Eritrea Protest Vigil 2017

Heather Fenton protesting.JPG

Three years ago, I found myself at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), playing a game with an eight year old girl – I would say the name of an animal and she would draw it.  She was an Eritrean refugee and had come to the HRC with her parents as part of a delegation who were there to give testimony at a side event. Her entire family had been detained by the government, locked up with others in a shipping container. She shared memories of the entire place smelling awful, of being freezing cold at night and roasting hot during the day and of how she and her other siblings joked about which family member was covered with the most lice. A serious issue was turned into a game as their parents did  their best to shield their children from the full force of the horrors they were experiencing.

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Turkey: Growing Religious Intolerance is Undermining Constitutional Commitments

American Pastor Andrew Brunson and his wife have been living in Turkey for 23 years running a church in Izmir with the full knowledge of the Turkish authorities.

However, on the 7 October 2016, they were summoned by the local police and accused for being a “threat to the national security”, with no further details supplied. While his wife was eventually released, Pastor Brunson was held in an immigration detention facility, where he was denied family visits and access to a bible. After two months in solitary confinement he was transferred to a high security prison in Izmir, before being brought before a court on 9 December, where he was informed he would be imprisoned due to his alleged links to the Gulen movement, the organisation deemed responsible for the attempted military coup in July 2016. The court did not reveal the source of this accusation. An appeal against the pastor’s imprisonment was turned down on 29 December, and a fresh appeal is expected to be launched at a higher court.

Deterioration in Human Rights and Rise in Ultra-nationalism

Pastor Brunson’s case is illustrative of the significant deterioration in human rights situation that occurred in the aftermath of the foiled military coup. Thousands of journalists, academics, activists, writers, teachers, judges and thinkers have been arrested since July 2016, accused of being “traitors and collaborators against national interests”, while others have been forced to adopt lower profiles and live in anticipation of being arrested.

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Uncertainty for Religious Minorities as Nepal Celebrates First Anniversary of its Constitution.

Notes to Editors: The eight Christians in Charikot, eastern Nepal were acquitted of all charges on 6 December 2016


“For the last two years we have been unsure about how long the doors will be open for us to practise our faith freely. We were not expecting this level of harassment”. Tanka Subedi, Christian leader and human rights defender, Kathmandu, Nepal

On 21 September, eight Christians in Charikot, eastern Nepal will attend their next (and possibly final) court hearing – one day after Nepal marks the first anniversary of the promulgation of its long awaited constitution. They all face charges of attempting to convert children to Christianity through the distribution of a comic book which explains the story of Jesus.

Bimal Shahi, Prakash Pradhan and Shakti Pakhrin of the Charikot group spent together 9 days in jail accused of illegal conversation because of the distribution of a small pamphlet "The Great story" with the story of Jesus explained for children

Bimal Shahi, Prakash Pradhan and Shakti Pakhrin from Charikot holding copies of “The Great Story”comic book. Photo Credit: Giulio Paletta/CSW 2016, Nepal

The arrests took place in June 2016, following two trauma counselling sessions organised by Teach Nepal, a Kathmandu-based non-governmental organisation (NGO). The sessions sought to address the psychological needs of children affected by the earthquakes that hit Nepal in April 2015 and were held on 8 and 9 June in two schools in Charikot: Modern Nepal School and Mount Valley Academy. When they finished, the organisers distributed a small gift pack to the children, which included a handkerchief and a 23-page comic book entitled The Great Story.

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In the Lead up to the G20 Summit, Questions Must be Asked About the Direction China is Taking.

Zhejaiang church

Authorities remove cross from church in Zhejiang Province, China. Photo: Weibo, courtesy of ChinaChange.org

When leaders of the G20 nations arrive in Zhejiang Province, China, next week for the G20 summit, they will be greeted by a different skyline than they might have seen five years ago.

The sky scrapers and shopping malls that have become the hallmark of China’s phenomenal economic growth will still be there, but the bright red Christian crosses which were once just as much a feature of Zhejiang have been taken down.

Removal of crosses in Zhejiang Province

Hundreds of crosses have been removed by the authorities since early 2014, as part of a campaign allegedly introduced to rid the province of structures which violate building regulations. Under draft regulations, crosses now have to be flat against outer walls, and their size and colour are restricted. The authorities have sometimes employed violent tactics in the face of protests by church members. Christian leaders who have opposed the cross removals through letters or peaceful gatherings have been arrested and accused of economic crimes.

It may be no coincidence that the site of the cross removal campaign is the same province selected to host the G20.

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In China, the Cross is Once Again a Symbol of Dissent

Saturday 4 June will mark 27 years since the Tiananmen Square Massacre, also referred to as the Tiananmen Square Protests, or simply the June Fourth Incident. On 3 June 1989, Chinese army tanks rolled into Beijing’s famous square and began to fire at unarmed protesters who had been camping out there for weeks to call for democratic reform. Students, workers and bystanders were shot down by their own “people’s army”, at the command of their country’s leaders. Estimates of the number of people killed range from hundreds to several thousand. More deaths followed as workers were tried and executed for their part in the protests.

Tiananmen as a turning point

The protesters were not calling explicitly for the right to freedom of religion or belief. Yet the massacre had a significant impact on some of the most prominent defenders of religious freedom in China today. A disproportionate number of human rights lawyers in China are Christian, and many veteran lawyers say that June Fourth had a profound effect on their personal journey towards both the Christian faith and the defence of human rights. Christian activists living outside China, and influential pastors inside, also refer to 1989 as a personal turning point. The intervening 27 years have seen rapid growth in the Protestant church; as some space opened up for religious activities, the church grew in leaps and bounds both in terms of size and visibility. Part of the reason was a rising curiosity among the urban young, not only about Christianity but about religion, belief and spirituality more broadly. Religion has also played an important and visible role in charity work and in some cases addressing social injustices.

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Youhanabad: This Is Our Land, This Is Our Spirit

For 65 years we have tolerated aggression against us so something must have drastically gone wrong that day for that to happen.’

Walking into Youhanabad on the outskirts of Lahore you notice the busyness of life; children playing, street vendors selling fruit and delicious fried snacks and motorbikes and scooters whizzing pass. Two years ago that the scene was transformed – chaos, carnage and confusion ensued on the morning of Sunday 15th March in 2015 when two suicide bombers approached Christ Church and St John’s Catholic Church and blew themselves up killing 15 and injuring around 70 people. After the bombing a mob was instigated, protest turned into violence and violence resulted in two people being lynched.

‘Within a few minutes victims became aggressors’

Suddenly the narrative changed, with many people thinking the attacks were a pre-planned Government conspiracy. Victims of the bomb blast who were Christians were refused treatment and turned away from hospitals. Women hired as domestic workers to do cooking and cleaning were laid off and young men returning to work were told they had no jobs. Retaliatory crimes were committed against Christians with police collusion and police raided Christian localities in Lahore indiscriminately arresting young men; there were complaints of ill treatment and torture.

Youhanabad was built when the Caritas Mission gave funds to Christians to obtain land outside of Lahore. Historically the area had a reputation associated with poverty and crime; as a consequence many Muslims on the outside had developed a very poor view of the Christians living there. After 30 years with the assistance of NGOs, Christians have worked hard to raise their status through better education and employment opportunities changing the attitudes of their Muslim neighbours.

In the aftermath

After the tragedy around 100 men were arrested using media profiling and video footage from mobile phones. A hearing took place to cancel the bails of some of the young men who were arrested; however, the judge maintained the bails and instead questioned the police for not pursuing their investigation and the criminals who were responsible for the double bomb blast.

Today as you approach the two churches there are stark, visible reminders of the tragedy – posters of victims are displayed outside both churches and the walls are covered with bullet holes.  Nonetheless, the community is healing and moving forward.

The Peace Committee, set up in 2013, is comprised of local men and women and divided into sub committees that address issues in the community. One such committee engages with local youths to encourage unity, awareness and cooperation though arranging seminars run by liberal Muslims, emphasising that Pakistan belongs to all Pakistanis. Other programs include sporting activities such as inter-faith cricket matches between Christians and Muslims, and helping bomb victims find new employment.  Another committee is working with the media to change the negative bias surrounding the events in Youhanabad.

 We have taken it all

The Christian community in Pakistan, among other religious minorities, continues to suffer widespread violence and discrimination. There have been numerous attacks on Christians from the burning of Joseph Colony to the tragic killing of Shama Bibi and Shehzad Masih, the couple burnt alive in a brick kiln. The environment is tense. Christians are affected by misused blasphemy laws which are disproportionately used to settle personal scores or in business rivalry. Christian girls are abducted, forced to marry Muslim men and convert against their will. The climate is troubled further by heightened terrorist and extremist threats and security issues, and the lack of resolve by both politicians and police to adequately protect Christians continues to persist.

We have taken everything that was thrown against us. You can pick up the history of this country, you will never find that the Christians have instigated violence or something so brutal at such a large scale.’

This is our land and this is our spirit

In the past year the community in Youhanabad has organised over 15 youth seminars that teach young people life skills, give them an understanding of their rights and instil courage. A recent training programme including Christian activists from Youhanabad has equipped participants with the techniques of social media activism, on digital rights, how to protest peacefully and on engaging with law enforcement agencies.

Despite doubts about the commitment of local Christian politicians, the community is determined to make their own success stories. Local residents told me of their patriotism and their interest in self-development. There is a hunger for education and to educate and counsel people.

‘We want to arrange seminars where you can educate us and we will make the change, change is already here… we are working and on the way change will grow.’

As the city prepares to commemorate those who died preparations are underway for church services and candle lit vigils in the streets of Youhanabad to mourn, to remember and to pray such tragedy never happens again.

By CSW’s Pakistan Desk Officer

The Courage of Cuba’s Ladies in White

Ladies in White

Ladies in White

Every Sunday Cuba’s Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco, in Spanish) have been forcibly and often violently prevented from attending Sunday morning services. Every Sunday since the group was formed in 2003, the women attend (or at least attempt to attend) Sunday Mass dressed in white to symbolise peace and walk through the streets in silent protest afterwards.

The Ladies in White movement was formed in response to the Black Spring in 2003 – a mass crackdown by the Cuban government on dissidents and journalists. Since 2010, all of the Black Spring prisoners have now been released. However, political prisoners remain in Cuba and the Ladies in White, a movement largely comprised of wives and other female relatives of former and current political prisoners remain active.

As the world marks International Women’s Day on 8 March, CSW commends their courage and peaceful protest, which saw them awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2005.

Weekly crackdown on the right to worship

On Sunday 1 February 2015, a member of the group, Mayelin Pena Bullain, was detained, beaten, kicked in the chest by a security agent in Mayabeque province and then imprisoned for the duration of Mass.

Individual cases of this kind number in the thousands. Arbitrary detentions like this are a weekly occurrence and similar incidences of harassment, threat and violence against the women have also been documented. While many women are detained in prison cells or at police stations during Mass, others have been handcuffed and kept in hot cars in the sun for up to six hours. In many cases, following detention, women are dropped off in remote locations forcing them to find their way home.

From 19 to 22 September 2015, 116 members of the Ladies in White were arrested and detained across the country, presumably to stop them from travelling to attend the activities around Pope Francis’s visit to the country. His visit to Cuba and the associated religious activities were not exempt from the government’s attempts to separate members of independent civil society from bodies of faith.

These incidences are indicative of how the government has extensively sought to prevent Cubans from exercising their right to worship. The government is particularly concerned with separating those it views as political dissidents from communities of faith as part of a more general policy of social isolation.  In 2015, the scope of those who have been targeted in Saturday night and Sunday morning police sweeps expanded to include other individuals associated with independent civil society, including human rights and democracy activists. Each weekend the authorities either block targeted individuals in their homes or detain them without charges – sometimes violently.

An unprecedented spike in FoRB violations

The backdrop to the arrests and detentions of the Ladies in White is an unprecedented crackdown on the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Cuba in 2015. During 2015, CSW recorded over 2,300 separate violations, some involving entire churches and others, in the case of arrests, dozens of victims. For the first time in four years, a church leader was sentenced to and served six months in prison for holding unauthorised religious services. It is a crackdown that continued through 2016 and into 2017.

In the weekly Sunday arrests, the majority of those targeted are Roman Catholic and members of the Ladies in White. Yet every week the Ladies in White peacefully defy the state by attending Mass knowing they may be harassed, beaten and arbitrarily detained.

Today we commend the Ladies in White’s persistent protest in the face of adversity and stand in solidarity with them in calling for the freedom of political prisoners in Cuba and for the freedom of all Cubans to assemble and worship without harassment or arrest.

By Claire Denman, CSW’s Public Affairs Officer

Crackdown on the Cuban Church

CSW’s 2015 report on violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Cuba detailed an unprecedented crackdown on churches across the denominational spectrum.

Figures compiled by CSW, which are not exhaustive but which serve as an indicator of the level of FoRB violations, reveal a tenfold increase – with 2,300 separate violations recorded in 2015 compared to 220 in 2014.

Many incidents involved entire churches or, in the case of arrests, dozens of victims.

Commenting on the findings, CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said, “CSW doesn’t use the word ‘unprecedented’ lightly to refer to violations of freedom of religion or belief in Cuba in 2015. Following an upward trend in violations in recent years, 2015 witnessed a spike as the authorities deployed ever more public and brutal tactics to target churches across the denominational spectrum, regardless of their legal status.”

“It is clear that despite promises of reform, the government is determined to maintain a tight grip on civil society, including churches. We commend the courage of religious groups who have spoken out publicly to denounce these violations and to call for the right to freedom of religion or belief to be upheld. We urge the international community to stand with them and to hold Cuba to account for these human rights violations,” he added.

Below is a digital illustration highlighting the crackdown on churches in Cuba.

Click here to read CSW’s report in full.