IRAN: City council member in Iran sentenced to one year prison for defending Baha’is Farda (04.06.2019) – – A member of Shiraz City Council in Iran was taken from his home to prison to serve a one-year sentence on Sunday June 2, his wife said in a tweet.


Mehdi Haajati was first arrested and detained for ten days last September for defending the rights of the Bahai minority, [a group] which is severely persecuted by the Islamic Republic, especially the conservative clerics and hardliner security force. He was free[d] on bail.


His wife, Zohreh Rastegari, said in her tweet that a day earlier they received a text message that he has been sentenced to one year and they took action to enforce the verdict today.


[S]he told the official government news agency IRNA that Mr. Hajati has been transferred to Abdel Abad prison.


His legal trouble started when last year he tweeted, “In the past ten days I have knocked on many doors to get two Bahai friends released from detention, without success. As long as we face foreign enemies, our generation has a duty to reform the judicial and other procedures that endanger social justice”. He was charged with assisting the Baha’is.


4 June update: A combined sitting of the Council and the Mayor has expressed regret at the imprisonment of the Councillor and has called for his release. (In Shiraz, the Mayor is elected by the Council, rather than being appointed by Provincial authorities.)

CHINA: Chinese religious persecution, harassment of refugees abroad denounced in Seoul

A conference co-hosted by Bitter Winter denounced a global CCP campaign aimed at preventing Chinese refugees from persecuted religious groups from being granted asylum abroad.


By Marco Respinti


Bitter Winter (20.06.2019) –

Persecution escalating


China is trying to systematically wipe out all religions which are not controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), refugees and human rights experts told a distinguished audience at the conference “The Long Arm of the Dragon: China’s Persecution of Believers at Home and Abroad,” co-hosted in Seoul on June 20 by the Korean NGO Advocates for Public Interest Law (APIL), Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), and Bitter Winter. The experts explained how the CCP aggressively pursues religious believers who leave the country and exerts pressure to block foreign governments from granting them refugee status. The conference marked the United Nations’ World Refugee Day, and included an exhibition of pictures about religious persecution in China, most of them taken from Bitter Winter.


The most extensive persecution is against the Muslim majority in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region. “Over three million Uyghur detainees are being held illegally in concentration camps and more are held in detention centers and prisons,” said Nurgul Sawut, Director of the Board for Campaign for Uyghurs. “What is happening is systematic genocide.” Ms. Sawut, who is based in Australia, said that at least 12 of her own family members in China were in the camps or were unaccounted for.


“It is hard for people to acknowledge the scale of repression in China,” said Lee Il, a refugee rights lawyer with APIL in Seoul. “That is partly because the situation of Uyghurs and other victims is not well known. But it is also because it does not fit the image of modern, civilized, hi-tech, secular China.”


“But the facts are very clear. Given the sheer scale, the repression now presents the greatest threat to human rights in this century. One consequence is that democratic countries are having to develop a response to refugees, not just from impoverished and war-torn countries, but from a major trading partner,” he said.

The repression includes a number of other religions, from Tibetan Buddhism to new religions like Falun Gong and The Church of Almighty God, said Massimo Introvigne, editor-in-Chief and founder of Bitter Winter. “The Chinese Communist Party has promoted a massive campaign of fake news aimed at justifying its persecution to international audiences,” he said. “They deny, for example, the harvesting of organs from prisoners of conscience, notably members of Falun Gong. They have spread false accusations against The Church of Almighty God, including that its members were responsible for the murder of a woman in a McDonald’s outlet in 2014, a crime in fact committed by a different religious movement.”


“China also claims that Article 300 of its Criminal Code, which punishes those active in a banned religious group with jail penalties from three to seven years or more, is only enforced against those who commit serious crimes,” Introvigne added. “But this is mere propaganda. Hundreds of decisions against Falun Gong practitioners, members of The Church of Almighty God, Shouters, All Range Church, and other Christian churches, and one recent case involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, prove that Article 300 is used against anybody who spreads the beliefs or the literature of a religious group that is banned in China.”


Justice asked for refugees


Some 1,000 members of The Church of Almighty God are seeking asylum in Korea. Two of them described their personal experiences of torture at the seminar. Using the pseudonym Xiao Rui, one woman said that during her brutal torture when she was strung up and beaten for 12 hours, a police officer admitted that official orders permitted them to kill victims. “‘It is nothing to beat them to death’ – this has become a (CCP’s) slogan for persecuting Christians,” she said.

Another woman, “Zhao Lin,” also reported that she was arrested and tortured in China. After she fled to South Korea, she said, the CCP coerced her brother, together with family members of other refugees, to come to Seoul and participate in “false demonstrations,” asking her to “come home.” But in fact, she insisted, those refugees who have returned to China have been arrested and sentenced there, meaning that returning to China is not “going home,” but going to jail instead.


According to The Church of Almighty God figures, 20 members died in 2018 during torture or mistreatment by the police officers.


The experts urged governments around the world to accept that religious believers face arrest and torture if they return to China. As the Beijing authorities are using facial recognition cameras and DNA testing to amass data on believers and their families, it is hard for believers to hide in their home country.

“Religious minorities in China are at high risk of being subject to arrest and torture if they remain in China or if they are deported back to China,” said Lea Perekrests, deputy director of Human Rights Without Frontiers. “China vastly exceeds all other countries in the number of freedom of religion or belief prisoners currently being held,” she said.


Among the methods used against religious prisoners, she said, are “constant surveillance, forced administration of drugs, violent interrogation, severe beating, sleep deprivation and use of ‘torture racks.’” “The research is clear and the legal expectations of China and governments hearing asylum cases are clear,” Perekrests said. “States need to abide by international non-refoulement laws and cease the extradition of Chinese asylum-seekers from religious minorities as they are at grave risk of torture and inhumane treatment should they re-enter China.”

The audience was also able to watch two movies produced by Bitter Winter, the first on Tiananmen and religious persecution in China and the second on how the CCP harasses abroad refugees who escaped religious persecution.

*All pics via Bitter Winter.

INDONESIA: As Pancasila loses support, more and more Indonesians drawn to caliphate

More and more soldiers disapprove of the pluralist philosophy of Indonesia’s founding fathers. For the country’s Defence Minister, “It won’t be too much of a problem today, but [it might be] in the next 20-30 years.” Meanwhile, 23.4 per cent of university students back jihad to establish an Islamic state. (19.06.2019) – – Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country. Pancasila, the pluralist doctrine on which it is based, is being gradually eroded. This is partly the result of the growth of ideologies that promote the caliphate, a trend that is attracting more and more Indonesians, this according to Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu.


Pancasila (effigy pictured) “is now starting to get corroded,” Ryamizard said at an event held today at the headquarters of the Armed Forces (TNI) in East Jakarta. “It won’t be too much of a problem today, but [it might be] in the next 20-30 years. If we let this happen, the leaders of tomorrow might still be a college student now, but if the person becomes a president, army commander, or police chief, and they adopt the caliphate, it would be the end of this nation.”


A ministry study found that a significant segments of Indonesian society are questioning Pancasila. About 23.4 per cent of university students agree with the idea of jihad to establish an Islamic state or caliphate. About 23.3 per cent of school students also say they prefer the latter.


The caliphate draws support across the board: private sector, civil service, state-owned enterprises. Indeed, the Defence Ministry study found that 9.1 per cent of respondents do not agree with the ideology of Pancasila.


“Among soldiers, about 3 per cent disapprove of this philosophy,” Ryamizard said. For him, this “is devastating.” If Pancasila should fail, the nation will be dragged into the same situation that afflicts the Middle East, he lamented.

SAUDI ARABIA: Despite “reforms”, Riyadh grants new powers to the religious police

The authorities have approved a rule on “public decency” that targets “indecorous”  clothing and graffiti. Uncertainty about entry into force. According to critics, it lends itself to arbitrary interpretations and applications that favor repression. Controversy and protests on social media. (19.06.2019) – – A bill being approved in Saudi Arabia, centered on decorum in public places, has already raised fierce controversy over its repressive content. According to the critics, in fact, it would mean giving new repressive powers to the religious police which, in the last period, had seen their authority curtailed following a timid reform program.


Originally, the law on “public decency” – approved by the government in April – was to come into force on 25 May last; however, to date there is no definite information on its application. With the aim of safeguarding the “values ​​and principles” of Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam, it targets clothing that “offend decorum”, including shorts for men, and “graffiti” or other forms of pictorial “street” art.


Offenders risk fines ranging up to 5,000 riyals, just over 1300 dollars.


Critics say that the law, as it is formulated, is too vague and lends itself to individual interpretation; this means that, in the application phase, it could lead to arbitrary and disproportionate punishments. Hence the reaction on social networks and on the web, against the “return” of the religious police (haia) “without a beard” as the scholar Sultan al-Amer wrote on twitter.


In the past it was not difficult to meet bearded guards of the religious police intent on patrolling roads and shopping centers in the main cities of the country; among their duties was to chastise women who wore bright nail varnish or caught while driving, when it was still forbidden. They were in charge of rigidly enforcing gender segregation. However, in recent years, following the reform program wished by the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (Mbs), their power has been reduced – and greatly.


Social median in the Arab world messages with the hashtag “the shorts do not offend public morals” are multiplying along with memes of sweating men running on treadmills in loose traditional clothes. For many analysts and experts this confusion is the result of “the meeting between Saudi Arabia and Singapore”. “The Saudi leadership – says Kristin Diwan, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington – wants to undermine the Islamic base of social power, while maintaining absolute political control and public order”.


“This [law] is an effort – observes Ali Shihabi, founder of the Saudi think-tank Arabia Foundation – to balance the pressure of conservative elements of society, which accuse [the government] of letting things get out of control”. Moreover, social transformations are viewed with “resentment” in conservative and radical neighborhoods, which call for greater state control in public life (of men and women).


audi Arabia is governed by an absolute Sunni monarchy, based on a Wahhabi fundamentalist view of Islam.


Over the past two years, the Crown Prince’s social reforms included granting women the right to drive cars and to attend sporting events in designated areas of stadiums.


However, the authorities have also cracked down on senior officials, business people, activists and critical voices, most notably in the Jamal Khashoggi affair, raising questions about the real extent of change.

EGYPT: Coptic Christian arrested for allegedly insulting Islam on Facebook in Egypt (18.06.2019) – – A young Coptic Christian man has been arrested near Cairo, Egypt for allegedly insulting Islam after a hacker posted material on his Facebook page, he and family members said.


Fady Yousef, 25, was arrested early in the morning of June 11 in Giza, southwest of Cairo, despite having posted a video explaining that hackers had placed the offending material on his Facebook page, according to the Coptic Bishopric of Maghagha and El Edwa in Minya.


The previous night (June 10), Muslim extremists angry over the offending material attacked his parents’ home in Eshneen el Nasara village, near Maghgaha in Minya Governorate, about 260 kilometers (160 miles) south of Giza, according to a statement from the bishopric.


“On Monday [June 10] some extremists reaching a few hundred from Eshneen el Nasara village and the villages around it attacked the home of Yousef Todary,” the statement from Bishop Anba Aghathon read. “They entered and destroyed the contents of the house, then moved to the house next door where his brother lived and attacked it from the outside. They were shouting against the Christian religion and the Copts of the village.”


Yousef Todary, his wife and daughter were able to escape minutes before the Muslim extremists broke in and destroyed the refrigerator, television set, mattresses, furniture and windows, according to the bishop.


Stating that Muslim extremists alleged the post was insulting to Islam, the bishop defended Fady Yousef, reiterating that he said his Facebook was hacked.


The young Copt posted an apology on the page saying he would never do such a thing, and that people who knew him know this well. His sister, Nermeen Yousef, also posted a clarification, saying her brother apologized not because he did anything wrong, but because people mistakenly believed that he was the author of the post, according to Copts United.


“He is apologizing because he respects your feelings,” she wrote. “He is not a child to do such a thing, and also his friends are Muslims and always tell me they are dear to him and they know this well.”


Along with Fady Yousef, police also detained his brother and uncle; two other uncles turned themselves in as soon as they heard that police sought them, according to various sources. They were all transported to Minya pending investigations, and on Friday (June 15) Copts United reported that the brother and uncles had been released.


Yousef is in custody facing charges of posting material offensive to religion, according to Copts United. Insulting a heavenly religion (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) in Egypt, where the state religion is Islam, is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of 500 to 1,000 Egyptian pounds (US$30 to US$60), according to Article 98(f) of the Penal Code.


Police reportedly arrested 25 people suspected of attacking the home of Yousef Todary and those of other Christians in the village, as well as others who wrote posts on social media to instigate attacks.


Police reportedly dispersed angry crowds and set up protective posts in Eshneen el Nasara and other villages. They also set a protective perimeter around the village the following Friday (June 14) in anticipation of possible violence, according to Copts United.


The bishop’s statement noted that Reda Eid, a Muslim from the same village, during Easter posted derogatory words against Christianity, the church and its leadership. Eid later went to the church leaders to apologize, taking some of his Christian friends with him, according to the statement. Father Soliman responded “You are our son, you came here and I accept your apology, we are all brothers,” thus ending the incident, according to Copts United.


Egypt ranked 16th on Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

AZERBAIJAN: Appeal court upholds couple’s massive fines

By Felix Corley


Forum 18 (17.06.2019) – – On 4 June, Shirvan Appeal Court rejected the appeals of both a husband and wife against massive fines for having religious literature and holding a New Year meeting for children without state permission. A local court had fined Baptist couple Safqan and Gulnar Mammadov each more than three months’ average wages for those in formal work.


“Safqan and Gulnar can’t lodge further appeals,” the head of the Baptist Union Pastor Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18 from the capital Baku. “We are considering writing to President Ilham Aliyev about the case” (see below).


Three Protestants fined about three months’ average wages each for meeting to study their faith in the northern town of Sheki have chosen not to appeal against their punishments. A relative informed police of the December 2018 meeting, and officers then raided it (see below).


In November 2018, Sheki Appeal Court rejected the appeal by Taleh Mammadov against a large fine for teaching Islam to children despite apparently having State Committee permission to do so. “What he did was illegal,” the police officer who signed the record of an offence against him told Forum 18. “He had no permission to teach Islam” (see below).


Strict state controls


The government imposes strict controls on who is allowed to exercise the right to freedom of religion or belief, where and in what circumstances. Any meeting by a group of people without state permission to exist is illegal, as are meetings held in unapproved venues. Religious teaching is similarly restricted. Those who violate these state controls face punishment.


Raids on people meeting for worship and on individuals in their homes and fines have been frequent in recent years. However, the authorities appear to have launched fewer such raids in 2019 so far, Forum 18 notes.


Pastor Zenchenko told Forum 18 that the raid and fines on the Mammadovs are the only known such incidents on members of the Baptist Union so far in 2019.


Jehovah’s Witnesses – who have in the past faced repeated raids and fines – told Forum 18 that their communities have not faced raids or fines so far in 2019.


Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims have sought to overturn earlier fines and gain redress for earlier raids through the local courts, so far with no success.


Similarly, many have also sought redress through appeals to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg or complaints to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (see forthcoming F18News article).


Sabirabad: House searches, literature confiscation


Baptist couple Safqan and Gulnar Mammadov live with their two young children in the village of Qaraguna in Sabirabad District, south-west of the capital Baku. Trouble began after their six-year-old son took Christian booklets to school and offered them to classmates without seeking his parents’ approval or school approval. The head teacher saw this and came to the family home to ask what the booklets were about and called the police, fellow Christians told Forum 18.


The son’s offer of Christian booklets in school was not subject to any prosecution of the parents or anyone else and did not appear in the subsequent case documents.


A police officer summoned Gulnar Mammadova on 25 February, the day after her husband Safqan had left for several months’ work in Georgia. She had to take her two young children with her. At the police station, officers asked her what religious “sect” she was from and where she had got the booklets.


After interrogating Gulnar Mammadova for about six hours, police brought her back home and searched it. Officers seized 106 books and booklets, including Bibles and New Testaments, as well as discs with Christian songs.


Police then asked about gift packages given out to 12 children and their parents at a gathering at the Mammadovs’ home on 31 December 2018 to mark New Year, which contained sweets and a cartoon book about the birth of Jesus. The gift packages had been given out by Baptist Pastor Hafiz Bakhshaliyev, from the nearby city of Shirvan.


Qaraguna Police then summoned Pastor Bakhshaliyev. Officers questioned him for more than six hours and forcing him to write a statement. He wrote that all the books had undergone the compulsory state censorship and had the required permission from the State Committee.


Qaraguna Police then took Pastor Bakhshaliyev to a bus stop on the edge of Shirvan, where 12 police officers from Shirvan were waiting for him. Four of them accompanied him to his home, where they searched it and seized all the Christian literature they could find, including Bibles and New Testaments.


On 10 April, Police Major Shohrat Salmanov of Qaraguna Police drew up records of an offence against both Safqan and Gulnar Mammadov, relating to books they possessed and the December 2018 meeting in their home. The cases were then sent to court. Major Salmanov accused them of violating Administrative Code Article 451 and Article 515.0.3.


Article 451 punishes “Storing with the intention of sale or distribution, taking outside the place of production, or selling or distributing in any other way goods, products and informational material that should bear a control mark but do not have such a mark”. Such items include alcohol, tobacco and religious literature.


Article 451 specifies a fine of 50 Manats per item for individuals (to a maximum of 5,000 Manats), 100 Manats per item for officials (to a maximum of 10,000 Manats), and 150 Manats per item for legal entities (to a maximum of 50,000 Manats). In addition, items without the stickers authorising sale are to be confiscated.


Article 515.0.3 punishes “clergy and members of religious associations holding special meetings for children and young people, as well as the organising or holding by religious bodies of organised labour, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies” with fines for individuals of between 1,500 and 2,000 Manats.


Major Salmanov of Qaraguna Police insisted that he had simply drawn up the records of an offence after the police investigator had studied the cases. Asked on 7 June why the Mammadovs had been fined simply for having religious literature and meeting with others, the officer told Forum 18: “They know what they did.” But he added: “I didn’t know they had been fined.”


Sabirabad: Two large fines, appeals fail


On 16 April, Judge Nuraddin Bagirov of Sabirabad District Court heard the cases against both Safqan and Gulnar Mammadov. He found them both guilty of violating Administrative Code Article 451 and Article 515.0.3.


Judge Bagirov fined both husband and wife 1,500 Manats each, according to the decisions seen by Forum 18. The fine on each represents more than three months’ average wages for those in formal work.


“The court decision is completely contrary to the laws of Azerbaijan,” one local Christian familiar with the case complained about Judge Bagirov’s decision. “This once again proves that the case was falsified and ordered by State Committee representatives.”


Both Safqan and Gulnar Mammadov appealed to Shirvan Appeal Court. However, on the afternoon of 4 June, Judge Rafiq Jafarov rejected Gulnar Mammadova’s appeal. Later the same afternoon, Judge Ismayil Ahmadov similarly rejected Safqan Mammadov’s appeal, according to court records.


“The court hearing lasted only 10 minutes and issued an unfair decision,” a Christian close to the case noted after the decision.


“Safqan and Gulnar can’t lodge further appeals,” the head of the Baptist Union Pastor Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18 from Baku on 14 June. “We are considering writing to President Ilham Aliyev about the case.”


Pastor Zenchenko believes the police and the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations (to whom he gave a copy of the initial court decisions) have failed to take the decisions they need to. “It’s the State Committee’s job to resolve problems between believers and the government. But for more than a month it has done nothing,” he complained.


Javanshir Bahramov, the State Committee official for the region including Sabirabad, repeatedly put the phone down on 17 June as soon as Forum 18 asked why the Mammadov couple had been fined for having religious books and inviting parents and children to their home at New Year.


Sheki: Three Protestants fined for religious study meeting


Three Protestants fined about three months’ average wages each for meeting to study their faith in the northern town of Sheki have chosen not to appeal against their punishment, Christians familiar with the case told Forum 18.


Police arrived at the home of one of the three in mid-December 2018 after a relative informed them that the three Protestants were holding a religious study meeting. Records of an offence were drawn up against Samir Ismayilov, Ismat Azizov and Jalil Rahimli. All were accused of violating Administrative Code Article 515.0.3.


Article 515.0.3 punishes “clergy and members of religious associations holding special meetings for children and young people, as well as the organising or holding by religious bodies of organised labour, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies” with fines for individuals of between 1,500 and 2,000 Manats.


Sheki District Court found all three guilty in separate hearings, Ismayilov on 19 December 2018, Azizov and Rahimli on 3 January 2019, according to court records. The Judges fined each of the three Protestants 1,500 Manats, about three months’ average wages for those in formal work. The three paid the fines, choosing not to appeal.


Officials in the office of Taleh Abdullayev, the Sheki representative of the State Committee, refused to put Forum 18 through to him on 12 June, would not discuss anything and put the phone down.


Sheki: Fined for teaching Islam to children


On 15 November 2018, Judge Imanverdi Shukurov of Sheki Appeal Court rejected the appeal by Taleh Mammadov against a large fine for teaching Islam to children, according to the decision seen by Forum 18.


On 15 October 2018, Judge Kamran Suleymanov of Sheki District Court had found Mammadov guilty of violating Administrative Code Article 515.0.3. The Judge had fined him 1,500 Manats.


Article 515.0.3 punishes “clergy and members of religious associations holding special meetings for children and young people, as well as the organising or holding by religious bodies of organised labour, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies” with fines for individuals of between 1,500 and 2,000 Manats.


Mammadov was punished for teaching Islam to children, although he had earlier had approval for this from the local Qazi with the consent of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. Major Qudrat Rasulov, Head of Sheki City Police, drew up a record of an offence against him on 30 September 2018.


Mammadov told the appeal court that he had stopped teaching Islam for three months but that the State Committee had given him permission to resume.


Major Rasulov insisted that Mammadov had been fined by the court, not by him. “What he did was illegal,” he told Forum 18 from Sheki on 11 June 2019. “He had no permission to teach Islam.” Asked why Mammadov needed such permission, Major Rasulov responded: “He must submit to our law.” He then put the phone down.


Officials in the office of Taleh Abdullayev, the Sheki representative of the State Committee, refused to put Forum 18 through to him on 12 June, would not discuss anything and put the phone down.