.”… In addition, Commissioners learned that monks and nuns are required to renounce the Dalai Lama as the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists.

…The Commission also asked to meet with several prominent religious figures whose detention or disappearance has raised international concern, including the Dalai Lama’s chosen Panchen Lama, Gendum Choekyi Nyima; Catholic Bishops Su Zhimin and An Shuxin; Tibetan Buddhist monk Ngawang Phuljung; Protestant “house church” leader Cai Zhuohua; and Uighur historian Tonti Tunyaz. The Commission also asked to meet with former Tibetan nun Phuntsog Nyidron, in light of reports that her freedom of movement and association remain highly restricted, despite her release from prison a year earlier.

…The campaign against “evil cults” has, in recent years, expanded beyond the Falun Gong and similar groups to those religious communities that have refused to register and become part of the system of officially-sanctioned religious organizations. This campaign has targeted leaders and members of newer, as well as long-established, Protestant and Catholic groups which, for various reasons, have not registered with the government. Religious leaders have been imprisoned and followers detained and fined for “cultist activity.”… There are at least 40 Catholic bishops or priests under arrest, imprisoned, or detained, including 74-year old Bishop Su Zhimin, who has been in prison, in detention, under house arrest, or under strict surveillance since the 1970s.

The report also discusses the case of Li v. Gonzales in the USA:

…In this case, the Fifth Circuit, deferring to arguments advanced by the DOJ, misconstrued religious freedom conditions in China, as well as international human rights law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in August 2005 in Li v. Gonzales to uphold the order to remove a Chinese man who had been arrested, beaten, fired, and charged with the “crime” of organizing an unregistered house church in China. In so holding, the Fifth Circuit ruled that Mr. Li had been subject to prosecution for failing to register his church—not persecuted on the basis of his religious beliefs. The Fifth Circuit held, deferring to arguments advanced by the DOJ and adopted earlier in the case by the BIA, that China has the “sovereign right” to regulate unregistered religions, and that China’s treatment of unregistered churches is an issue for “oral judgment—not a legal one.” Subsequently, the Commission wrote to and met with officials at the DOJ to make clear that the Chinese government’s control over registered churches—and its prosecution of individuals for engaging in “unauthorized” religious activity—are clearly in violation of international law with regard to freedom of religion or belief.

Cuba

…Religious freedom conditions have been affected in part by the ongoing government crackdown on democracy and free speech activists, resulting in a generally deteriorating situation for human rights. In the past year, a new law on religion meant to “legalize” house churches has also affected religious freedom and reinforced the government’s efforts to increase its control over religious practice.

Currently, there are approximately 50 state-recognized religious groups, primarily Christian denominations, half of which are members of the government-recognized Cuban Council of Churches. Reportedly, the government in recent years has not granted recognition to any relatively new denominations, although it has tolerated the presence of some new groups, such as the Baha’is and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though they are not officially registered. Conditions for Jehovah’s Witnesses have improved substantially since 2004; however, there were sporadic reports of harassment and discrimination by local Communist Party and government officials. For example, in 2005, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported being denied employment in a government-run factory due to her religious beliefs. Nevertheless, such reports continued to decline in number.

…Protestant house churches continued to be harassed and evangelical denominations reported evictions from houses used for worship (most of which were unauthorized and thus illegal). In March 2006, an evangelical pastor was jailed, allegedly for aiding emigrants who sought to leave the country illegally.

Egypt

…Despite a recent positive court ruling, the government has also not taken steps to provide identity cards and other important documents to members of the Egyptian Baha’i community or to combat widespread and virulent anti-Semitism in the government-controlled media.

…Article 98(f) of the Penal Code, which prohibits citizens from “ridiculing or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife,” continues to be applied to prosecute alleged acts by purportedly “unorthodox” Muslims. These include Muslims groups, such as the Koranites—a group that does not accept as authentic hadith, oral traditions of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, or Sunna, accounts of the way the Prophet Muhammad lived his life—who are accused of practicing beliefs deemed to deviate from Islamic law.

…Although Egyptian government officials claim that there is no law or policy that prevents Christians from holding senior positions, the Coptic Orthodox Christian community faces de facto discrimination in appointments to high-level government posts.

…All Baha’i institutions and community activities have been banned since 1960 by a presidential decree…Egyptian government officials have stated that the rights of Baha’is are not protected under the Constitution, since, in accordance with Islamic principles, protection applies only to adherents of the three “heavenly religions.” In a positive development, in April 2006, an Egyptian administrative court ruled that Egyptian Baha’is have the right to have their religion recognized in official documents.

Eritrea

…Jehovah’s Witnesses were the first religious group to experience official persecution…In accordance with a Presidential decree issued October 1994, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been barred from obtaining government jobs, business licenses, and government-issued identity and travel documents. Lack of Eritrean identity cards effectively denies Jehovah’s Witnesses a range of government services, including legal recognition of marriages and land purchases. Jehovah’s Witnesses who have refused to serve in the military have been imprisoned without trial, some for over a decade…government spokespersons have cited Pentecostals, along with Muslim extremists, as a threat to national security.

…Security forces acted against reformist elements in the Orthodox Church, arresting religious activists and preventing their meetings. The government of Eritrea has also reportedly moved to tighten its grip on the highest levels of the Church. In August 2005, the Church’s Synod, allegedly acting on the government’s behest, stripped the Orthodox Patriarch of much of his authority, with his administrative duties being assumed by a government-appointed layperson. In January 2006, the Synod moved to depose the Patriarch. In a letter dated January 15, 2006, the Patriarch denounced the Synod’s actions as illegal under canon law and announced the excommunication of the government-appointed administrator.

Georgia

…In the past year, President Saakashvili, the National Security Council Secretary, and the Government Ombudsman have all advocated religious freedom and spoken out in support of minority religious groups. In late 2004, Georgian officials permitted the Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower Bible and Tract Society to operate legally in the country for the first time. Under a new registration process established by parliament in April 2005, two religious communities were approved for registration as noncommercial organizations. While the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) remains the only religious group with formal legal status as a religious organization and other religious freedom issues remain unresolved in Georgia, significant improvement in religious freedom conditions led the Commission to remove Georgia from its Watch List in 2004.

…Despite improvements, some religious freedom concerns remain. Although the primary leaders of the violent attacks against members of religious minorities have been convicted, many other of the people accused of participating in this violence—including local police officials— have not been held to account by the Georgian authorities, reportedly due to fears of offending the GOC hierarchy. Moreover, Orthodox communities other than the GOC and some other minority Christian denominations periodically encounter difficulties from local officials and the GOC in building places of worship or displaying their literature in bookstores.

India

…In addition to the steps taken by the Supreme Court, the government continued its efforts to redress a number of aspects of the Hindu nationalist agenda of the previous government. After a government-appointed committee of historians was tasked in June 2004 with removing the “distortions and communally biased portions” of the new textbooks, the latter were replaced in 2005 with revised editions. In addition, the government has continued to act decisively to prevent communal violence in situations where it has erupted in the past. In July 2005, six Muslim militants attacked a religious site in Ayodhya, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where in 1992 Hindu extremists destroyed the sixteenth century Babri mosque, resulting in nationwide riots that left up to 3,000 dead, mostly Muslims. There were protests organized by the BJP in response to the July attack, but police dispersed the crowds and no violence ensued. In February 2006, a mass rally of Hindu nationalists was held in the Dangs district of Gujarat calling on members of the indigenous “tribal” people to “reconvert” to Hinduism. In the weeks leading up to the event, the Hindu groups issued a number of highly inflammatory statements, particularly against Christians, and violence against local Christian communities was feared, as has happened in the past. However, the military was sent into the area to maintain peace; riot police were reportedly posted outside churches and temples and no violence occurred. In March 2006, after bombs exploded in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi killing 20 persons, allegedly instigated by Islamist groups, authorities reportedly acted swiftly to prevent retaliation against Muslims. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed for calm, and soldiers and police were deployed at holy sites across the country.

Despite the improved situation, concerns about religious freedom in India remain. Attacks on Christian churches and individuals, largely perpetrated by individuals associated with extremist Hindu nationalist groups, continue to occur, and perpetrators are rarely held to account by the state legal apparatus.

Indonesia

…In September 2005, the Islamic Defender Front (FPI) organized protests and intimidated lawyers and judges during the trial of three Christian women who were being tried for allegedly “proselytizing” to Muslim children. Through the intimidation of government officials and the instigation of mob violence, the FPI and another group, the “Alliance for Anti-Apostates,” effectively closed at least 50 Protestant churches in West Java during 2005, a significant increase from the previous year; churches were burned or destroyed by mobs or closed by government officials after intense community pressure…Attacks on Ahmadiyah religious communities followed the issuing of a fatwa in July 2005 by the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI) condemning Ahmadiyahs as “deviants” from Islam. In addition to the Ahmadiyah fatwa, the MUI issued religious edicts banning interfaith prayer, marriage, and inheritance, as well as the notions of pluralism, liberalism, and secularism.

Iran

In recent years, hundreds of prominent Muslim activists and dissidents from among the Shi’a majority advocating political reform have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms by the Revolutionary Court, ostensibly on charges of seeking to overthrow the Islamic system in Iran; others have been arrested and detained for alleged blasphemy and criticizing the nature of the Islamic regime.

…Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the Guardian Council, has publicly attacked non-Muslims and referred to them as “sinful animals” and “corrupt.” In November 2005, after publicly criticizing Ayatollah Jannati’s remarks, the lone Zoroastrian member of the Iranian parliament was charged with the “dissemination of false information, slander and insult” by Iranian authorities, though as of this writing, the case has not gone to trial.

…As of this writing, there are more than 60 Baha’is awaiting trial on account of their religious beliefs. In December 2005, Zabihullah Mahrami, a Baha’i who had been jailed for more than 10 years on charges of apostasy, died in prison under mysterious circumstances…In the past 15 years, numerous Evangelical Christians reportedly have been killed at the hands of government authorities and more than a dozen are reported missing or “”isappeared.”…According to the State Department, despite minimal restriction on Jewish religious practice, education of Jewish children has become increasingly difficult in recent years, and distribution of Hebrew religious texts is strongly discouraged.

Iraq

…Human rights organizations have asserted that the Iraqi government has failed to establish an effective mechanism for monitoring abuses by law enforcement personnel or the armed forces, and for bringing those accused of such offenses to justice.

…Amid this growing cycle of sectarian violence, religious minorities in Iraq continued to suffer a disproportionate burden of violent attacks and other human rights abuses. Minority communities, including Christian Iraqis, are forced to fend for themselves in an atmosphere of impunity, and lack any tribal or militia structure to provide for their security.

…Reports also alleged that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) engaged in discriminatory behavior against religious minorities.

…Sabean Mandaean organizations continue to report that extremist Islamic elements are targeting individual members of the Iraqi Sabean community, solely on the basis of their religious belief.

…A 1970 law still on the books in Iraq effectively outlaws the Baha’i religion in the country and criminalizes any Baha’i activities. Despite constitutional protection of the religious freedom for all Iraqis, to date no action has been taken by the Iraqi government to repeal this law.

A footnote adds some details about this law:

Official Gazette of Iraq No. 1880, May 18, 1970. Among other things, Law 105 outlawed the approval or promotion of the Baha’i faith, as well as association with any Baha’i organization; banned the sale, distribution, printing, and possession of Baha’i literature; ordered all Baha’i institutions shut down; and seized properties and assets associated with these institutions. Anyone found in violation of the law was originally subject to a minimum ten-year imprisonment. Law No. 141 of 1979 increased the penalty to life imprisonment and, in some cases, the death penalty. Official Gazette of Iraq No. 2741, Nov. 19, 1979 and Decree No. 1447 of 1979 of the Revolutionary Council.

Laos

The Commission removed Laos from its Watch List in 2005.

…Many religious activities can be conducted only with government approval, and the decree contains a prohibition on activities that create “social division,” or “chaos,” reiterating parts of the Lao’s criminal code, including Article 66, used in the past by government officials to arrest and detain arbitrarily ethnic minority Christians. Thus, Decree 92 and several provisions of the criminal code could be used to restrict and suppress religious activities, rather than protect and promote the freedom of religion or belief. However, there are credible reports that the government is using the Decree to facilitate religious practice in some areas and to promote cooperation among religious communities.

Nigeria

As well as detailing the general strife created by the advance of Shariah in the north – which I discussed here – some information about Saudi Arabian influence is provided.

…A UN press report stated that a Sudanese man was arrested for spearheading the insurrection and that the Islamic foundation he headed, which builds new mosques in Nigeria, was funded by Saudi nationals. The man who heads the militant group reportedly fled to Saudi Arabia.

…Several observers inside and outside Nigeria have reported that financial support from Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan has been used to build mosques and Islamic religious schools in northern Nigeria. Some have suggested that the strict interpretation of Islam being preached in these mosques and religious schools is not a form of Islam that is traditional to Nigeria. Also, there are reports that an increasing number of Nigerian Islamic scholars and clerics are being trained in Saudi Arabia and have brought back with them a politico-religious ideology that explicitly promotes hatred of, and violence against, non-Muslims.

North Korea

This section kicks off with a nice quote from Kim Il Sung himself:

“…We learned later that those of religion can do away with their old habits only after they have been killed.”

However, despite perhaps the heaviest restrictions in the world, religion continues to manifest itself:

…Religious activity survives nonetheless, whether in government approved religious organizations operating a handful of places of worship in Pyongyang or in more clandestine venues. In recent years, the government has formed several “religious federations” to interface with co-religionists abroad. Three churches, two Protestant and one Catholic, were opened in Pyongyang between 1988 and 1992. Only a few interviewees were even aware of these churches, and even they believed that these churches operated as showcases for foreign visitors. However, according to South Korean religious leaders conducting exchanges with North Korea, these religious venues are open weekly and some genuine religious practice does take place among North Koreans at the churches. There are also reportedly three Buddhist temples and a Chondokyo shrine in Pyongyang. Although some of the interviewees had seen or were aware of Buddhist temples in North Korea, none had seen religious practice in these temples…

The interviews revealed the widespread re-emergence in North Korea of a remnant element of Shamanism, the ancient pan-Asiatic animistic belief system: “fortune telling,” or the belief that one’s destiny or fate is not under one’s own control (as in Juche), but lies in the stars or other natural phenomena. All the persons interviewed described fortune telling as an illegal activity. However, all said it was much too widespread for the authorities to eliminate it, and that even North Korean officials utilized the services of fortune tellers. Many interviewees associated the re-emergence of fortune telling with the onset of the famine and the severe deterioration in social conditions in the mid-1990s.

…A Russian Orthodox Church under construction since 2003 remains unfinished. Two North Koreans are reportedly receiving Orthodox theological training in Moscow. There are also reportedly three Buddhist temples and a Chondokyist shrine in Pyongyang. Government officials have claimed that Buddhist temples are cultural relics that need to be preserved. There is a department of religion at Kim Il Sung University; however, graduates and faculty are said to be involved in training security forces to identify repatriated refugees who may have become Christian adherents during their time in China.

The North Korean government reports that some 500 house churches operate in North Korea with government approval. Until recently, it was not possible to verify who attended these house services and whether they existed outside of Pyongyang. Reports, including the Commission’s study, are emerging that indicate that house church participants are largely made up of individuals whose families were Christians before the Korean War and that some do in fact operate outside of Pyongyang. It is impossible to ascertain the number of operating house churches or the extent of their activities and membership, as visiting religious leaders and scholars are repeatedly denied access to such gatherings in rural areas…According to press reports, an estimated 6,000 Christians are incarcerated in “Prison No. 15” located in the northern part of the country.

Pakistan

…In March 2006, it was reported that, in an attempt to persuade people in the regions bordering on Afghanistan not to support Islamist militants, the Pakistani military dropped leaflets claiming that those militants were fighting against Pakistan “in connivance with Jews and Hindus.”…Despite President Musharraf’s repeated calls for religious moderation and tolerance, religiously motivated violence, much of it committed against Shi’a Muslims by Sunni militants, remains chronic in Pakistan.

…Ahmadis, who number between 3 and 4 million in Pakistan, are prevented by law from engaging in the full practice of their faith. Pakistan’s constitution declares members of the Ahmadi religious community to be “non-Muslims,” despite their insistence to the contrary. Barred by law from “posing” as Muslims, Ahmadis may not call their places of worship “mosques,” worship in non-Ahmadi mosques or public prayer rooms which are otherwise open to all Muslims, perform the Muslim call to prayer, use the traditional Islamic greeting in public, publicly quote from the Quran, or display the basic affirmation of the Muslim faith. It is also illegal for Ahmadis to preach in public, to seek converts, or to produce, publish, and disseminate their religious materials. In August 2005, Pakistani authorities banned 16 Ahmadi-run publications in the Punjab province.

…Pakistan’s Hudood Ordinances, Islamic decrees introduced in 1979 and enforced alongside the country’s secular legal system, provide for harsh punishments, such as amputation and death by stoning, for violations of Islamic law. Rape victims run a high risk of being charged with adultery, for which death by stoning remains a possible sentence. In October 2003, the National Commission on the Status of Women in Pakistan issued a report on the Hudood Ordinances that stated that as many as 88 percent of women prisoners, many of them rape victims, are serving time in prison for violating these decrees, which make extramarital sex a crime and adultery a criminal offense.

Russia

The report notes the rise of anti-Semitism and persecution of groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses – subjects which have been blogged by me on several occasions. Plus:

…ROC [Russian Orthodox Church] officials sometimes use their influence with regional authorities to restrict the activities of other religious groups. There are frequent reports, particularly on the local level, that minority religious communities must secure permission from the ROC before being allowed to build, buy, or rent a house of worship and that local authorities sometimes deny registration to minority groups at the behest of local ROC officials. In July 2005, reportedly in response to pressure from officials of the local ROC, the Sverdlovsk Regional Railway canceled a three-day congress of 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, due to be held in a railway-administered stadium.

…In February 2003, the Russian Supreme Court reportedly met in secret and banned 15 Muslim groups because of their alleged ties to international terrorism. The evidence on which the Court made this decision has never been made public, but police, prosecutors, and courts reportedly have used the decision to arrest and imprison individuals from among Russia’s estimated 20 million Muslims.

…Casual anti-Semitic statements are reportedly so numerous in society that law enforcement bodies do not pay attention to them. While official investigations into anti-Semitic activity by individuals have increased, official efforts to combat chauvinist and anti-Semitic groups decreased in 2005…There continue to be official efforts to portray “foreign sects,” mostly Evangelical Protestants, as alien to Russian culture and society. Officials do little to counter libelous media attacks or discrimination.

Saudi Arabia

All that you would expect to read about is included. One particular detail caught my eye, though:

…Spurious charges of “sorcery” and “witchcraft” continue to be used by the Saudi authorities against non-conforming Muslims. Several individuals remain in prison on these charges.

Sri Lanka

…In the past two years, the Commission turned its attention to Sri Lanka in the face of two primary concerns: an increasing number of attacks targeting members of religious minorities and churches; and proposed legislation on religious conversion that, if enacted, would have violated international law norms and resulted in mandated abuses of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief in Sri Lanka…There have been an increasing number of violent attacks on churches, ministers, and other Christian individuals in the past few years reportedly carried out by members of, or persons affiliated with, extremist groups espousing Buddhist nationalism.

…In September 2005, the JHU [Jathika Hela Urumaya] put forward a proposed amendment to the constitution that would make Buddhism the official religion of Sri Lanka…Article 9.4 required that the inhabitants of Sri Lanka “professing Buddhism are bound to bring up their children in the same”; Article 9.5 stated that it is prohibited to convert “a Buddhist into other forms of worship or to spread other forms of worship among the Buddhists.” Both of these proposed articles, if enacted, would be in clear violation of international standards with regard to freedom of religion or belief. The proposed amendment was later found by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court to be “inconsistent” with the national constitution.

Sudan

As expected, the horrors of Darfur and other sources of strife are enumerated; the effect of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) is also considered:

…In the South, the Nuba Mountains, and other transitional areas formerly contested by government and Southern rebel forces, religious freedom conditions have significantly improved since the signing of the CPA.

Plus there’s mention of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a particularly unpleasant outfit:

…Suspicions remain, however, that at least some elements in the Sudanese military or security services that remain in the South continue to aid the LRA.

I discussed this particular accusation here.

Turkmenistan

As ever, the megalomania of the Turkmenbashi verges on black comedy, were the effects not so horrible. In particular, the Turkmenbashi wants all his citizens reading his book, the Rukhnama:

…A July 2002 law enjoins parents and guardians “to bring [children] up in spirit of …the unshakeable spiritual values embodied in the holy Rukhnama.” Credible reports indicate that mullahs in Turkmenistan were told in late 2005 to stop reading the Quran in mosques and restrict themselves to the Rukhnama. In March 2006, Niyazov announced on Turkmen state television that anyone reading Rukhnama three times “would be assured a place in heaven.” According to reports, the study of the Rukhnama has even replaced some subjects in the school curricula. The president’s books must be displayed in mosques and churches alongside the Quran and the Bible. Rukhnama quotations have also been carved alongside Quran citations in the country’s largest mosque. Turkmenistan’s former chief mufti, Nazrullah ibn Ibadullah, who opposed this requirement, was sentenced in a closed trial in March 2004 to 22 years in prison, reportedly for treason due to his alleged link to the alleged assassination attempt. The former chief mufti remains in prison, where, reports indicate, he is maltreated by prison guards. During a December 2005 police raid of a registered Baptist church in the town of Deynau, ethnic Turkmen congregants were released from detention only after they signed a statement promising to read the Rukhnama rather than the New Testament…No religious literature is printed in Turkmenistan and the import of religious materials is essentially impossible.

Uzbekistan

Despite the constitutional separation of religion and state, the Uzbek government strictly regulates Islamic institutions and practice through the officially sanctioned Muslim Spiritual Board. The Uzbek government has also closed down approximately 3,000 of the 5,000 mosques that were open in 1998…”Wahhabi” is a term that generally is used to refer to followers of a highly restrictive interpretation of Sunni Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. In Uzbekistan, “Wahhabi” is a catchphrase used to refer to genuine extremists, Muslim individuals and groups that oppose the Karimov regime, and those who wish to practice Islam independently of government strictures.

…As with Muslims, members of Protestant and other minority religious groups have been arrested, sometimes on spurious drug or other charges. Several Christian leaders have reportedly been detained in psychiatric hospitals, severely beaten, and/or sentenced to labor camps and continue to have their churches raided, services interrupted, Bibles confiscated, and the names of adherents recorded by Uzbek officials.

Vietnam

In the past two years, the Vietnamese government has released a number of prominent religious prisoners, re-opened some churches in the Central Highlands, officially outlawed forced renunciations of faith, and issued new guidelines to help speed the process of registration of religious congregations. Reports of forced renunciation of faith continue to emerge, particularly among ethnic minority Protestants and monks and nuns associated with UBCV, though there are fewer than in the past.

In February 2005, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai issued “Instructions on Protestantism,” which purport to allow Protestant “house churches” in the Central Highlands and northwest provinces to operate legally if they renounce connections to groups that Hanoi has accused of organizing anti-government protests.

***** 

The report also includes recommendations for each country, and for appropriate action by the USA. There are also some criticisms of some US procedures and policies:

…As the Commission reported last year, the study found that expedited removal, a process implemented in 1997 to “expeditiously remove” certain improperly documented aliens without a hearing, was intended by Congress to protect the integrity of our borders while also protecting bona fide asylum seekers. The study, however, identified serious implementing flaws that place legitimate asylum seekers at risk of being returned to countries where they may face persecution.

…Since the release of its 2005 Annual Report, the Commission has called upon the Department of State to facilitate access for certain specific groups, including Afghan Hindus under threat of imminent deportation from Germany, ChaldoAssyrian Christians, Mandaeans, Yazidis and other religious minorities who fled targeted violence in Iraq, and Sudanese Christians who, due to the severity of past persecution or special vulnerabilities, will be unlikely candidates for voluntary repatriation. The Department of State has not yet acted on or responded to these recommendations, and the Commission renews its call that access to the U.S. Refugee Program be facilitated for members of these groups. Other groups that may warrant consideration include Jehovah’s Witnesses from Eritrea who have fled to Sudan, as well as ethnic and religious minorities from Burma—such as Chin and Karen Christians and Rohingya Muslims—who have no realistic hope of imminent integration into countries of first asylum or safe and voluntary repatriation to Burma.

…a legislative development in the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act (as amended in 2005 by the REAL ID Act) has inadvertently become a barrier for refugees and asylum seekers who have fled religious persecution at the hands of terrorists and terrorist regimes. Essentially, an alien is now held inadmissible if he or she provides any in-kind or monetary assistance (i.e., “material support”) to any group that advocates, conspires to commit, or commits an illegal act of violence, even if such support is provided under duress, or is directed toward a group supported by the U.S. government.

…Although section 604 of IRFA [the International Religious Freedom Act] holds any alien inadmissible who, as a foreign government official, was “responsible for or directly carried out…particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” the Commission has not seen any evidence that the Departments of State and Homeland Security have developed a lookout list of aliens who are inadmissible on this basis. This lifetime bar on admissions has only been invoked once to render an alien inadmissible. In March 2005, it was used to exclude Governor Nahendra Modi of Gujarat state in India for his complicity in the reportedly pre-planned riots in 2002 that resulted in the deaths of nearly 2,000 Muslims. The Commission had issued a statement urging such an action.