Brunei, April 08, 2014: A new sharia penal code that includes archaic Islamic penalties such as flogging and stoning to death – some of which will be applied to non-Muslims – is being rolled out in Brunei from this month.
The laws, which will be introduced in three phases over the next two years, have been criticised both in and outside of Brunei.
In a letter to the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said that the new penal code violates international human rights standards. It raised concerns about the imposition of the death penalty and other penalties that constitute torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; discrimination against women; and violation of the rights to religious freedom, freedom of opinion and freedom of expression.
There has been much criticism of the code by Bruneians on social media, prompting a warning from the Sultan that critics could be prosecuted under the new laws.
Non-Muslim communities, who comprise around a third of the population, are especially concerned. They would be liable to face the harshest sharia penalties for certain crimes, such as robbery and adultery.
The new laws will also further restrict their already constrained rights and freedoms.
The government of Brunei has long promoted the Shafii school of Sunni Islam and discouraged the practice of other religions; evangelism by non-Muslims is illegal, and non-Muslim public religious gatherings are restricted.
Under the new measures, non-Muslims are banned from using 19 Islamic words, including “Allah”, and there are penalties for printing, disseminating, importing, broadcasting and distributing publications contrary to Islamic teaching.
Converts from Islam as well as those who help them to change their religion will be especially endangered. Criticising Islam or bringing it into contempt will reportedly be punishable by death or 30 years in prison and 40 lashes.
Those who commit apostasy, leaving Islam, are liable to face the death penalty.
Before the new penal code was introduced in Brunei, elements of sharia law were already in force, but these mostly concerned family matters.
Christians comprise around ten per cent of the population.
- barnabas team
China, April 4, 2014: Thousands of Chinese Christians have mounted an extraordinary, round-the-clock defense of a church in a city known as the ‘Jerusalem of the East’ after Communist Party officials threatened to bulldoze their place of worship.
In an episode that underlines the fierce and long-standing friction between China’s officially atheist Communist Party and its rapidly growing Christian congregation, Bible-carrying believers this week flocked to the Sanjiang church in Wenzhou hoping to protect it from the bulldozers.
Their 24-hour guard began earlier this week when a demolition notice was plastered onto the newly-constructed church which worshippers say cost around 30 million yuan (£2.91 million) and almost six years to build.
Officials claimed the church had been built illegally and used red paint to daub the words: “Demolish” and “Illegal construction” onto its towering facade.
The threat triggered a furious reaction in Wenzhou, a booming port city known for its vibrant Christian community, said to be China’s largest.
Hundreds of people, including elderly and in some cases disabled women, have now occupied the church to prevent demolition teams moving in.
“There are bad people out there trying to damage our church so we must defend it,” said Li Jingliu, a 56-year-old former factory worker who has been sleeping in one of its back offices since Wednesday.
“I’ve come here today to show my support. A church is a sacred place and we are all brothers and sisters.” said Jin Yufu, 55, from the nearby community of Wenling. “Christianity has made a big contribution to society in many ways. Thanks to Church we don’t smoke, gamble or drink. Christians are good people.”
Wenzhou, a wealthy coastal city around 230 miles south of Shanghai in Zhejiang province, has around seven million residents. Local Christians claim as many as 15 per cent of them are church goers, the majority Protestant.
Red crosses and spires still adorn the skyline of a city where British missionaries, including George Stott, set up churches towards the end of the 19th century.
Wenzhou’s underground “house” churches – those unwilling to comply with Communist Party rules – have long been subjected to sporadic crackdowns, such as one in 2000 that saw hundreds of churches and temples demolished across Zhejiang province.
However, the Sanjiang church is part of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, China’s officially sanctioned and government-controlled Protestant church, making this week’s stand-off highly unusual.
Parishioners believe their church was targeted after Xia Baolong, the provincial Party chief, visited the region and was unimpressed by the prominence of a church built to house thousands of worshippers.
“His behaviour is illegal. He has abused his power. The construction of the church is not against the law,” said Wang Jianfeng, a 47-year-old man from a nearby congregation who was among hundreds of people gathered on the steps outside on Friday in a show of force.
Wen Xiaowu, another visitor, said he believed China’s president would be “displeased” with his Communist colleagues in Zhejiang.
“Xi Jinping has said society should be harmonious. He is very open-minded about disciples of the Christian church.”
Sanjiang’s resistance has been organised with almost military precision. A makeshift kitchen behind the altar provides rice, pork and fried liver with leeks for those occupying the church while women hand out bottles of water and satsumas at the entrance.
By day, Christians from around the province crowd the church’s steps, with undercover security agents mingling among them, snapping photos and eavesdropping. By night, hundreds of worshippers take it in turns to keep watch, grabbing a few hours of sleep on cramped wooden pews between shifts.
He Hongying, an 81-year-old member of the resistance, said she would stay for as long as necessary. “I slept here last night and I will do the same again tonight. We pulled two pews together so it was quite all right. We feel at peace and fearless when we are with our God.”
The dispute over Sanjiang has highlighted the ongoing difficulties facing China’s fast growing Christian community. In 1949, when the Communist Party took over, it boasted around one million members. Today, there are thought to be more Chinese Christians than Communist Party members, with up to 100 million mainland believers, according to some estimates.
Life has improved since the days of Mao Tse-tung, who saw religion as “poison” and presided over the decade-long Cultural Revolution when churches were ransacked and burned.
However, campaigners say that while the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, Beijing still maintains a tight-grip on what many leaders see as a potential challenge to their authority.
Members of Sanjiang’s congregation said that, under Chinese law, they were only allowed to worship on Sundays. Preachers were required to avoid politically sensitives topics.
During a visit to China last month, Michelle Obama, the US First Lady, hinted at concerns over religious freedom here, telling an audience: “When it comes to expressing yourself freely, and worshiping as you choose, and having open access to information – we believe those are universal rights that are the birthright of every person on this planet.”
A woman who introduced herself as a representative of the local government rejected claims the Communist Party was persecuting local Christians.
“They can believe. This is free. We can’t control them,” said the woman, who gave her name as Zhang Biyao.
Ms Zhang said the church had been illegally built and was structurally unsound. The government wanted to protect “people’s safety,” she claimed.
Sanjiang’s congregation was unconvinced.
Yang Zhumei, 74, said she had pleaded with officials to leave her church alone.
“I held their hands and said, “Comrades, don’t take down our cross. I can give you my head instead.”
“Even if they take my head, I can still find happiness with God,” she shouted.
Li Jingliu, who lost her right arm to an industrial accident and has been a church member for 34 years, said she would not allow her place of worship to be damaged. “I will guard the church until the very end, without fearing hardship or death,” she said. “God will punish those who try to take down the cross.”
Russia, April 01, 2014: Churches and Christian organisations in Russia that are engaged in educational, social and charitable work are facing harassment from the authorities. One church has been liquidated for alleged illegal non-religious educational activity.
On 5 March, St Petersburg’s Harvest Pentecostal Church’s appeal against its closure was rejected by Russia’s Supreme Court. The court upheld a ruling on 14 November that the church had been conducting general (non-religious) educational work, which, as a religious organisation, it was not licensed to do.
The church had been subjected to an unannounced inspection in May 2013 by officials purportedly checking for “extremist” activity. It was fined for minor violations of fire and sanitary regulations, and the pastor was later summoned to attend the liquidation hearing.
A case was brought against Harvest Church because, the Prosecutor’s Office said, its premises were “equipped as classrooms with school desks and chairs [and] shelves with educational literature”. St Petersburg City Court ruled that the church was running an eksternat, an external/home schooling programme.
The church said that it simply allowed its building to be used for the eksternat and was not involved in the teaching, which was done by children’s pastor Yekaterina Lipovskaya and her assistant in their own time, unrelated to their employment by the church.
Harvest Church lawyer Sergei Chugunov told Forum 18 that the prosecutor need not have sought to shut down the church over this matter:
[They] could simply have demanded an end to the activities they deemed illegal, and taken action in the event of disobedience. But apparently it was decided to resort immediately to the most extreme measure – liquidation.
The decision means that Harvest Church has lost the right to own or rent property. It nevertheless continues to meet for worship and intends to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
Elsewhere in Russia, church-run drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres are facing state harassment, which appears intended to close them down. One, run by Exodus Pentecostal Church in Taganrog, Rostov-on-Don, has already voluntarily ended its rehabilitation work after being taken to court last year over alleged violations of fire and sanitation regulations.
Two other centres in the Rostov-on-Don region have also been targeted. One, in Duvanovka, was raided on 22 March; everyone present was taken away for questioning. This raid followed an attempt to shut down the centre last year.
A court ruled in June 2013 that it should be closed after it was found to be unregistered, in breach of sanitary regulations and lacking a licence or qualified staff to carry out medical and pharmaceutical work. But this ruling was overturned in August 2013.
The other centre, in Krasny Luch, was inspected by police – who failed to show a search warrant – on 17 January on suspicion of illegal detention, forced manual labour, drug possession and illegal business activities. Nothing of the kind was found, but the rehabilitation centre’s patients were taken in for questioning. No charges were brought.
A drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre run by Exodus church in Smolino in the Chelyabinsk region is also being investigated. It was inspected on 28 February, and a subsequent Interior Ministry report said that the police and security services are “continuing a set of measures aimed at collecting evidence and documenting the illegal activity of participants of the Exodus Church”.
- forum 18
The attackers descended on Joy in Jesus Church in Likoni near Mombasa at around 10am. They killed a 60-year-old watchman before shooting into the congregation as well as at those standing outside. One of the attackers shouted, “Allahu Akhbar” (“Allah is great”).
Assistant pastor Phillip Musasa was among those who died. Scores were injured, among them 15 who were hospitalised, including women and children. A young boy, whose mother was killed, had a bullet lodged in his head.
The pastor’s wife, Lilian Omondi, told the Daily Nation that one of the attackers entered the church building by the back door:
I came face to face with him. Luckily, I escaped unhurt as he started the random shooting aiming at anybody and everything in sight.
The gunmen tried to attack another nearby church but were deterred by armed police.
Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Somalia-based Islamist group al-Shabaab has committed numerous attacks against Christians and other targets in Kenya. Police said Likoni had one of the country’s active terror cells, where youths are recruited to join al-Shabaab.
Over 100 suspects have been arrested in connection with the incident, which has prompted renewed calls for armed guards at churches in Kenya as the country is beset by widespread insecurity.
Last month, Lawrence Kazungu Kadenge (59), an assistant pastor at a church in Mombasa, was murdered in the violent aftermath of a police raid on a local mosque; the Masjid Musa was believed to be holding a youth recruitment forum for al-Shabaab.
Kenya has been a leading force in military efforts to drive al-Shabaab out of Somalia, and the militants have retaliated with deadly attacks on Kenyan soil, most notably the siege at theWestgate shopping centre in September 2013 in which dozens of non-Muslims were killed.
- barnabas team
United States, March 27, 2014: The number of known executions around the world rose almost 15 percent in 2013, and the United States was among the five countries putting the most people to death, a new report says.
The Amnesty International report released Wednesday comes shortly after a stunning decision this week by an Egyptian court to sentence to death 529 alleged supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood after a two-session trial. The London-based rights group has called the action “grotesque.”
The new report said the 778 judicial executions in 22 countries the group was able to count last year don’t include the thousands of people put to death in China, where such information is a state secret. China’s foreign ministry referred a question about its executions last year to the justice ministry, which did not respond to phone or fax.
Last year’s global increase is due in part to more executions in Iran and Iraq, followed by Saudi Arabia, the report said. The number of officially acknowledged executions in Iran was at least 369, but the rights group said “credible sources” reported 335 more. The group said Iraq executed at least 169 people.
Executions in chaotic Syria and Egypt could not be confirmed.
Amnesty International is blunt about its stance on the issue. “We oppose the death penalty in all cases, without exception,” Jose Luis Diaz, the group’s representative at the United Nations, told reporters Wednesday. “It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.”
He also criticized this week’s sweeping decision in Egypt, which he called “in recent history the largest number of death sentences handed down by a court at a single instance.”
The Amnesty International report counted more than 23,000 people on death row worldwide as of the end of 2013. It also counted at least 1,925 people sentenced to death in 57 countries last year, up from the year before.
Amid the bleak numbers, the rights group pointed out that a small number of countries — about one in 10 — carry out executions, and 140 countries are against the death penalty either in law or actions.
“The overall data demonstrate that the trend is still firmly towards abolition,” the report said. “Excluding China, almost 80 percent of all known executions worldwide were recorded in only three countries: Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.” Both Europe and Central Asia had no reported executions, the first time since 2009.
- christian science monitor
United States, March 27, 2014: An increasing number of countries, mostly ones with a Muslim majority, are enforcing blasphemy laws, which are used to penalise Christian minorities and others with different religious views.
A report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released this month said that such laws are incompatible with international human rights standards because they protect beliefs over individuals. Director of policy and research Knox Thames said:
This trend of greater usage of blasphemy laws will surely lead to increased violations of the freedoms of religion and expression. Governments will jail people, and extremists may kill others in the defence of undefined notions of religious sentiment.
The report said that where an authoritarian government supports an established religious creed, blasphemy accusations are frequently used to silence critics or democratic rivals under the guise of enforcing religious piety.
Pakistan was cited as “the most egregious example” of the increasing use and application of blasphemy laws; 14 people are currently on death row and 19 are serving life sentences. Barnabas Fund has repeatedly raised the plight of condemned Christian mother Aasia Bibi, who is languishing in jail awaiting an appeal against her controversial blasphemy conviction.
In both Pakistan and Egypt, the small Christian minorities are disproportionately affected. There has been a significant increase in the use of blasphemy-type laws in Egypt since the revolution of January 2011. From then to the end of 2012, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights recorded a total of 36 blasphemy cases involving 63 people. Of these, 59% were against Muslims and 41% against Christians, even though the latter comprise only around ten per cent of the population. Four people are currently serving jail terms for blasphemy inEgypt. Among them is Bishoy Kamel, a Christian teacher who was sentenced to six years over cartoons and comments on his Facebook page.
Other countries to invoke blasphemy laws include: Indonesia, where more than 120 people have been detained since 2003; Iran, where “insulting Islam”, “criticising the Islamic regime” and “deviating from Islamic standards” are offences; Saudi Arabia, where the government uses blasphemy charges against those who challenge the lack of separation between religion and the state and champion political and human rights reforms; and Sudan, where blasphemy accusations are likewise used against those opposing the government or expressing dissenting religious views.
Between 1998 and 2011, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which comprises 57 nations with large Muslim populations, lobbied the United Nations for a global blasphemy law. Support for their non-binding resolutions on “combating defamation of religions” steadily fell because of growing opposition from Western and Latin American countries based on their concerns about the threat to free speech.
In 2011, a more general resolution, drawn up with the US and European Union, shifted away from the defamation of religion to combating religious intolerance; this passed unanimously.
Although the OIC has not tried to reintroduce the “defamation of religions” campaign, the Arab League, which comprises 22 members, all of which belong to the OIC, is now taking up the cause. In November 2013, Arab League justice ministers endorsed a model blasphemy law for their region.
So it seems that the increasing use of blasphemy laws is a trend that is likely only to continue, a prospect that bodes ill for vulnerable Christian minorities, especially those in the Arab world.
- barnabas team
The life-size sculpture depicting a figure asleep under a blanket on a park bench lies outside St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. The nail-scarred feet peeking out from under the blanket are the only indication that Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz is making a religious statement about Jesus.
The hollow, bronze piece bolted to the park bench is a $22,000 gift from a church member intended to support public art.
That’s a small price to pay to get people thinking about what it means to be a Christian — and what it means for “Homeless Jesus” to take up residence in a community of 270 townhomes and single-family homes, said the Rev. David Buck, the rector of St. Alban’s.
“You love it, you hate it, it makes you think,” said Buck, who has been happily overwhelmed by the thousands of responses he’s personally received or read online. “It’s gone viral!”
St. Alban’s neighbor John Chesser, who walked past “Homeless Jesus” on the way to pick up his mail one sunny Sunday morning, had another response: “It’s a little creepy.”
It makes sense that “Homeless Jesus,” a copy of Schmalz’s original work, found a home outside St. Alban’s. Buck says the congregation of 800 members fills a “liberal, high-church niche,” is gay-friendly and embraces the arts and sciences. The church draws a number of faculty, staff and students from Davidson College a mile or so down the road.
Buck, 64, led a Southern Baptist church outside Charlotte until the Southern Baptist Convention grew too conservative for his liking. He switched denominations and says he never dreamed he’d have the chance to serve a church like St. Alban’s.
With the church in the middle of an upscale community, the congregation agreed that it’s the perfect place to display a piece of public art.
“Homeless Jesus” was bolted down in February beside a bronze plaque with the familiar words from Matthew 25:40 — “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
The news stories started coming almost immediately: The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, The Christian Post, The Huffington Post.
Buck said someone attached a note to the sculpture saying this isn’t the way to remember Jesus. A reader posted a somewhat sarcastic response to The Christian Post story: “The Episcopal Church, huh? Shocking.”
Chesser, the neighbor walking to get his mail, calls the piece “dark” and “macabre” — so dark and macabre, it never occurred to him to think about whether it belongs in a community like his. Neighbor Jerry Dawson wrote a letter to the editor at the online davidsonnews.net saying it doesn’t belong.
“My complaint is not about the art-worthiness or the meaning behind the sculpture. It is about people driving into our beautiful, reasonably upscale neighborhood and seeing an ugly homeless person sleeping on a park bench.”
Bob Cameron, president of the St. Alban’s Square Neighborhood Association, said he invited Dawson to air his concerns at a board meeting. Meanwhile, the association has not taken a position on “Homeless Jesus,” and neither has he.
Supporters have spoken up as well, in and out of St. Alban’s.
“It makes us all more aware of homelessness, that there are others who are not as fortunate as we are,” said church member Alice Mietz, who lives about 20 yards from the piece.
As Buck was seated on a bench outside the church, making the case for the sculpture, Mike Schaefer of Roanoke, Va., stopped his car in front of “Homeless Jesus” and jumped out to snap a picture before heading home.
“As Christians, we need to be more aware of the homeless among us,” he said.
- national catholic reporter
Africa, March 18, 2014: At least 119 people were killed in attacks on three Christian villages in Kaduna state, NorthernNigeria; the villages were razed to the ground as hundreds of homes and some churches were set ablaze.
The onslaught by scores of ethnic Fulani Muslim herdsmen armed with guns and machetes started on Friday night (14 March) and continued into the early hours of Saturday.
Gideon Bughu (45), a survivor from Ugwar Sankwai village, told Nigerian newspaper Sunday Vanguard:
They fired into homes. As women and children scampered to escape, they were shot and later cut with machetes. They then set our homes on fire. If you stayed inside, you were burnt. If you run out, they shoot at you.
The official death toll stood at 119 on Sunday (16 March), but local sources suggested it could be as high as 200.
Only a handful of properties in Ugwar Sankwai and the other two targeted villages, Ungwar Gata and Chenshyi, were left standing. Residents said that they suspected chemical substances were used in the attacks.
The violence displaced hundreds of people, many of whom are sheltering in a primary school. The farming communities’ food supplies were looted.
Christians in Kaduna state have come under repeated attack in recent months. At the end of January, a Christian family of seven was murdered, and in November, at least 11 people werekilled in a suicide bombing at a church inside a military barracks.
Kaduna Governor Mukhtar Yero said:
This ugly situation is unacceptable, and we will step up efforts to improve surveillance and curtail future occurrence. We pray that God would expose the people that are causing this problem. We pray that God would touch their hearts to stop such dastardly acts or destroy their evil machinations.
Fulani Muslim herdsmen are also attacking Christians elsewhere in Nigeria. Earlier this month, at least 16 were killed in a raid on a number of villages in Plateau state in the Middle Belt. Musa Gunduma Dang lost his entire family – wife, four children, mother and three other relatives – and his home, which was set ablaze, in the attack. Around 200 houses as well as churche
- barnabas team
Sadia Ali Omar (41) and Osman Mohamoud Moge (35) were beheaded in Barawa in the Lower Shebelle Region on 4 March.
Residents were called to witness the executions, and Sadia’s two daughters, aged 8 and 15, were among those subjected to the
gruesome spectacle; the youngest cried out for someone to save her mother.
The girls have been left orphans as their father died after falling ill in 2011. Fearing for their safety, a family friend has
helped them to relocate to a different area.
One resident told Morning Star News that an al-Shabaab militant announced before the killings:
We know these two people are Christians who recently came back from Kenya. We want to wipe out any underground Christian living inside of mujahidin area.
Al-Shabaab, which is said to have spies throughout Somalia, became suspicious of Sadia and Osman because of their irregular
attendance at the mosque for Friday prayers.
Having lived in Christian-majority Kenya, the pair would have been treated with extra suspicion. Sadia returned to Somalia in
January 2013, having lived in Eastleigh on the outskirts of Nairobi for seven years. Osman, who helped take care of Sadia’s
daughters, came with her.
Kenya has been a leading force in military efforts to drive al-Shabaab out of Somalia, and the militants have retaliated with
deadly attacks on Kenyan soil, most notably the siege at theWestgate shopping centre in September 2013 in which dozens of non-
Muslims were killed.
Al-Shabaab is fighting to establish a radical Islamic state in East Africa, and despite having been driven out of most major
population centres in Somalia, it continues to control some rural areas in the centre and south, where it strictly implements
sharia law using stonings, amputations and floggings. It has been launching deadly assaults against government and military
The group is particularly hostile to Christianity and has vowed to rid Somalia of its tiny Christian presence. Al-Shabaab has
killed dozens of Christians since 2008, when it seized control of central and southern.
- barnabas team
Europe, March 12, 2014: A homeless shelter run by a young Christian man in Belarus has been stripped of its legal status after what appears to be a campaign of official opposition to the charitable project.
Aleksei Shchedrov (29), a primary healthcare worker, turned his home in the village of Aleksandrovka, Grodno Region, into the shelter, and since it opened in December 2011, it has given refuge to around 100 homeless people.
He was charged in June 2013 for leading an unregistered religious organisation; the authorities took issue with a prayer room at the site, though Aleksei insisted that he was running a charity, not a religious organisation.
The case attracted wide publicity in Belarus, and the local media launched a smear campaign against the Christian.
He nevertheless managed to obtain registration for the shelter as a social care institution on 27 August, and the charges against him were dropped on 11 September.
But after a series of inspections by police and local officials, the centre was stripped of its legal status on 7 February. The 13 current residents could now end up back on the streets, and Aleksei may again face criminal charges.
Aleksei told Forum 18 that he faced daily pressure from the authorities and that the object of their visits seemed to be to find faults with the shelter, which comprises three houses, one of which is used as a canteen.
In January, a tax office official “threatened to impose such taxes that I wouldn’t be able to pay them”, Aleksei said.
Shortly afterwards, he was fined 39,000 Roubles (£2; US$4) for improper electric wires outside the house and a chimney without bricks on the exterior of the summer kitchen. He said that this was a “heavy burden” for the shelter, which spends this sum on bread for two weeks.
A “sanitary inspection” was the final nail in the coffin for the centre. It criticised the short distance between the shelter’s well and poultry shed, without even taking a water analysis; its findings were used by local police and officials to rescind the shelter’s legal registration.
They are pressuring Aleksei to register the centre under church auspices instead. Local church leader Yury Gritsko told Forum 18 that the authorities’ attitude would be different if the shelter had registration under his denomination, adding, “At the moment Aleksei is on his own and there’s nobody to defend him.”
However, it is not possible for a denomination to register with the state an organisation that does not have legal status and is run by an individual.
Aleksei is nevertheless continuing to care for the shelter’s residents and is optimistic about the centre’s future, saying, “A lot of people in Belarus know and support me.”
- barnabas team