US Senate votes for religious freedom special envoy

On 10 July the U.S. Senate passed the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act of 2014, which creates a special envoy within the State Department to promote the religious freedom of religious minorities in the region.

The envoy would be required to:
(1) Promote the right of religious freedom of religious minorities in the countries of the Near East and the countries of South Central Asia, denounce the violation of such right, and recommend appropriate responses by the United States Government when such right is violated.
(2) Monitor and combat acts of religious intolerance and incitement targeted against religious minorities in the countries of the Near East and the countries of South Central Asia.
(3) Work to ensure that the unique needs of religious minority communities in the countries of the Near East and the countries of South Central Asia are addressed, including the economic and security needs of such communities.
(4) Work with foreign governments of the countries of the Near East and the countries of South Central Asia to address laws that are discriminatory toward religious minority communities in such countries.

The bill will now be sent back to the House. US NGO Coptic Solidarity is urging President Obama to sign the bill into law as soon as the House and Senate finalise it, and to immediately appoint a candidate to fill the position.

China restricts Muslims during Ramadan

Several university students from China’s western region of Xinjiang are being banned from fasting during the month of Ramadan. The BBC reports that students said they were being forced to have meals with professors to ensure they were not fasting. Those who refuse to eat risk being punished by officials. As part of a propaganda drive, state-run newspapers in Xinjiang have been running editorials warning about the health dangers of not eating and drinking.

Shadow Foreign Secretary pledges support

Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander MP spoke at a meeting in Parliament yesterday hosted by Christians on the Left in partnership with this APPG. Under the title International Religious Freedom – the next human rights frontier? he emphasised that “The government has a responsibility and an opportunity in this moment to take action on this issue,” adding “People of all faiths and none should be horrified by the persecution of Christians.”

He pledged that “Freedom of religion or belief would absolutely remain a human rights priority for Labour.” Read his speech in full

Pakistan’s Shia minority under attack

The Pakistani government is systematically failing to protect the country’s Shia population, says Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Balochistan’s largely Shia Hazara community has borne the brunt of the Sunni militant violence, which is thought to have killed over 800 in the region since 2008.

The author claims “The Pakistani government’s response to this violence suggests incompetence, indifference, or possible complicity by security forces and other state personnel with the extremists.” Shia constitute about 20 per cent of Pakistan’s population.

On 9 June a group of around 300 Shia Hazara pilgrims who had been visiting religious shrines in neighbouring Iran arrived at the Pakistani border town of Taftan. They were attacked by heavily armed gunmen from the Sunni Islamist militant group Jaish–ul-Islam: at least 30 died, including at least nine women and a child. After a prolonged firefight, Pakistani security forces killed the attackers. More


China: Zhejiang province ‘anti-church’ campaign

Authorities in China are continuing their campaign of church demolition. The Guardian reports that Christians in Wenzhou – a city known as ‘China’s Jerusalem’ due to its 1,500 churches – say that they have not seen such sustained persecution since the Cultural Revolution.

Between 3 and 6 am on 17 June the cross that topped Guantou church in Wenzhou was removed. Officials were reported to have threatened to tear down the entire church if members tried to prevent this action: in April a mega-church in nearby Sanjiang was indeed completely demolished.

The Telegraph reports that statistics compiled by Christian activists show cross removals and church demolitions have continued apace in recent weeks. At least 15 churches have received notices from authorities in the last week informing them that if they do not “voluntarily” remove their crosses by the end of this month they will face demolition. Christian advocacy group China Aid says that around 360 church buildings and crosses have been demolished already this year.

When Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was questioned about China’s human rights record on his visit to London this week, he replied that his country was protecting and advancing human rights in line with its constitutional obligations while “choosing our own path in accordance with our own national conditions”.

Malaysia upholds ban on Christians using word ‘Allah’

The Federal Court of Malaysia in June refused the country’s Roman Catholic Church leave to appeal against the ban of the use of the word “Allah” in their weekly newspaper, The Herald. Christians argue they have used the word, which entered Malay from Arabic, to refer to their God for centuries and that the ruling violates their rights. Malaysian authorities say its use by Christians could confuse Muslims and lead some to convert to Christianity.

According to reports, 4 of the 7-member bench dismissed the church’s application for appeal, stating that the Court of Appeal was right in its decision to ban the word.

In a media release, the Christian Federation of Malaysia expressed their disappointment at the verdict, stating that such decisions could result in serious negative repercussions for the freedom of religion in the country.

On 14 October 2013, the Court of Appeal in Malaysia ruled that non-Muslims could not use the word “Allah” to refer to God. In the verdict, the Court of Appeal expressed the opinion that all religions should be practised in peace and harmony with Islam as it was the official religion of the Federation. Malaysia is a member of the Commonwealth.


The Malaysian Chronicle reports that UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, has said many Muslims believe the court ruling undermines the credibility of Islam. Muslim scholars and clerics, both locally and worldwide, have criticised the ban, pointing out that the word predates Islam and means “God” in Arabic.

Atheist taken to psychiatric hospital

A Nigerian man sent to a mental institute in Kano state after he declared that he did not believe in God, is now in hiding and says he has been receiving death threats. Mubarak Bala says he wants to leave northern Nigeria but first is trying to reconcile with his family, especially the father, two uncles and older brother who assaulted him, drugged him and committed him to the psychiatric ward of Kano city’s Aminu Kano teaching hospital.

The BBC originally reported that when Mr Bala told relatives he did not believe in God, they asked doctors if he was mentally ill. One declared that his atheism was a side-effect of suffering a personality change, and Mr Bala was forcibly committed to a psychiatric ward.The hospital said it was treating Mr Bala, 29, for a ‘challenging psychological condition’, and would not keep him longer than necessary.

Kano is a mainly Muslim state and adopted Islamic law in 2000.


Laos: funeral disrupted, education denied

On 24 June, a village chief forced a Christian family into a Buddhist funeral and five church leaders were arrested. They are currently being held handcuffed and with their feet in wooden stocks.

Mrs Chan died last Saturday morning. Her family immediately obtained permission from the village chief to bury their mother on their own personal property since Christians were denied burial rights in the village cemetery. On Sunday evening the village chief, along with the village’s Communist party secretary, reversed the decision and banned the mourning gathering as well as the burial ceremony until all of her sons and daughters sign an affidavit to recant their Christian faith. They refused.

The funeral service was then suspended, while a church leader appealed to the district chief. Yesterday, with Mrs Chan’s body beginning to decompose, the village police and the village military force went to her house and arrested the church leaders present.

Thirty minutes later, the village chief led the Buddhist monks and relatives of Mrs. Chan into the deceased person’s house and conducted a Buddhist ceremony and then took the body of Mrs. Chan to the village cemetery.

In May 2014 the same village chief declared that, by becoming Christian, three female teenagers had forfeited their right to an education. Noi (15), Net (15) and Nut (14) were told that they would not be permitted to sit their examinations.


Muslims denounce Iran’s persecution of Bahá’ís

Prominent Muslims have recently spoken out against the persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran. Led by Iranian Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, a number of senior Muslim figures from Iraq, South Africa and France have spoken out in favour of peaceful co-existence with members of the Bahá’ís religious movement.

Eurasia Review reports that in Baghdad, in an extended interview published online on 14 May 2014, Ayatollah al-Faqih Seyyed Hussein Ismail al-Sadr, founder of the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation, said “God Almighty has ordered us to deal with all our brothers and sisters from other religions and faith with kindness, based in justice, mercy and love,” he said. “Therefore, there is no objection to interacting and associating within the general human fundamentals between Muslims and their brothers from other religions and beliefs.”


Concern about UN Human Rights Council

Two senior staff of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have expressed concern that in the Geneva meeting of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that began on 10 June and runs through until 27 June are a number of member states that continue to perpetrate or tolerate serious violations of human rights, including religious freedom.

Katrina Lantos Swett and Mary Ann Glendon state that five of its 13 new states this year — China, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Cuba, and Russia — have been cited by USCIRF for failing to respect or protect this liberty. They argue that “Their behaviour contradicts the Council’s mission of promoting and protecting fundamental rights, including religious freedom. The world community should spotlight this incongruity and support accountability and change.”

The article concludes “Until these nations show signs of genuine progress on human rights, including religious freedom, their UNHRC presence sends an unfortunate message to both friends and foes of freedom. It makes the role of the United States and other supporters of human rights and religious freedom all the more pivotal, not only to address these violations but to stand as witness to them, providing strength and hope to the oppressed.”

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