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PAKISTAN: Court sentences woman to death for WhatsApp ‘blasphemy’

Pakistani court sentences woman to death for WhatsApp ‘blasphemy’

Muslim woman convicted for sharing images deemed to be insulting to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and one of his wives.

By Asad Hashim


Al Jazeera (20/01/2021) – https://bit.ly/3fPD0RD – A Pakistani court has sentenced a Muslim woman to death for committing “blasphemy” by sharing images deemed to be insulting to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and one of his wives, also considered a holy personage by many Muslims.


The trial court in the northern Pakistani city of Rawalpindi on Wednesday sentenced Aneeqa Ateeq under the country’s strict blasphemy laws, which impose a mandatory death penalty for insulting the Prophet Muhammad.


“The blasphemous material which was shared/installed by the female accused on her status [on WhatsApp messaging platform] and the messages as well as caricatures which were sent to the complainant are totally unbearable and not tolerable for a Muslim,” Judge Adnan Mushtaq wrote in his verdict in the case.


Ateeq, 26, had pleaded not guilty to the charges, which were first filed in May 2020.

In a statement to the court, Ateeq said her accuser, Hasnat Farooq, had deliberately pulled her into a religious discussion to frame her after she refused “to be friendly” towards him. The two had met on a popular online multiplayer game and continued communicating on WhatsApp.


“So I feel that he intentionally dragged into this topic for revenge, that’s why he got registered [sic] a case against me and during [WhatsApp] chat he collected everything that went against me,” she said in an evidentiary statement.


Farooq contends the accused shared the allegedly blasphemous material as a WhatsApp status and refused to delete it when he confronted her on that messaging platform.

Ateeq’s death sentence is subject to confirmation by the Lahore High Court, a forum before which she also has the right of appeal.


Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where the country’s strict laws carry harsh penalties for several types of offences, including sentences of up to life imprisonment for some forms of the crime and the mandatory death sentence for insulting the Prophet Muhammad.


Increasingly, allegations of blasphemy have led to extrajudicial violence, mob justice or widespread violent protests.


Since 1990, at least 80 people have been killed in connection with blasphemy allegations, according to an Al Jazeera tally. Those killed include people accused of blasphemy, their family members, their lawyers and at least one judge, according to the data.


In the latest such attack, a Sri Lankan textile factory manager was beaten to death by a mob and his body burned publicly in the eastern city of Sialkot in December after he was accused of blasphemy by co-workers.


International rights groups say legal proceedings in blasphemy cases in Pakistan are often biased against the accused due to the charged nature of the allegations.


In a 2015 report, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) found that blasphemy trials in Pakistan were “fundamentally unfair”, listing concerns ranging from intimidation and harassment of judges, “demonstrable bias and prejudice against defendants by judges”, and investigations and prosecutions that do not meet due diligence requirements.


Photo : Aneeqa Ateeq’s death sentence is subject to confirmation by the Lahore High Court, a forum before which she also has the right of appeal [File: B K Bangash/AP]

Further reading about FORB in Pakistan on HRWF website

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MYANMAR: ‘A living hell’: Churches, clergy targeted by Myanmar military

‘A living hell’: Churches, clergy targeted by Myanmar military

Rights groups say Christians, a minority in the mainly Buddhist country, are being swept up in the military crackdown on resistance.

By Nu Nu Lusan and Emily Fishbein


ALJAZEERA (14.10.2021) – https://bit.ly/3pi1WHD – Last month, Myanmar soldiers gunned down Cung Biak Hum, a 31-year-old Baptist pastor, while he rushed to help put out a fire caused by military shelling. As his town of Thantlang in Myanmar’s northwestern Chin State went up in flames, soldiers sawed off the pastor’s finger and stole his wedding ring.


“The killing of Cung Biak Hum and mutilation of his finger demonstrate the extent of disrespect and brutality with which [Myanmar military] soldiers are conducting themselves in their ongoing war against the people,” Salai Za Uk Ling, deputy director of the Chin Human Rights Organisation, told Al Jazeera.


The September 19 incident is one of at least 20 cases documented by human rights groups and the media, in which Christian churches, church leaders and volunteers have been targeted or caught in the crossfire of military attacks since a February 1 coup.

The incidents include shelling churches, detaining pastors, and using churches as military bases.


“Churches are now empty and deserted,” said a Catholic church leader in Kayah State who, like several others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity due to concerns of reprisals. “Fear is instilled in the hearts of people. Even churches are not safe from attacks,” he said.


Military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him for comment on the incidents mentioned in this report, as his phone was switched off.


In May, the military justified its attacks on churches in Kayah, including a Catholic church where artillery fire killed four people, by claiming “local rebels” were hiding there, Radio Free Asia reported.


According to 2014 census figures, which surveyed some 50 million people and excluded roughly 1 million mostly Muslim Rohingya, Myanmar’s population is nearly 90 percent Buddhist.


The predominantly Buddhist ethnic Bamar majority dominates the military and politics, and the military has long promoted Buddhist nationalist organisations. The military-drafted 2008 constitution also recognises the “special position of Buddhism as the faith possessed by the great majority of the citizens”.


Christians, meanwhile, make up just six percent of Myanmar’s population and are mostly from ethnic minorities concentrated along the country’s borders, where their experiences of marginalisation and forced assimilation have contributed to decades-long armed struggles for self-determination.


According to Benedict Rogers, senior analyst for East Asia at the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide and author of three books on Myanmar, the military has always had a “deep-seated hostility” towards non-Buddhist religious minorities.


“[The military] have often used religion as a tool of repression. They have sowed religious nationalism, and that has been the case for decades,” he said, adding that since the coup, these patterns have only intensified. “Christians have certainly been targeted, both for their religion and their ethnicity,” he told Al Jazeera.


Chin, Kayah and Kachin State have the country’s largest concentration of Christians, according to the census.


Some 85 percent of the 478,000 residents of Chin State, located on Myanmar’s northwestern border with India, identified as Christian, while in Kayah, which borders Thailand in Myanmar’s southeast, 46 percent of its 286,000 people said they were Christian.


In Kachin State, in Myanmar’s far north on the border with China, 34 percent of 1.6 million people surveyed identified as Christian; the census excluded about 46,000 people living in areas under the control of the Kachin Independence Organisation.


“[The central government] set the mark of their ownership on Kachin lands, building their pagodas wherever there is a hill,” said Layang Seng Ja, head of research and publications and a professor at the Kachin Theological College and Seminary. “Our beautiful hills, valleys, plains and mountains have the symbols of their domination.”


Crackdown on resistance


Military violence towards Christians since the coup comes amid a broader crackdown on the resistance movement which has swept the country.


Security forces have killed more than 1,100 unarmed civilians, according to rights groups, mostly during street demonstrations, and as people have increasingly taken up arms, the military has indiscriminately attacked entire civilian populations, following a ‘four cuts’ strategy it has applied for decades in ethnic areas.


In Kayah and southern Shan State, more than 100,000 people have fled their homes since an intense military offensive began in May.


At least five churches have been damaged in artillery fire, including the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic church in Kayah’s Loikaw township where four civilians were killed.


About 300 people from the township’s South Kayantharyar village sought shelter in the church grounds on May 22, hiding in two cathedrals and the priests’ residence. “It seemed like the war was closing in on us, and we thought that the church would be safe,” said Khu Reh, a farmer. Al Jazeera has used a pseudonym for the 56-year-old.


The villagers raised white flags around the compound’s perimeter as a gesture of peace. They also disposed of kitchen knives and other items that could be mistaken for weapons, said Khu Reh.


According to his account, soldiers arrived the next day, searching the church grounds and questioning the villagers. “They warned us not to leave the church, and said that if they saw anyone coming out, they would shoot,” he said.


That night, he and a handful of villagers stood guard at the church gates.


One of them, he said, was shot in the leg at about 9pm local time (14:30 GMT). Artillery fire began falling on the village and two nearby villages at 1am (18:30 GMT), and when it stopped two hours later, Khu Reh and the other guards opened the doors to the new cathedral to a billow of smoke. Three elderly women and an elderly man lay dead and eight people were injured.


When Khu Reh returned the next day, he found the church ransacked and looted. “After that, whenever [soldiers] came to our village, they always stationed at our church,” said Khu Reh, who along with others from his village has since been living in a displacement camp.


The Catholic church leader interviewed by Al Jazeera said that soldiers have also stationed themselves at the Doumyalay Parish Church in Loikaw township, and on May 29 entered the compound of St. Peter’s seminary – also in Loikaw township – where 1,300 people had taken shelter, and shot a volunteer dead.


On Wednesday, a Catholic church in Kayah State’s Hpruso township was damaged by artillery fire; the clashes are ongoing, said the Catholic church leader.


He added that soldiers have confiscated medicine and food supplies which church groups had collected for displaced people, following patterns of aid obstruction which media and rights groups have documented across the country.


Although he risks his life to do so, the church leader says he remains committed to protecting and helping civilians in need.


“Humanitarian concern, human dignity and value, and compassionate hearts make us see [all civilians] as our brothers and sisters in need,” he said. “We must be with them in their fear and protect them. The suffering of our people is our suffering. The cries of our people are our pain.”


Military suspicions

In Chin State, where nearly 12,000 people remain displaced by military attacks that began when armed resistance groups emerged in April, the Chin Human Rights Organisation has collected reports of three churches which were occupied by soldiers and four which were hit by artillery fire, as well as the arbitrary detention of a pastor from Matupi township, who has been in custody without charge since August 23.


In August, soldiers passed through the Taal Baptist Church in Falam township and left Bibles and hymn books strewn outside the church amid piles of rubbish, according to photos seen by Al Jazeera.


And on October 3, local media outlet Zalen reported that soldiers entered a Catholic church in Magway region where displaced villagers from Mindat township had taken shelter. Soldiers interrogated them and checked their phones for evidence of ties to armed resistance, according to the report. Zalen also reported on Wednesday that soldiers had set a church in Chin State’s Falam township on fire as it burned and looted a small village. Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify these reports.


A representative from the Chin Baptist Convention, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that soldiers also destroyed Bibles while occupying the Grace Baptist Church in Mindat township in August. “The coup has affected our ability to safely and freely worship,” he said. “People worry that they will be attacked or bombed while they are praying.”


The violence, arrests and other forms of persecution which Christian churches across Myanmar have faced since the coup were already being acutely felt in the country’s far north, where a ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organization and the military collapsed in 2011.


In 2015, two volunteer teachers from the Kachin Baptist Convention were raped and murdered near a military encampment in northern Shan State, in a case which was never brought to justice.


And in 2017, two Baptist leaders were jailed on charges of defamation and supporting the KIO after they took journalists to a church which had been damaged by military airstrikes.


The military also threatened defamation charges against Kachin Baptist Convention president Hkalam Samson in 2019, after he told Donald Trump during a religious freedom event at the Oval Office that Christians in Myanmar had been “oppressed and tortured” by the military and lacked religious freedom.


Kachin churches have been integral in the humanitarian response to armed conflict, but have faced ongoing scrutiny for their humanitarian work, especially in KIO-controlled areas, where international aid access has effectively been blocked since 2016.

In 2018, the Kachin Baptist Convention had to temporarily suspend humanitarian operations in these areas after the military accused it of supporting the KIO because of its work.


Since the coup, fighting has increased between the KIO and military, and at least 14,000 people have been displaced, in addition to more than 100,000, who were already living in camps.


A Catholic church leader in Bhamo district, which has seen some of the most intense fighting, told Al Jazeera that the church’s humanitarian volunteers are regularly stopped at checkpoints, while in May, a Catholic priest was detained for four days while travelling from Bhamo to the state capital.


“[Soldiers] doubt us when we transport humanitarian aid, and we cannot transport it to displaced people when they need it,” said the church leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity.


It is among numerous ways that Kachin churches have been caught up in the post-coup crisis.


On March 8, a Catholic nun in the Kachin State capital knelt in front of police and soldiers and begged them to show mercy towards a group of protesters who had gathered in front of her church; she also served as a first responder that day when security forces opened fire, killing two.


In March and April, four Kachin churches were raided. At one of them, a Baptist church in northern Shan State, 30 soldiers entered, firing gunshots and detaining 10 people, including four ministers, for two days, according to local media reports.


The Kachin Theological College and Seminary in the state capital was also raided on March 13. According to Layang Seng Ja, a convoy of 15 military vehicles surrounded the campus and soldiers searched the grounds and dormitories. The school has since sent its students home, she said.


“If [soldiers] see people gathering, they will think somehow they are planning to do an uprising,” said the professor at the college, who herself fled to the KIO headquarters due to fear of arrest. “I want to go back to the classroom and teach my students about Jesus’ peace and justice, love and compassion, but I cannot do so now,” she added.


The military has also kept a close watch on Kachins’ prayer services. Three pastors in the state’s Nawngmun township have been in detention since June 14, under charges of incitement for allegedly using the phrase “ending military dictatorship” during a prayer for peace.


And on August 26, plainclothes police searched the Kachin Baptist Convention headquarters, alleging that the church’s secretary signed off on a COVID-19 prayer statement which used the phrase “terrorist junta”; The church claims the phrase was mistranslated from Kachin to Burmese.


“[The military] check the contents of our prayers,” said Seng Ja. “We cannot practice freedom of religion in our own land; we cannot talk about peace [or] justice.”


“We are in a living hell caused by this military junta and their mentality,” she added.


HRWF Comment


See the European Parliament Joint Motion for a Resolution on the human rights situation in Myanmar, including the situation of religious and ethnic groups



See the statements of several MEPs during the debates: Maria Arena, Adam Bielan, Dita Charanzová, Miguel Urban Crespo, Anna Fotyga, Jytte Guteland, Bernard Guetta, Svenja Hahn, Heidi Hautala, Krszysztof Hetman, Evin Incir, Assita Kanko, Sean Kelly, Stella Kyriakides, Iszabela-Helena Kloc, Adam Kosa, Elizbieta Kruk, Urmas Paet, Bert-Jan Ruissen, Silvia Sardone, Lorant Vincze (in bolt MEPs mentioning the situation of Christians)



Photo : Churches, which have provided refuge to people fleeing violence, are being caught up in the Myanmar military’s crackdown on all forms of resistance to its rule. Christians in Chin State say these hymn books were thrown out by soldiers who ransacked their church in August [Supplied]


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SRI LANKA: Sri Lanka to ban burqa, shut more than 1,000 Islamic schools

Minister for public security says decision has been taken on ‘national security’ grounds; activists decry announcement.


ALJAZEERA (13.03.2021) –  https://bit.ly/3vpMzxd – Sri Lanka’s government says it will ban the wearing of the burqa, a full-body veil that covers the face as well, and close more than 1,000 Islamic schools, the latest actions affecting the country’s minority Muslim population.


Separately, the government on Saturday announced using a controversial anti-terror law to deal with religious “extremism” and gave itself sweeping powers to detain suspects for up to two years for “deradicalisation”.


Minister for Public Security Sarath Weerasekera told a news conference he had signed a paper on Friday for cabinet approval to ban the burqa – an outer garment that covers the entire body and the face and is worn by some Muslim women – on “national security” grounds.


“In our early days, Muslim women and girls never wore the burqa,” he said. “It is a sign of religious extremism that came about recently. We are definitely going to ban it.”


The minister said he signed documents outlawing the burqa, but they need to be approved by the cabinet of ministers and Parliament where the government has a two-thirds majority to see its bills through.


Weerasekera also said the government plans to ban more than 1,000 Islamic schools that he said were flouting national education policy.


“Nobody can open a school and teach whatever you want to the children,” he said.

The government’s moves on burqas and schools follow an order last year mandating the cremation of COVID-19 victims – against the wishes of Muslims, who bury their dead.


This ban was lifted earlier this year after criticism from the United States and international rights groups.


Shreen Saroor, a Sri Lankan peace and women’s rights activist, said the moves come “at a time when the Muslim community has been constantly targeted”.


“It’s part of the Islamophobic reaction in Sri Lanka,” Saroor told Al Jazeera from the capital, Colombo.


“The compulsory cremation policy was revised, and now we hear so many other measures to some form of punishing the Muslim community,” she added, noting that Muslims in the country were not consulted in advance.


Citing the fact that the wearing of the mask has been made compulsory in the country during the coronavirus pandemic, Saroor said the burqa “looks [like] a very political revenge move”.


The wearing of the burqa in the majority-Buddhist nation was temporarily banned in 2019 after the Easter Sunday bombing of churches and hotels by armed fighters that killed more than 250 people.


The move drew a mixed response, with activists saying it “violated Muslim women’s right to practise their religion freely”.


Prevention of Terrorism Act


Meanwhile, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was elected president in 2019, after promising a crackdown on “extremism” promulgated regulations allowing the detention of anyone suspected of causing “acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill will or hostility between different communities”.


The rules, effective on Friday, have been set up under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which local and international rights groups have repeatedly asked Colombo to repeal.


“Anybody can be arrested for saying anything,” said Saroor, calling PTA “very problematic”.


Sri Lanka’s previous government, which was defeated by Rajapaksa at the 2019 elections, had pledged to repeal the PTA after admitting it seriously undermined individual freedoms, but failed to do so.


Muslims make up about 9 percent of the 22 million people in Sri Lanka, where Sinhalese Buddhists account for some 75 percent of the population.


A former defence secretary, Rajapaksa is immensely popular among the Sinhala Buddhist majority, who credit him with ending the island nation’s 26-year civil war in 2009.


Critics, however, say during the war he crushed the dissident Tamil Tigers with little regard for human rights, allowed abductions and gave consent to extrajudicial killings. He has rejected all the allegations.


Photo : Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

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SWITZERLAND: Muslims denounce ‘burqa ban’ proposal as referendum nears

Only a few women are understood to wear facial coverings in Switzerland, where a controversial vote will take place on March 7.

By Noele Illien

Aljazeera (02.03.2021) – https://bit.ly/3c6vT50 – Zürich, Switzerland – Less than a year ago, Valentina made the decision to switch her headscarf for a niqab.

“I feel better and safer wearing it,” she told Al Jazeera. “It is also an act of worship.”

For the 32-year-old from Switzerland, who prefers to be identified by only her first name, wearing the niqab – a veil worn by some Muslim women which covers the lower half of the face – is a personal choice.

“I wear it for myself, not as a symbol to the outside world,” she said.

But Valentina may not be able to wear the niqab for much longer.

On March 7, the Swiss will vote in a referendum that could usher in a ban on facial coverings, such as the niqab, in public.

The legislation, referred to locally as the burqa ban, does not specifically mention the facial coverings worn by Muslim women, but is largely seen to target them.

The proposed law mandates that “no one shall cover their face in public” and that “no one is permitted to force someone to cover their face based on their gender”.

There are some exceptions, such as for health reasons and traditions like a carnival.

Polls in local media outlets suggest that voters will narrowly approve the law, a move that some members of the Muslim minority believe singles them out from society.

Right-wing party pushes proposal

The initiative to ban facial coverings was launched by the Egerkinger Komitee, a group including politicians of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) that says it organises “resistance against the claims to power of political Islam in Switzerland”.

The group argues that “free people show their face” and that “the burqa and niqab are not normal clothes”, but symbolise the oppression of women.

In 2017, the group collected the required 100,000 signatures to put the issue to a referendum, now due to take place on March 7.

For Andreas Tunger-Zanetti, a researcher on Islam at the University of Luzern and author of the book The Burqa Debate in Switzerland, the upcoming vote is about more than just clothing.

“It is about managing diversity,” he said. “This is an issue for many people in Switzerland because there are no longer the distinct identity profiles people remember from their youth.”

Tunger-Zanetti says the burqa is an easy target that represents the “threat” of diversity because it is undoubtedly associated with Islam by Swiss voters.

According to official statistics, there are approximately 380,000 Muslims living in Switzerland, about 5 percent of the population, many with roots in the Balkan region.

Official statistics on women wearing facial coverings do not exist, but Tunger-Zanetti says the numbers are low.

Last year, he conducted a survey among key figures in Switzerland’s Muslim community, asking how many women they know to be wearing a full facial covering.

“The survey revealed that there are no burqas in Switzerland,” Tunger-Zanetti said.

He said that between 21 and 37 women wear the niqab.

“It is difficult to see how this can be sold as the pretended Islamisation,” he added.

‘Criminalising women’

It is not the first time that Switzerland’s Muslim community has felt singled out by a referendum.

In 2009, voters accepted legislation, also proposed by the Egerkinger Komitee, to ban the construction of new minarets.

At the time, the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland was formed to represent the Muslim voice in the discussions around the minaret referendum. It has since become the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group.

The organisation’s spokeswoman, Janina Rashidi, does not see a need for the proposed law on facial coverings.

“You are criminalising women for wearing something,” she said.

“I can understand that covering the face, for some people, might look strange,” she said, “but there are so many things in our society that look strange to one or the other.”

Rashidi compared the debate around the burqa to the differing opinions and preferences around face tattoos.

Rashidi said such laws reinforce the sentiments held by many Muslims of not being viewed as full members of Swiss society, despite being Swiss or having lived in the country for most of their lives.

“The radicalisation that we fear might happen is not because of some wrong perception or religious convictions,” she said, “it would be a direct result of these measures and the public discourse with a clear Islamophobic agenda.”

The Swiss government has recommended voters reject the proposal.

In January, it said in a statement that a nationwide ban would “undermine the sovereignty of the cantons, damage tourism and be unhelpful for certain groups of women”.

The government also cited the low number of people the law would apply to.

The ban has already been introduced on a local level by two cantons – Switzerland’s equivalent of states – St Gallen and Ticino.

In St Gallen, no woman has been reported or fined for covering her face since the law was introduced in 2019.

In Ticino, there have been 60 registered violations since the law was introduced in 2016, the majority of which were masked sports fans, and not women wearing the burqa or niqab.

If the ban is rejected in the referendum, a government proposal will come into force mandating facial coverings be removed for identification purposes. Funding will also be provided to women’s rights organisations.

As for Valentina, she says the vote feels personal.

“It makes me very sad because the initiative’s propaganda is based on the idea that we niqab wearers are terrorists,” she said.

“I am absolutely against terrorist organisations, and I don’t see myself as extreme but as a normal Muslim,” she said.

If the Swiss accept the ban at the polls, Valentina says she will move to Egypt, where her husband’s family is from.

“I’m not taking the niqab off,” she said

Photo : The legislation, referred to locally as the burqa ban, does not specifically mention the facial coverings worn by Muslim women, but is largely seen to target them [File: Michael Buholzer/Reuters]

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