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« Reply #390 on: January 19, 2009, 03:59:13 PM »

Pakistan to Abolish Blasphemy Laws
Dan Wooding and Sheraz Khurram Khan


January 19, 2009

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (ANS) -- The Federal Minister for Minorities, Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, has said that Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws 'will be abolished.'

Talking to ANS by phone the minister said he was struggling to ensure religious freedom, human dignity and social justice in Pakistani society.

"Religious minorities have been neglected, victimized and oppressed in Pakistan," he said. "They have faced constitutional and institutionalized discrimination and inequality but our government is committed to address the long-standing issues of minorities. We are making all-out efforts to uplift and empower minorities.

Shahbaz Bhatti maintained that minorities have played a crucial role in Pakistan's growth and nation building.

"Pakistan would not have risen on the map of the world without the crucial contribution of minorities," he stated.

He recalled that minorities had cast their decisive vote in partition of the province of Punjab.

The Minister said he had come to parliament to advocate the case of the oppressed and the down-trodden people. He said he would never hesitate from giving any sacrifice for his people.

On Wednesday, January 14, a group of Christian lawyers from different parts of Pakistan held a meeting in Islamabad to discuss the issues being faced by religious minorities of Pakistan. The lawyers discussed minorities-related problems at length. The meeting also discussed steps taken by the Pakistan Peoples Party government for the betterment of religious minorities of Pakistan. After the meeting, they then visited the Federal Minister for Minorities, Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, at his office.

"We, Christian lawyers, appreciate President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani for taking concrete steps such as the allocation of a five percent job quota for minorities, the declaration of August 11 as Minority Day, minorities representation in Senate, increase in minorities reserved seats in provincial and national assemblies, declaration of official celebration of religious festivals of minorities and review of all discriminatory laws facing minorities," said a resolution which was passed unanimously by the lawyers.

The lawyers said they appreciated induction of Mr. Bhatti as Federal Minister for Minorities' Affairs and put their full confidence in his leadership.

"We appreciate his long struggle to uplift and empower religious minorities. We also assure the present government that we will remain with the government through thick and thin under the leadership of Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti for the equal rights of religious minorities of Pakistan," the resolution added.

It also said, "We extend our full support to the present democratic government which is committed to fulfill the vision of founding father Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. We pledge to continue our efforts for supremacy of constitution, sovereignty of parliament and establishment of enlightened and moderate society which is free from every type of discrimination and inequality."

Those who attended the meeting included Advocate Azra Shujaat, Jamshaid Rehmatullah, Aamir Jacob Randhawa, Eric Alam Sandhu, Sadqain Gardner, Rai Zafar Naveed Bhatti, Sohail Shahzad Advocate, Javed Masih, Qaisar Haroon Gill advocate, Ruth Bashir Advocate, Shazia Gulzar Advocate and Haroon Suleman Khokhar.
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« Reply #391 on: January 19, 2009, 04:01:12 PM »

Religion Today Summaries - Jan. 19, 2009
Compiled & Edited by Crosswalk Editorial Staff

Daily briefs of the top news stories impacting Christians around the world.

In today's edition:

    * Kazakhstan Delays Implementation of New Religion Law
    * Judge Rejects Atheist Challenge to Inaugural Prayer
    * Christian Girls in Pakistan Rescued from Sex Slavery
    * Churches Mark 25th Sanctity of Human Life Day

Kazakhstan Delays Implementation of New Religion Law

Mission News Network reports that Kazakhstan's president has not signed a restrictive religion bill yet, delaying its impact to Christians. According to Joel Griffith with Slavic Gospel Association, the president referred the bill to the country's Constitutional Council for review. "Kazakhstan is supposed to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010. And, of course, any member of the organization is supposed to adhere to basic human rights standards. Some think perhaps that might be possibly why he referred this to the constitutional court," Griffith said. The bill is similar to a new Kyrgyzstan law, as it restricts proselytizing and requires both parents' permission for a child to attend any religious event.

Judge Rejects Atheist Challenge to Inaugural Prayer

Religion News Service reports that a U.S. District judge on Thursday (Jan. 15) denied a California atheist's request to halt references to God at President-elect Obama's swearing-in on Jan. 20. "I think it's highly questionable that I have such authority," said Judge Reggie B. Walton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after a two-hour hearing Thursday afternoon (Jan. 15). Walton did not dismiss the case, but denied Michael Newdow's request for a preliminary injunction, saying the "ceremonial speech" at the presidential inauguration is "in substance" no different from legislative prayers that the Supreme Court has permitted. Newdow, an emergency room physician, made his third attempt to have religious references at presidential inaugurations declared unconstitutional.

Christian Girls in Pakistan Rescued from Sex Slavery

Baptist Press reports that two Christian girls in Pakistan have been rescued after more than a month of captivity as sex slaves to Muslim lawyers in Karachi. According to International Christian Concern, a human rights organization, Parvisha Alam, 18, and her 14-year-old sister Sanam of Gujranwala, Pakistan, were abducted Nov. 12 by a neighbor, Mohammed Irfan, who offered them training in cosmetology and jobs in his beauty salon. When the girls arrived he drugged them. Over the next month, the girls were raped repeatedly by Irfan and then Muslim lawyers. They were released after Sanam gained access to a cell phone and called police. The U.S. State Department estimates that about 500,000 young women worldwide are sold into sex slavery each year.

Churches Mark 25th Sanctity of Human Life Day

Churches across the nation observed the National Sanctity of Human Life Day Sunday with speakers, marches and other pro-life events, the Christian Post reports. The day came just two days before the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, who has promised to sign the Freedom of Choice Act early in his term. President Bush marked the 25th anniversary of National Sanctity of Human Life Day as a special holiday to recognize "each person, including every person waiting to be born, has a special place and purpose in this world." He continued, "We also underscore our dedication to heeding this message of conscience by speaking up for the weak and voiceless among us."
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« Reply #392 on: January 22, 2009, 03:45:58 AM »

Both Sides Claim Victory as Israel Leaves Gaza
Jeremy Reynalds


January 20, 2009

GAZA STRIP (ANS) -- Israel and Hamas are both claiming victory in the 22-day conflict in the Gaza Strip that left more than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

According to a story by Jonathan Ferziger and Daniel Williams and published on Bloomberg News, Israeli officials said they had succeeded in their main objective of limiting Hamas's ability to fire rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. Hamas announced that sheer survival constituted success after the onslaught by sea, land and air by Israeli forces.

Bloomberg said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed Israelis on television hours before yesterday's unilateral cease-fire, saying the army's goals "were more than fully achieved."

In Gaza City, mosque loudspeakers along Omar Mukhtar Street broadcast the news of a "gorgeous and great victory" by Hamas that forced Israel to "stop its crimes."

Bloomberg commented that both sides will now seek to demonstrate that the battle was worth fighting. At stake for Israel is the ability to deter further attacks by Hamas and other enemies, such as Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia. Hamas needs to show it still has the muscle to rule Gaza and begin reconstruction.

Bloomberg reported that the Israeli assault killed hundreds of Hamas militants, including some of the group's top leaders, and reduced Hamas security facilities and government buildings to rubble. The number of rockets fired by Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union, fell to 20 a day at the end of the campaign from 70 at the beginning, according to the Israeli army.

Exorbitant Price

"We had to dispel the myth that there's no way to stop a terrorist organization from firing rockets at our civilian population," said Dan Schueftan, deputy director of the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University.

Bloomberg said he added, "What we accomplished was to levy such an exorbitant price that those rockets weren't cost-effective anymore."

Bloomberg said the conflict may also influence the outcome of the Feb. 10 Israeli election, in which former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party are running to succeed Olmert, who bowed out to defend himself against corruption charges. Netanyahu argued Israel should have gone further to crush Hamas.

"Every one of the candidates is going to be judged on the outcome of the war, but it's early and the perceptions are still being formed," Bloomberg reported Schueftan said. "Right now it looks good for Barak and Livni, but Netanyahu may benefit if it turns out that the results of the war are not so great."

Bloomberg reported that many of the rockets fired at Israel had been smuggled from Egypt into Gaza through tunnels under the border. Israel got a commitment from the U.S. and European states to help prevent arms smuggling into Gaza.

Strong Success

That commitment, along with low Israeli casualties and the blow sustained by Hamas, point to "a pretty strong Israeli success," Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University, said in a telephone interview.

Bloomberg said Steinberg contrasted the Gaza fighting with Israel's 33-day assault on Hezbollah in 2006, which failed to stop the firing of rockets by the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia into the north of Israel. A government-appointed commission criticized political leaders for mismanaging the war and "found serious failings and flaws in the quality of preparedness, decision-making and performance" by top commanders.

In Gaza, Israel "showed it absorbed the lessons of the war, and even when it made some of the same errors -- the friendly fire incidents, reported incidents in which civilians were killed -- the army didn't blink this time, and that was the difference," Bloomberg reported Steinberg said.

Public Support

In a poll commissioned by the Ma'ariv newspaper, 93 percent of Israel's Jewish population expressed approval of the assault on Gaza. The telephone survey of 800 adults was conducted by the Teleseker organization and published Jan. 16. The margin of error wasn't given.

Hamas can also claim victory because its refusal to surrender strengthened its standing among Palestinians in Gaza, said Yoram Meital, chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba.

"I'm not sure the massive use of force taught Hamas or anyone else in the region the lesson that Israeli decision makers wanted it to do," Bloomberg reported Meital said. "Rather than weakening Hamas, the fighting made it a more legitimate body because it spoke for the Palestinians and faced down Israel."

Low-Level Fighting

Low-level fighting, including occasional rocket attacks, will continue as long as Israeli troops occupy the Gaza Strip, Palestinian observers say. Once the Israel army leaves, Hamas will probably turn to reconstruction to show the Gaza public it is in charge.

"For Hamas, it's important to be visible and demonstrate it can cope with the damage," said Omar Ismail, director of Pal-Think Institute for Strategic Studies, a Gaza-based research group.

Bloomberg reported Ismail said that Hamas is operating in the shadow of Hezbollah, which quickly dispatched teams to assess damage, hand out money to repair homes and rebuild its militia after the 2006 war.

"Hamas has a difficult act to follow," Ismail told Bloomberg in a telephone interview. "Gaza is still closed to the outside world, Hamas doesn't have the money Hezbollah has and, frankly, it's not as efficient as Hezbollah."

Bloomberg said that at the root of Hamas's political concern is its rivalry with the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who favors peace talks with Israel. Hamas expelled forces loyal to Abbas from Gaza in a 2007 power struggle, leaving Abbas in control of the West Bank.

"Abbas showed no urgency in trying to get Israel to stop attacking Gaza," said Khaled Amayreh, a political analyst and commentator in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Bloomberg reported he said, "I can't see how they can kiss and make up."
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« Reply #393 on: January 22, 2009, 03:47:33 AM »

Congo: Rebel Army Torches Crowded Church
Michael Ireland


January 21, 2009

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO (ANS) -- Uganda's rebel Lord's Resistance Army has reportedly torched a church crowded with worshippers holding a prayer vigil in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The BBC said the reported attack was the group's latest on villages in the north-east DR Congo. It is not clear how many died.

According to the BBC, Human Rights Watch says the LRA has killed at least 620 Congolese civilians and abducted more than 160 children since Christmas Eve.

Uganda, DR Congo and South Sudan last month launched an offensive on the LRA, and the Central African Republic has sent troops to its border with DR Congo in an effort to push back the rebels, the BBC said.

The BBC report says local residents said the LRA carried out the church attack on Saturday in a community just 130km (80 miles) from Dungu, which is the military base of Operation Lightning Thunder -- the joint multi-national offensive on the rebels.

Felicien Balani, an official in Dungu, told Uganda's New Vision newspaper: "The LRA entered around midnight. They surprised the faithful of the church who were in a prayer vigil. They burned them in the church."

The BBC says New York-based Human Rights Watch said it had unearthed evidence of a wave of killings by the LRA between December 24 and January 13 in DR Congo.

The human rights organization said in a statement: "At several sites where the killings took place, researchers found fresh graves, pools of dried blood, cords used to tie up prisoners and blood-stained bats and axes used to kill victims."

Last week the UN refugee agency UNHCR said the Congolese village of Duru was deserted after the rebels had attacked, looting, killing and burning, according to the BBC report.

The BBC says it has also received accounts of killings from the South Sudanese district of Mundri.

Two church parishioners who intervened after the rebels had abducted two boys had their hands and legs chopped off and were then beaten to death, said witnesses who spoke with the BBC.

The BBC explains that LRA leader Joseph Kony refused to sign a peace deal last year until International Criminal Court arrest warrants are withdrawn, and more than 100,000 people have fled suspected LRA rebels marauding across hundreds of kilometers stretching from the Central African Republic through Sudan and into DR Congo.

The BBC also said the LRA has been fighting in northern Uganda for two decades, but is now based in DR Congo, most recently in the Garamba National Park.
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« Reply #394 on: January 22, 2009, 03:50:10 AM »

Religion Today Summaries - Jan. 20, 2009
Compiled & Edited by Crosswalk Editorial Staff

Daily briefs of the top news stories impacting Christians around the world.

In today's edition:

    * 7 States Sue Over Rule on Health Workers
    * China: Dying Christian Not Allowed to See Imprisoned Wife
    * Rescued Pakistani Girls Face Social Rejection
    * Evangelicals, Progressives Announce Common Agenda

7 States Sue Over Rule on Health Workers

The Christian Post reports that seven states are suing the federal government, hoping to avoid cooperation with federal "conscience clause" issued last month by the Health and Human Services Department. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal filed on behalf of the states. According to Blumenthal, the regulations "are flawed and defective" and would "unconstitutionally and unconscionably interfere with women's health care rights." The Bush administration, which pushed the rule, says it backs previous federal regulations, and is meant to ensure that "federal funds don't flow to providers who violate those laws," according to the Post. "Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience," HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said last month when the rule was issued.

China: Dying Christian Not Allowed to See Imprisoned Wife

ASSIST News Service reports that Chinese prison officials have refused to let an elderly Christian man say goodbye to his imprisoned wife. Shuang Shuying, 79, was sentenced to two years in prison for "intentional damage of properties" in February 2007 while her son, Pastor Hua Huiqi, was in prison. She was walking to the Public Security Bureau (PSB) office to inquire about her son when a PSB car suddenly drove towards her. She held her cane protectively in front of herself, accidentally striking the vehicle. Her husband, Hua Zaichen, is 91. The couple had been targeted for years because of their work with the poor and kindness to other persecuted Christians.

Rescued Pakistani Girls Face Social Rejection

Compass Direct News reports that the ordeal of two teenage Christian sisters in Pakistan is over after Muslims allegedly abducted and raped them and forced them to convert to Islam, but they fear a future of societal rejection. Parvisha Masih, 18, and Sanam Masih, 14, said three Muslim men kidnapped them last November, raping them several times during two weeks of captivity. "We are happy to return to the family, but we are feeling ashamed because there is no respect for us in society now," Parvisha Masih said. "We don't want to go back to school and have to face our friends." They face a long legal battle that will inevitably bring them into contact with their captors -- who have already assaulted their family in court. "We feel very afraid, and we are still receiving threats," Parvisha Masih told Compass.

Evangelicals, Progressives Announce Common Agenda

Religion News Service reports that an evangelical-progressive coalition has developed an agenda aimed at moving beyond past divisions on hot-button social issues to seek policy changes on abortion, torture and other issues. After two years of discussion, they have concluded that their "Come Let Us Reason Together" agenda will include reducing abortion, protecting employment rights of gays and lesbians, renouncing torture and immigration reform. "Though I focus on the ideal for marriage as between one man and one woman, ... I also believe that each American citizen has the right to earn a living without discrimination," said Florida megachurch pastor Joel Hunter. Evangelical leaders who do not condone gay marriage said they could nonetheless support greater workplace protections for gays and lesbians, provided there is an exemption for faith-based employers.
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« Reply #395 on: January 22, 2009, 03:52:28 AM »

Religion Today Summaries - Jan. 21, 2009
Compiled & Edited by Crosswalk Editorial Staff

Daily briefs of the top news stories impacting Christians around the world.

In today's edition:

    * 'Widow's Might' Wins $101K Prize at Christian Film Fest
    * China to Restore Historic Churches and Mosques
    * Coral Ridge Taps Graham's Grandson to Be Senior Pastor
    * Lawyers in Turkey Move to Expand Scope of Malatya Trial

'Widow's Might' Wins $101K Prize at Christian Film Fest

The 2009 San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival just keeps getting bigger. This year's festival welcomed more than 2,400 attendees, a record 250 entries, and giant first prize: $101,000 to go with the "Best of Festival" award. This Jubilee award is the largest single cash prize in America to a single filmmaker, signaling the Festival's intentions to propagate future Christian films. The winning film "The Widow's Might," the story of a community coming to the rescue of a widow about to lose her home, was written and directed by 19-year-old John Moore. The Christian marriage film "Fireproof," which made the highest grossing independent film in 2008, won the "Best Feature Film" category. "Our goal with the Jubilee Awards is to reward the work of Christian filmmakers who have artfully communicated a Christian worldview through their film production," explained Doug Phillips, founder of the SAICFF.

China to Restore Historic Churches and Mosques

ASSIST News Service reports that the Chinese government plans to rebuild or restore 12 historic churches, mosques and temples in the capital, Beijing. The announcement was made on Monday by Yang Xiaodong, a Beijing Religion Bureau official. According to news sources, the move is aimed at giving Christians -- Catholics and Protestants both -- Muslims, Buddhists and Daoists better access to places of worship. The news was confirmed by Fang Hailong, project manager of Beijing Fourth Construction and Engineering Company, which has won the bid for one of the reconstruction projects. The foundation for that project, on which the Beijing municipal government will spend 12 million yuan ($1.75 million), was laid in Changxindian in southwest Beijing recently, according to Yang.

Coral Ridge Taps Graham Grandson to Be Senior Pastor

Christian Post reports that two legacies may come together as Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church picks its next senior pastor. The nominating committee for the Florida megachurch has announced its decision to invite the Rev. Billy Graham's grandson, Tullian Tchividjian, to fill the vacancy left by the late Dr. D. James Kennedy. Tchividjian currently serves as senior pastor of the nearby New City Church, which he founded. "Because of Pastor Tullian's unwavering commitment to remain as Pastor here at New City, both churches have agreed to consider a merger," announced New City in an official statement. Although such a merger would require a massive restructuring for both churches, Coral Ridge committee members expressed confidence that it would be done.

Lawyers in Turkey Move to Expand Scope of Malatya Trial

Compass Direct News reports that lawyers in the case of three Christians who were murdered for their faith here are lining up witnesses in an effort to expand the accused from five young suspects to subversive forces at the top of state power. Evidence in recent hearings suggests the April 2007 murders in southeast Turkey were instigated by Ergenekon, a loose collection of ultra-nationalist generals, businessmen, mafia and journalists who planned to engineer a coup d'état in Turkey. At a hearing at Malatya's Third Criminal Court on Friday (Jan. 16), plaintiff attorneys said they would like to call as a witness Ergun Poyraz, a journalist arrested in 2007 who has been linked to Ergenekon. Prosecuting attorneys said they believe that Poyraz was not directly involved in planning the murders but has important knowledge of the players within Ergenekon. They hope his testimony will help sort out the tangled web of connections and determine the role of Malatya security forces in the attack.
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« Reply #396 on: January 22, 2009, 03:29:44 PM »

Christian Deaths Mount in Eritrean Prisons
Special to Compass Direct News


Janaury 22, 2009

LOS ANGELES (Compass Direct News) -- Three Christians incarcerated in military prisons for their faith have died in the past four months in Eritrea, including the death on Friday (Jan. 16) of a 42-year-old man in solitary confinement, according to a Christian support organization.

Sources told Open Doors that Mehari Gebreneguse Asgedom died at the Mitire Military Confinement center from torture and complications from diabetes. Asgedom was a member of the Church of the Living God in Mendefera.

His death followed the revelation this month of another death in the same prison. Mogos Hagos Kiflom, 37, was said to have died as a result of torture he endured for refusing to recant his faith, according to Open Doors, but the exact date of his death was unknown. A member of Rhema Church, Kiflom is survived by his wife, child and mother.

Incarcerated Christians from throughout Eritrea have been transferred to the Mitire prison in the country's northeast. In 2002 the Eritrean regime outlawed religious activity except that of the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim religions.

In October Open Doors learned of the death of Teklesenbet Gebreab Kiflom, 36, who died while imprisoned for his faith at the Wi'a Military Confinement center. He was reported to have died after prison commanders refused to give him medical attention for malaria.

In June 2008, 37-year-old Azib Simon died from untreated malaria as well. Weakened by torture, sources told Compass, Simon contracted malaria only a week before she died.

Together with the deaths this month, the confirmed number of Christians who have died while imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea now totals eight.

Mass Arrests

At the same time, the government of President Isaias Afwerki has stepped up its campaign against churches it has outlawed, earning it a spot on the U.S. Department of State's list of worst violators of religious freedom.

The government arrested 15 members of the Kale-Hiwot Church in Keren on Jan. 11, and before Christmas at least 49 leaders of unregistered churches in Asmara were rounded up over two weeks, Open Doors reported. Last November, 34 members of the Kale-Hiwot Church in Dekemhare were arrested.

Those arrested included members of the Church of the Living God, Medhaniel Alem Revival Group and the Philadelphia, Kale-Hiwot, Rhema, Full Gospel and Salvation by Christ churches, according to Open Doors. The church leaders' names appeared on a government list of 180 people who were taken from their homes and work places.

In the November sweep, authorities arrested 65 members of the Kale-Hiwot Church in the towns of Barentu and Dekemhare, including 17 women. In Keren and Mendefera, 25 members of the Full Gospel Church were arrested, and 20 Christians belonging to the Church of the Living God in Mendefera and Adi-Kuala were arrested.

Church leaders in Eritrea told Open Doors that by mid-December, a total of 2,891 Christians, including 101 women, had been incarcerated for their faith.

On June 8, 2008 Compass learned that eight Christians held at the Adi-Quala prison were taken to medical emergency facilities as a result of torture by military personnel at the camp. Eritrean officials have routinely denied religious oppression exists in the country, saying the government is only enforcing laws against unregistered churches.

The government has denied all efforts by independent Protestant churches to register, and people caught worshipping outside the four recognized religious institutions, even in private homes, suffer arrest, torture and severe pressure to deny their faith. The Eritrean Orthodox Church and its flourishing renewal movement has also been subject to government raids.
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« Reply #397 on: January 22, 2009, 03:32:18 PM »

Religion Today Summaries - Jan. 22, 2009
Compiled & Edited by Crosswalk Editorial Staff

Daily briefs of the top news stories impacting Christians around the world.

In today's edition:

    * Sri Lanka Seeks to Strangle Non-Buddhist Religions
    * Israeli Forces Pull Out of Gaza; Aid Moves In
    * Pro-Lifers "March for Life" in D.C.
    * Poll: Religion Overtakes Race as Britain's Most Divisive Issue

Sri Lanka Seeks to Strangle Non-Buddhist Religions

International Christian Concern (ICC), a Washington-D.C. based human rights group, reports that Buddhist monks have once again introduced an anti-conversion bill in Sri Lanka. The Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage Party), which is led by Buddhist monks, introduced the bill under the title "Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Bill" on January 6. The bill was first introduced in the Sri Lankan parliament in 2004, and was subsequently challenged in the Sri Lankan Supreme Court. The bill had remained in committee after being revised in accord with the Court's ruling, but should be debated in parliament next month. Though proponents claim the bill would only restrict "fundamentalist" groups from using monetary rewards or coercive methods to convert people, the language is so broad that it would criminalize any form of humanitarian assistance from religious groups.

Israeli Forces Pull Out of Gaza; Aid Moves In

Associated Press reports that the tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Hamas seems to be holding, as the last of Israel's troops left the Gaza strip early Wednesday. Israeli officials said that they have achieved their objective, and that Hamas was severely crippled in its ability to harm Israeli citizens. The attacks in the Gaza Strip killed some 1,300 Palestinians, with health officials claiming that at least half are civilians, victims of Hamas' use of human shields. Meanwhile, as the troops pulled out, aid workers rolled in, according to the Christian Post. "Most of the Gaza strip is like a large refugee camp. It was like that months ago, but it's gotten worse," said an unnamed worker with the ministry Partners International, to Mission Network News. "To try to keep missiles and arms out of Gaza, Israel has secured the borders in a much harsher way. They've also eliminated smuggling to keep weapons out, but that also keeps out basic food stuffs."

Pro-Lifers "March for Life" in D.C.

Now that the inauguration is over, pro-lifers are starting their uphill legal battle with strength of numbers, the Christian Post reports. January 22 marks the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the court decision that effectively legalized abortion, and pro-lifers are remembering the day with the national March for Life in Washington, D.C. Last year's event drew tens of thousands of people to D.C. for the march down Constitution Avenue. "While millions are celebrating the Inauguration of President Obama, it is critical to be a voice and witness for those who have no voice," said the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition. "That is the 53,000,000 innocent children that have been lost through abortion." According to March for Life organizers, President Obama has been invited to speak at the rally on the National Mall, but has not acknowledged the invitation. His predecessor, George W. Bush, participated in the rally by phone.

Poll: Religion Overtakes Race as Britain's Most Divisive Issue

Religion News Service reports that a government-sponsored opinion poll in Britain has found that religion has displaced race as the most divisive issue facing the nation. The survey, conducted by the respected Ipsos MORI research organization for the government's Equalities and Human Rights Commission, says 60 percent of respondents believe religious intolerance has become a bigger headache than racial tensions among Britons. That figure climbs to 66 percent among Muslims who took part in the poll. Ten years ago, government policymakers had ticketed improving race relations as the No. 1 demand on their social agenda. But then came the war in Iraq and the July 2005 suicide bombings by Islamic radicals that killed 52 commuters on London's rail and bus network. Those events served to shift priorities in the eyes of the public.
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« Reply #398 on: January 25, 2009, 03:46:37 AM »

35th March for Life Marks New Challenges, New Hopes
Katherine Britton

January 22, 2009

Tens of thousands marched down Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. today, marking the 36th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision with another peaceful protest.

The annual March for Life drew an estimated 200,000 pro-lifers to D.C. last year, according to the event's organizers. Their numbers have grown every year since 1974, when the first March for Life organizers determined not to let the anniversary of legalized abortion be forgotten.

An estimated 50 million -- 50,000,000 -- babies have been aborted since the infamous Supreme Court decision in 1973.

This year brought a more somber context to the March than in past years, as pro-life groups lost their ally in the White House on Tuesday. Former President Bush used to phone-in to the rallies held before the march, offering words of encouragement and support.

The political winds have changed with the inauguration of President Barack Obama, who was invited to speak at the rally but did not accept by phone or otherwise.

In contrast to his predecessor, the new president has promised to back the sweeping Freedom of Choice Act, which "would nullify every pro-life law from parental notification laws to bans on federal funding of abortion," said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, according to the Christian Post.

FOCA would also override pro-life gains from the Bush administration, such as the Born Alive Act, which protects infants who survive an abortion, and the partial-birth abortion ban.

But despite losses at the polls in 2008, where pro-life measures failed in every state in which they were proposed, pro-lifers have reason to be encouraged.

The number of pregnancy resource centers has continued to rise in recent years, helping women to seek pro-life alternatives to abortion. Networks such as Care Net and Crisis Pregnancy Center continue to grow.

Heartbeat International, one of the nation's oldest groups, has started and supported almost 1,100 centers, maternity homes and adoption agencies throughout the United States and other countries, 410 of which have ultrasound equipment to let women see their unborn children. Heartbeat estimates that these kinds of centers save an estimated 2,000 babies each week.

"Members of Congress need to hear from the women we serve. I am grateful they have such positive things to say about pregnancy center help," said Heartbeat President Peggy Hartshorn on the association's Web site.

"Children are America's greatest natural resource, and our elected officials need to preserve the bond between mother and child," she said. "Our families and the future of our country are strengthened by the life-saving work of pregnancy centers." Noonan plans to introduce congressional members to women who decided against abortion because of Heartbeat this week through Heartbeat's "Babies Go to Congress" event. The women will also introduce their children as a testimony to the help that can be found at pregnancy centers.

The combined legislative efforts and personal interaction with women facing tough choices has helped kick the rate of abortions to its lowest level since 1973, when Roe v. Wade effectively legalized abortion and overrode most state laws against it. Still, the numbers are staggering -- an estimated 1.2 million women aborted a child in 2005, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

"I do not believe the pro-life movement has failed overall, in the sense that what we have been doing is wrong, or that what we have been aiming for is hopeless," said Maria McFadden Maffucci, editor of the Human Life Review, said in a statement.

Nonetheless, as those thousands united for life marched down the streets of D.C., it seems like a new era has begun in the pro-life movement. This effort includes congressional members, but also enthusiastic college students, pregnancy center volunteers, and post-abortive women willing to share their regret. With the political tide against them, this 200,000 member crowd is finding new ways to communicate their message, through high-profile videos put out by CatholicVote.org and continued interpersonal ministry.
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« Reply #399 on: January 25, 2009, 03:51:56 AM »

Religion Today Summaries - Jan. 23, 2009
Compiled & Edited by Crosswalk Editorial Staff

Daily briefs of the top news stories impacting Christians around the world.

In today's edition:

    * Rwandan Bishop Honored with Wilberforce Award
    * Kids Alive Reaches Out to Orphans in Southern Sudan
    * Pope Congratulates Obama on Inauguration
    * Ancient Monastery in Turkey Threatened

Rwandan Bishop Honored with Wilberforce Award

The Christian Post reports that Prison Fellowship Ministries on Saturday recognized a Rwandan bishop's mission of reconciliation. "Bishop John believes that if the Rwandan situation can be amended by repentance and forgiveness, and the people there can be reconciled to live together again, forgiveness can happen anywhere," said Prison Fellowship and BreakPoint President Mark Earley, whose ministry honored Rucyahana with the 2009 Wilberforce award. Rucyahana's program helps victims and perpetrators of the 1994 genocide struggle through forgiveness in preparation for face-to-face meetings. "We must forgive now, like Jesus did while He was on the cross," says Rucyahana, who lost many members of his family in the genocide.

Kids Alive Reaches Out to Orphans in Southern Sudan

Mission News Network reports that Kids Alive International is working to make Sudan home again for victims of the country's civil war. "We have three homes and schools in the north in the capital city which many of the children in Darfur are coming to. We have just recently launched the southern part of our operations where extreme poverty and suffering has gone on for years," said Al Lackey with Kids Alive. Lackey said that plans for similar projects in southern Sudan are finally getting underway after four years of planning. The plans will help support orphans and widows who have seen their resources drained away because of war. "Our focus is to do it through residential children's homes, care center models, reaching out into the communities, and whatever educational assistance those children need so that they become productive, godly young men and women." All Kids Alive workers in Sudan are native to the country.

Pope Congratulates Obama on Inauguration

Religion News Service reports that Pope Benedict XVI sent a congratulatory telegram to President Barack Obama for his inauguration Tuesday (Jan. 20), urging him to "promote understanding, cooperation and peace among the nations." Invoking America's "impressive religious and political heritage," Benedict expressed hope that Obama's leadership would foster the "building of a truly just and free society, marked by respect for the dignity, equality and rights of each of its members, especially the poor, the outcast and those who have no voice." He said, "I pray that you will be confirmed in your resolve to promote understanding, cooperation and peace among the nations, so that all may share in the banquet of life which God wills to set for the whole human family," Benedict wrote. According to Vatican protocol, the pope sends greetings to all new heads of state when they take office.

Ancient Monastery in Turkey Threatened

Compass Direct News reports that the Syriac Christians in southeastern Turkey say a land dispute over the historic Mor Gabriel Monastery is part of a larger system of discrimination against the religious minority in this overwhelmingly Islamic country. Muslim residents of southeastern Turkey dispute the boundary lines of an ancient Christian monastery dating to the fourth century as being unnecessarily large for the needs of a religious community. Islamic leaders from Yayvantepe, Eglence and Candarli are attempting to confiscate one-third of the monastery's property, claiming it was wrongfully appropriated and that they need it for their livestock. The mayors of the three towns also charged the monastery with attempting to proselytize young children (illegal in Turkey) and carrying out "anti-Turkish" activity.
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« Reply #400 on: January 26, 2009, 11:25:26 AM »

Pakistani Christians Acquitted in ?Blasphemy? Case
Michael Larson


January 26, 2009

ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) -- Five Christians charged with "blasphemy" against Islam during April 2007 religious holidays were released on Monday (Jan. 19) after reconciliation meetings between Christian and Islamic leaders -- the first verdict to have resulted from such efforts in Pakistan.

A Punjab court released Salamat Masih, 42, his 16-year-old son Rashid, and their relatives Ishfaq, Saba and Dao Masih after a judge acquitted them. Their acquittal and release came through out-of-court meetings between Muslim leaders and a Christian Non-Governmental Organization.

"This is a wonderful sign that has made history," said Shahzad Kamran, a case worker for Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan (SLMP), which negotiated with the Muslim leaders. "This case can set a precedent for future blasphemy cases against Christians."

The reconciliation meetings between SLMP and local and national imams began last November. Rather than attempt to settle the matter in court, the legal advocacy group sought out Muslim leaders directly to persuade them that the accused were innocent; the Islamic clerics then compelled area Muslims to drop their charges.

The meetings took place between four Islamic clergymen, National Assembly Representative Mushtaq Ahmed and Sohail Johnson of the SLMP. Ahmed was unavailable for comment in spite of repeated attempts to contact him.

Johnson of SLMP took precautionary measures to keep from being exposed to violence, meeting with the imams in neutral locations away from mosques and Muslim parts of the city. The SLMP team managed to convince the Islamic clerics to release the Christians by persuading them that the alleged blasphemy grew from a misunderstanding.

"There is permission granted in Islamic law that if someone unintentionally commits an offense, it can be reconciled," Johnson said. "[The cleric] said he would do it because he did not want to bring harm and injustice to the community."

The Islamic clergymen agreed to issue a fatwa (religious edict) declaring the accused men innocent of blasphemy. The Muslim witnesses in the case withdrew their testimony on Jan. 13, and District Judge Sheik Salahudin acquitted the five men in a Toba Tek Singh court.

The legal advocates involved in the case said they would employ reconciliation in future cases of false blasphemy charges. They said that battling such cases in court can still free innocent people, but it does not help to solve sectarian strife that leads to violence and false charges.

But with reconciliation meetings, "the word of God has affected the hearts of the Muslims and changed their behavior," Johnson said. "With our good behavior we can change the people."

The SLMP's Kamran said the imams declared the defendants innocent because they knew the men did not intentionally insult the Islamic religion. The situation likely escalated because it took place during an Islamic holiday, with the April 2007 Muslim celebration of Eid-e-Millad-ul-Nabi (Muhammad's birthday) turning into mob violence after the spread of false rumors against Christians. Local Christian Ratan Masih was severely injured. Other Christians fled for fear of their lives, according to SLMP.

Approximately 2,000 Muslims attacked Christian Colony, a Christian neighborhood, stoning houses and torturing Christians, according to an SLMP report. Initially the mob violence began over a quarrel between Rashid Masih's younger brother Daniel, 12, and a Muslim child named Sunny. In the course of the argument, a sticker fell off Sunny's shirt that bore the words Yah Rasool Allah, a reference to Muhammad as God's messenger.

A local resident, Mohammed Farsal, saw the sticker on the ground and accused the Christian children of blasphemy. Violence soon broke out, and police eventually arrested all five men on charges of insulting Islam.

Blasphemy charges against non-Muslims are not uncommon in Pakistan and are typically applied in cases of sectarian violence. Islamic leaders are often under community pressure to blame Christians in these situations.

Human rights lawyers hope this case sets a precedent for future blasphemy cases, with spurious charges of insulting Islam or its prophet becoming more difficult to press.

Other legal cases of blasphemy continue in Pakistan, including the arrest of Munir Masih and his wife Ruqiya Bibi for insulting Islam. They were granted bail yesterday in Kasur.

At the hearing, 20 local Muslims pressured the judge not to grant them bail, according to a report from the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement.

On Wednesday (Jan. 21), Hector Aleem from Islamabad was falsely accused of blasphemy, most likely as a backlash to his role as a human rights activist, the report said.

Christian lawmakers in the Muslim-majority country of 170 million hope to curb these legal abuses by abolishing Pakistan's blasphemy laws.
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« Reply #401 on: January 26, 2009, 11:27:28 AM »

Religion News Summaries - Jan. 26, 2009
Compiled & Edited by Crosswalk Editorial Staff

Daily briefs of the top news stories impacting Christians around the world.

In today's edition:

    * Iran: Apostasy Law May Be Coming
    * Missionaries to Gambia Still Held, No Word on Pardon
    * Methodist Women Seek to Pastor Large Churches
    * Atheist Bus Ads Launch in Spain, Italy Soon

Iran: Apostasy Law May Be Coming

Mission News Network reports that the change of administration in America probably won't make much difference to Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly railed against the "western influence" in his Muslim country. Christians in Iran face arrest, beatings, torture and the situation could soon get worse. "Parliament is looking to push an apostasy law with life sentences and death sentences for Muslims that convert to Christianity," said Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern. "This isn't posturing. This is real stuff. We're helping some of these brothers come out there with their bodies and minds broken." King believes this move is partially due to the less-than-passionate attitude displayed by many of the country's youth toward Islam.

Missionaries to Gambia Still Held, No Word on Pardon

Baptist Press reports that a British missionary couple in Gambia have been sentenced to a year in prison at hard labor for sending e-mails critical of Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh. David Fulton, 60, and his wife, Fiona, 47, pled guilty to the charges after their arrest in late November and a judge gave them the maximum sentence, saying he intended to send a message to those who "spread hatred against the government." The couple wrote a letter to Jammeh, fully apologizing and asking for pardon, but have received no word on the result of that letter. Jonathan Racho, ICC's regional manager for Africa, said his organization was asking the government to release the Fultons, "considering their relentless effort to help the poor and the marginalized section of the society in the country and considering the poor state of their health."

Methodist Women Seek to Pastor Large Churches

The Associated Press (AP) reports that the United Methodist Church is actively setting out to put more female pastors in the pulpits of the denomination's megachurches. About 23 percent of the denomination's 44,842 clergy are female, yet they lead fewer than 8 percent of the denomination's largest churches. By contrast, church membership in America's second-largest Protestant denomination is 58 percent female, prompting leadership to launch the Lead Women Pastor Project. The initiative will "examine barriers to women being appointed pastors to Methodist churches with more than 1,000 members," according to the AP. "Coming from that perspective it's almost natural we pay more attention to the development of women's leadership in the church," said the Rev. HiRho Park, the project's director. "It's breaking the stained-glass ceiling. I think it gives a younger generation of women hope to have a collective vision for the future."

Atheist Bus Ads Launch in Spain, Italy Soon

ASSIST News Service reports that London's now-infamous bus ads have spread into the heavily Catholic nation of Spain and will move to Italy next month. Buses carrying the "There probably is no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" slogan appeared Monday in Spain. In Italy, home of the papacy, the buses will read, ""The bad news is that God does not exist. The good news is that we do not need him." So far, conservative groups managed to stop the bus ads from running in Genoa, Italy, but sponsoring groups are filing a court appeal. "It's strange that in a country where ads depicting near-naked women wearing skimpy lingerie is permitted on buses that we can't run ads about atheism," Giorgio Villella of The Italian Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics (UAAR) told Reuters.
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« Reply #402 on: January 27, 2009, 05:57:53 AM »

Three Iranian Christians Arrested from Homes in Tehran
Special to Compass Direct News


January 27, 2009

LOS ANGELES (Compass Direct News) -- Three Christians from two different families were arrested from their homes Wednesday morning (Jan. 21) and are being held without charges, sources told Compass.

Authorities took Jamal Ghalishorani, 49, and his wife Nadereh Jamali from their home in Tehran between 7 and 8 a.m., about a half hour after arresting Hamik Khachikian, an Armenian Christian also living in Tehran. Ghalishorani and his wife are Christian converts from Islam, considered "apostasy" in Iran and potentially punishable by death.

Christian sources told Compass that Ghalishorani converted to Christianity 30 years ago, and his wife received Christ about 15 years ago. They have one child, a 13-year-old daughter, while Khachikian has two children, a 16-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter. Authorities have not told the families of the charges against those arrested or their whereabouts.

The three arrested Christians belong to house churches, source said, and they hold jobs and are not supported as clergy. Police also took books and computers from the families' homes.

The arrests come as part of a tsunami of arrests in the past several months, the sources said.

"We don't know why the pressure is continuously high, but we see that it is increasing," said one source. "The government does it to the Baha'i people as well -- there are more arrests in the last several months among them than in maybe the whole 30 years before."

Arrests and pressure on Christians from authorities have ramped up even further in the past few months, the source said, adding that the reasons were unclear.

Another source, however, said the arrests are part of a concerted, nationwide government plan.

"We are quite sure that these arrests are part of a bigger operation from the government," the source said. "Maybe up to 50 people were arrested. In Tehran alone already some 10 people were arrested -- all on the same day, January 21."

Sources noted that whereas past waves of intense harassment and arrests of Christians eventually have subsided, recent pressure has been "continuously high," with reports of arrests in almost every month of 2008.

"In the past there have been waves of incredible pressure, but then it seemed to calm down a bit sometimes," said one source. "Then we had the feeling pressure came and went, but now it is continuously ongoing."

The families of those arrested fear for their safety. Khachikian's wife is "very confused, she has no idea where her husband is," said the source. "Relatives are taking care of the daughter of Jamal and Nadereh's, but of course she's very anxious about what will happen to her parents."

The arrests are particularly disturbing in light of the Iranian parliament's approval last September of a new penal code calling for a mandatory death sentence for "apostates," or those who leave Islam. In the past death sentences for apostasy were issued only under judicial interpretations of sharia (Islamic law).

Under the new penal code, male "apostates" would be executed, while females would receive life sentences. The new code was to be sent to Iran's most influential body, the Guardian Council, which will rule on it. The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran's Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament. This body has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Hossein Soodmand in 1990. He was accused of working as "an American spy." Since then at least six Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.
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« Reply #403 on: January 27, 2009, 05:59:50 AM »

Religion Today Summaries - Jan. 27, 2009
Compiled & Edited by Crosswalk Editorial Staff

Daily briefs of the top news stories impacting Christians around the world.

In today's edition:

    * Sri Lanka: Church Decries Murder of Christian Journalist
    * Christians Forced to Fend for Themselves
    * Call2ALL Networks to Fulfill Great Commission
    * Rwandan Forces Join Congolese; Rebel General Arrested


Sri Lanka: Church Decries Murder of Christian Journalist

ASSIST News Service reports that the Christian editor of a major Sri Lankan newspaper was gunned down Jan. 8, prompting church leaders along with human rights organizations to voice concern over escalating ethnic violence in the island nation. National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka lamented, "The cold blooded murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga has struck the death knell to media freedom in our country." Wickramatunga blew the whistle on increased political corruption and human rights abuses by the government, including the violent response to rebel Tamil Tiger fighters. Anglican Bishop Duleep de Chickera of Colombo said in a statement, "The assassination of Lasantha Wikramatunga, in broad daylight on a public road, has sent shock waves of anger, fear and desperation through the country. This deliberate and senseless act ... is part of a wider and worsening strategy to suppress and silence the media."

Christians Forced to Fend for Themselves

Mission News Network reports that Indian officials are closing refugee camps in India's Orissa state, forcing Christian refugees to fend for themselves. Officials provided some refugees with US $201, but Voice of the Martyrs reports the money will not help with long-term recovery. Many in the refugee camps fled because their homes were burned and their lives threatened. The camp closing come just a few weeks after the Indian Supreme Court ordered officials to protect Christians in Orissa or have the national government intervene. Christians have been targeted by Hindu extremists since August 2008, when Maoists killed a Hindu extremist leader. Although violence has eased since then, tension still exists between extremists and scapegoat Christians.

Call2ALL Networks to Fulfill Great Commission

The Christian Post reports that hundreds of Christian leaders have participated in recent Call2All Congresses across the nation. Attendees at the most recent conference in Dayton, Ohio, joined in a massive effort to coordinate, network, and share strategies globally, all in hopes of fulfilling the Great Commission in their own lifetimes. "It's not going to be 'business as usual' for the church anymore," said Mark Anderson, president of Call2All and the Global Pastors Network. Campus Crusade for Christ International, Youth With a Mission, Mission America and the World Evangelical Alliance have all partnered with Call2All. The Dayton Congress is just one of 38 to be held in the next three years as Call2All works to spread the Gospel to every "tribe, tongue and nation."

Rwandan Forces Join Congolese; Rebel General Arrested

Reuters reports that Congo's civil war is once again Rwanda's business, as joint Congolese-Rwandan forces together have clashed with rebel troops for the first time in years. Rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) are usually ethnic Hutus, sparking fears that the joint force would target civilian Hutus in Congo. "When they hunt down the FDLR, they are going to kill us as well, because we are Hutus and the FDLR are also Hutus," said a man in the North Kivu town of Rugari. In exchange for allowing Rwandan forces into Congo, Rwandan authorities arrested Congolese General Laurent Nkunda on Thursday. The U.N. has labeled Democratic Republic of Congo a humanitarian crisis, as thousands have died conflict-related deaths. More than 1.5 million in Congo have been displaced by fighting.
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« Reply #404 on: January 29, 2009, 10:42:23 AM »

Sri Lankan Parliament to Vote on Anti-Conversion Laws
Krishni de Alwis


January 28, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (Compass Direct News) -- The Sri Lankan Parliament may soon enact laws designed to restrict religious conversions.

A standing committee assigned to consider a draft "Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions" presented its report to Parliament on Jan. 6, suggesting minor amendments that clear the way for a final vote in February. The provisions of the bill criminalize any act to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another religion by the use of force, fraud or allurement. Those found guilty of breaking the law could be imprisoned for up to seven years and/or fined up to 500,000 rupees (US$4,425).

The Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thero, a member of the Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya party (JHU or National Heritage Party), first proposed the draft in 2004. While the JHU claims the bill is designed to stop unethical conversions, civil rights groups and Christian churches say it will infringe on the constitutional rights of freedom of religion and legitimize harassment of religious minorities.

Buddhists form a 70 percent majority in Sri Lanka, with Roman Catholics constituting 7 percent and Protestant Christians only 1 percent of the population.

After the first reading of the bill in Parliament in August 2004, 22 petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the draft legislation.

The Supreme Court determined the draft bill to be valid except for clauses 3 and 4(b), which it deemed unconstitutional. These clauses required any person who converted or participated in a religious conversion ceremony to report to a government official and prescribed punishment for failure to report such conversions.

The draft was then referred to a parliamentary standing committee for further review. In its report, presented to the House on Jan. 6, the committee made a few amendments to the original draft in keeping with Supreme Court recommendations. The most notable amendment was the deletion of the need to report conversions and the punishment prescribed for not reporting them.

These amendments paved the way for the draft bill to be passed by a simple majority vote when it is presented for a final reading in Parliament this February.

Chief Opposition Whip Joseph Michael Perera, however, has requested a two-day debate on the draft bill on grounds that it would affect all religions.

Fulfilling Campaign Promises

The JHU, founded and led by Buddhist clergymen, made anti-conversion legislation a cornerstone of its debut election campaign in 2004, when it won nine seats in Parliament. With the possibility of an early general election this year, the bill has become a matter of political survival for the JHU.

At a press briefing on Jan. 7, Ven. Ellawela Medhananda Thero, a Buddhist monk and Member of Parliament representing the JHU, called on all political parties to vote in favor of the bill.

"People expected us to fulfill two goals," he said. "One was to end unethical conversions and the other was to liberate the country from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. That is why we entered politics."

Ven. Medhananda Thero added that the purpose of the bill was to protect all major religions in the country from fundamentalists and unethical conversions.

Sri Lanka's Christian community and civil rights groups have strongly objected to the draft legislation. Far from stemming alleged forced conversions, they claim the bill will become a weapon of harassment through misapplication, limiting the fundamental rights of thought, conscience and religion. These rights include the right to adopt a religion and the right to practice, observe and teach religion.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) said in a recent press statement that, "It is our gravest concern that this bill will grant legal sanction for the harassment of religious communities or individuals, and offer convenient tools of harassment for settling personal disputes and grudges, totally unrelated to acts of alleged 'forced' conversion."

Banning Compassion

According to Section 2 of the draft bill, the offer of any temptation such as a gift, cash or any other gratification to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another is punishable with up to seven years of prison and a maximum fine of 500,000 rupees (US$4,425) -- equal to approximately three years' wages for the average Sri Lankan citizen.

Sri Lankan Christians have repeatedly expressed concern that key sections of the draft bill are open to wide and subjective interpretation that could criminalize not only legitimate religious activity but also legitimate social action by faith-based organizations or individuals.

"A lady who heads a charitable trust caring for orphans asked if she could be charged under this law, since she is a Christian and some of the children she cares for are not," a lawyer told Compass. "Many people will now think twice before helping the poor or needy, for fear of being accused of committing a criminal act."

Ironically, on June 4, 2008, in his address to the new Sri Lankan ambassador to the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI had acknowledged the Sri Lankan government's appreciation of the Catholic Church's charity work in the country.

"Such action is a concrete example of the Church's willing and prompt response to the mission she has received to serve those most in need," he said. "I commend any future measures which will help guarantee that Catholic hospitals, schools and charitable agencies can continue to care for the sick, the young and the vulnerable regardless of ethnic or religious background."

He went on to assure the government that "the Church will continue in her efforts to reach out with compassion to all."

On Jan. 8, at his traditional New Year meeting with all ambassadors to the Holy See, the pope appeared to be addressing concerns over anti-conversion legislation.

"The Church does not demand privileges, but the full application of the principle of religious freedom," he said. He also called on Asian governments to ensure that "legislation concerning religious communities guarantees the full exercise of this fundamental right, with respect for international norms."

Since the first draft anti-conversion bill was presented to Parliament in 2004, the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, NCEASL and Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka have repeatedly called for an alternative solution based on inter-faith dialogue with fair representation of all religious communities.

"Enactment of laws to regulate something as intrinsically personal as spiritual beliefs will not contribute towards resolving disagreements and promoting religious harmony," said Godfrey Yogarajah, executive director of the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission. "On the contrary, it will create mistrust and animosity."
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