INDONESIA – Christian former governor jailed for blasphemy, despite prosecution dropping charges
The Christian former governor of Jakarta, “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, has been found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison. When handing down the sentence, the lead judge told the court that Ahok had “convincingly conducted a criminal act of blasphemy”, even though prosecutors had dropped their claim that Ahok had insulted Islam and were no longer pursuing his conviction for blasphemy. Ahok is understood to be planning to appeal.
The judges’ decision to sentence Ahok for blasphemy, in spite of the prosecution dropping their own case due to lack of evidence, marks a troubling shift of policy in Indonesia. Little more than six months ago, Ahok – Jakarta’s first non-Muslim governor in fifty years – was widely expected to secure a second term. Now, having spoken up for Indonesia’s historic philosophy of tolerance in defiance of Islamists, he faces two years in jail.
From the Jakarta Post here
EGYPT – Christian who had returned to Al Arish murdered, as Islamic militants establish “police force” in the region
Nabil Sabar, a Christian father of two, was gunned down by masked men in his barber’s shop in Al Arish on Saturday 6 May. He is reported to have recently returned to the town to re-open his shop, because he could not find a job after fleeing Al Arish with his family earlier this year following the murders of six Christians. The wave of killings led to a mass exodus of 200 Christian families, soon after which masked men were photographed in Al Arish checking drivers' ID cards, reportedly to try and identify Christians.
Islamic militants from the Sinai Province group, which is affiliated to Islamic State (IS), are now imposing hardline Islamist restrictions on the population in the northern Sinai; the group has created a “morality police force” to enforce Islamic dress codes on women and stop the transport of goods deemed to be un-Islamic. Last week, IS released a new statement warning Muslims to “stay away from Christian gatherings, as well as the gatherings of the army and the police”, an apparent warning of further attacks. The prospect of the Christians from Al Arish being able to safely return to their homes appears to be diminishing rapidly.
From New York Times and Reuters
NIGERIA – Boko Haram release 82 schoolgirls, but will they be allowed to return home?
Boko Haram has released a further 82 schoolgirls, who were among the 276 mainly Christian female students who were infamously kidnapped from Chibok in April 2014. The released girls, 75 of whom are Christians, were exchanged for apprehended Boko Haram terrorists. The Chibok local chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria told reporters: “God is answering the prayers of His people … we are praying for the rest of the girls to be released;” 113 Chibok schoolgirls are still being held by Boko Haram.
Boko Haram released 21 girls following negotiations last year - they shared harrowing reports of being forced to convert to Islam and marry Islamist militants. However, the girls are still being kept in Abuja and have not been permitted to return home to their families in Chibok.
In a new video posted online last week, Boko Haram’s leader refuted claims that he had been killed in an air strike by the Nigerian military. Abubakar Shekau, who in 2015 announced the group’s allegiance to Islamic State, criticised the Nigerian government: “You Nigerian leaders, who are doers of evil against Islam, saying Islam is a religion of peace. You are not following the tenets of Islam. Know that you will be answerable.”
Barnabas Aid has provided food aid and income generation for the parents of the kidnapped Chibok girls, as well as trauma counselling.
From Global Christian news here
PAKISTAN – Christian sentenced to life in prison for blasphemy despite “no concrete evidence”
Zafar Bhatti, a Christian man from Rawalpindi, was sentenced to life imprisonment for “blasphemy” last week (3 May). Lawyers representing the 47-year-old stated that he was not given the death penalty because there was “no concrete evidence” against him. Zafar has been in jail since 2012, when he was accused of sending texts which insulted Muhammad, although he has always denied the allegations and the phone used to send the texts was not registered in his name. His lawyers will appeal the sentence at the High Court. The director of CLAAS (the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement) which is supported by Barnabas Aid, said, “The blasphemy law is continuously being misused in Pakistan to take revenge and settle personal scores. Christians are the most targeted group, and several Christians have been burnt alive, and even their towns and churches are often attacked and set to fire.”
Earlier this month, Pakistan’s Supreme Court rejected a request from Aasia Bibi’s lawyers to schedule her appeal against her sentence in June. Aasia Bibi has now spent seven years on death row for blasphemy; the Supreme Court postponed her appeal in October 2016 after the presiding judge recused himself.
From CLAAS here
IRAQ – More than 75% of Iraq’s Christians have fled their homeland since 2003, says Iraqi MP
Around 1.5 million Iraqi Christians have fled the country since 2003, according to a statement made by an Iraqi Christian MP last week. This represents more than 75% of Iraq’s Christian population.
There are thought to be fewer than 250,000 believers still in the country, many of whom are struggling to survive in Christian refugee camps around Erbil, where aid for displaced families will soon run out. Unable to return home because of the threat of anti-Christian violence from their Muslim former neighbours, the future for what is left of Iraq’s Christian community is bleak and uncertain.
From Anadolu Agency here
VIETNAM – Government continues to “direct or allow” harassment and discrimination of Christians
Vietnamese Christians continue to experience harassment and discrimination from authorities, according to the latest report from the independent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The report notes: “There is a disconnect between the central government’s overtures to improve religious freedom conditions and the ongoing actions taken by local officials, public security, and organized thugs to threaten and physically harm religious followers and their houses of worship.” In the previous year (2016), church meetings were disrupted and pastors detained and assaulted, with authorities particularly targeting congregations with connections to the West and those advocating human rights.
More than half of Vietnam’s Christians come from ethnic minorities, groups which face particular pressure. “Ethnic minority Montagnards from the Central Highlands, many of whom are Protestant, face numerous government restrictions: some are prevented from holding religious ceremonies, many are summoned to meet with local authorities and pressured to cease practising their faith, and pastors are harassed or punished.”
From USCIRF Report 2017