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Top Stories of the Year 2000

Friday, August 24, 2001 | Tag Cloud

The growing awareness of worldwide Christian persecution can hardly be explained by the actions of a few people or the dramatic events in a specific country. So the following list of "top" stories for 2000 should be viewed only as a representative sample of significant news stories that have taken place this year. The list is also limited to areas where Compass Direct correspondents were able to provide in-depth coverage. Some of the stories come from isolated events. Others describe the ongoing oppression Christians often face. All help give us a glimpse of the difficult situations faced by the church around the world.

There are many other stories that deserve to be in this list but are not. Nevertheless, it is our hope that the following summaries and related timetables of events will serve as a reminder that vigilance and advocacy of behalf of the Persecuted Church are still desperately needed.

China

PRESSURE ON UNREGISTERED CHURCHES

China's Christians braced themselves for continued pressure in 2000 when word leaked from a January 10 Religious Affairs Bureau conference that the government wished to "strengthen control" of the two official churches by increasing the number of "political appointees" in the higher echelons of the Protestant Three Self Patriotic Association and the Catholic Patriotic Association. These leaked minutes from this conference caused a huge embarrassment to China's official church leaders who claim they are not political operatives imposed on the church, but Christians selected purely by the churches. The conference also called for more surveillance and control over unregistered religious activities. Throughout the year the government position seemed to be -- in the words of a local policeman -- "If you refuse to register, then that proves you are a cult."

The majority of China's Christians, who still prefer to worship in house churches, continued to endure government suspicion, if not outright hostility. In many places, house churches function as "half-open" churches, tolerated by authorities so long as they do not entertain foreign visitors or grow above 50 or 70 members.

On the other hand, persecution did not noticeably diminish. Compass carried an analysis of letters from China to FEBC radio which showed that all over the country Christians were subject to pressure, ranging from disruption of meetings by local cadres to fines, arrests and imprisonment. As usual, the greater number of arrests came from southern Henan, where on August 23, the largest mass round-up of Christians in recent years took place. One hundred and thirty leaders were arrested along with three American Bible teachers.

In terms of personalities, it was a better year. Well-known house church pastors Alan Yuan and Samuel Lamb were largely left alone. In May, Xu Yongze was released on time after serving a three-year sentence. Another high profile prisoner, David Zhang (Zhang Rongliang), sentenced in December 1999 to three years hard labor, was released early. Li Dexian, a house church teacher from Guangdong province, was continually arrested and released to prevent him speaking at a Tuesday night venue that had been demolished by police.

China 2000

January 10: Government issues new directives to control religion.

May 16: House church pastor Xu Yongze released after three years in labor camp.

August 23: 120 Christians detained in southern Henan province.

September 26: Government issues rules governing religious activities of foreigners.=

Colombia

THE WAR THAT NEVER ENDS

The suffering of Colombia's Christians was unrelenting in 2000. Caught in the middle of the ongoing warfare between guerrilla factions, drug cartels, para-military groups and the government's army, Christian leaders were especially targeted as the battle for control of people and land resulted in dozens of deaths and thousands of refugees. The on-again-off-again nature of so-called "peace" talks dashed the already minimal hopes for ending the conflict.

An estimated 100,000 civilians have died during the past 10 years as a result of Colombia's civil war. It continues to claim about 30,000 lives a year. Between one and two million people have been displaced by the violence since 1995, more than 500,000 since 1998 alone. Approximately 10 percent are Christians. Most are now living in extreme poverty.

Colombian church sources estimate, and many would call it conservative, that 300 churches have been closed and more than 50 pastors and Christian leaders have been assassinated since 1998. Kidnapping has become a commercial enterprise, with more than 17,500 cases reported in the last decade. In reality, the number of kidnap victims may be closer to 70,000.

Colombia 2000

January 23: Two Pentecostal pastors murdered by guerrillas for "assisting" the army.

April 24: Regional youth leader kidnapped and slain in Uraba.

May 24: Australian missionary released after being held captive by guerrillas for two weeks.

September 2: Kidnapped pastor released near Medellin for $2500 ransom.

November 24: Guerrilla commanders deny that they target evangelical pastors.

Egypt

NO JUSTICE AFTER EL-KOSHEH VIOLENCE

The outbreak of Egypt's worst sectarian violence in 20 years in El-Kosheh village in Upper Egypt's Sohag governate on the eve of the year 2000 challenged the safety and morale of the country's entire Christian community. In a three-day rampage unchecked by local security officials, 21 Christian villagers were murdered and 260 of their homes and businesses destroyed. Government promises to identify and prosecute the guilty turned sour quickly.

Fabricated criminal charges were pressed against Father Gabriel, a village priest, followed by the surprise jailing of 38 Coptic Christians, indicted along with 98 Muslim suspects for the violence. Verdicts from the first trial concluded in September gave a mere "slap on the wrist" to 39 Muslim defendants, with 18 released, another 17 given six month to two-year jail terms, and weighty 10-year sentences reserved for the four defendants still not in custody. A second trial including the murder suspects and all the Coptic defendants was set to begin December 2.

With deliberate timing, Sohag governate courts have meanwhile handed down harsh verdicts against two individual Christians from El-Kosheh. Shaiboub Arsal was sentenced in June to 15 years at hard labor in a controversial double-murder case dating back to August 1998, when local police were accused of abusing hundreds of villagers in order to pin the murders on a Christian suspect. In a separate case, Sourial Isshak was found guilty of insulting Islam on the streets of El-Kosheh and sentenced in July to three years in prison. Both cases remain under appeal.

Egypt 2000

Dec. 31- Jan. 2: Muslim mobs rampage through El-Kosheh and surrounding villages.

January 4: Mass funeral held for Coptic victims.

January 27: President Mubarak blames "subversive foreign elements" for the violence.

February 7: Criminal charges filed against Father Gabriel.

March 11: Chief prosecutor indicts 98 Muslims and 38 Copts for violence.

March 13: 24 Muslim suspects released for "lack of evidence."

June 5: Christian Shaiboub Arsal sentenced to 15 years in prison.

July 16: Sourial Isshak given 3-year term for "insulting Islam."

September 5: First El-Kosheh verdict issues minimal sentences.

Hong Kong

QUIET SUBVERSION OF THE CHURCH

This was the year religious freedom became a major talking point -- however briefly -- in the former British colony that became autonomous under Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The man who made it so was the Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, who until this year was the epitome of discretion but suddenly tired of Beijing's manipulation and spoke out.

He first made waves in an interview with Compass in August, complaining that Catholic participation in an 800-member committee that elected six members of Hong Kong's Legislative Council was "a waste of time." He decried the glacial pace toward democracy in the territory, wondered aloud whether it would ever come because "Hong Kong is tightly under the control of Beijing," and expressed concern that the government was beginning to take control of the schools away from the church.

This was nothing compared to the fracas that erupted around the Vatican's decision to canonize on October 1 no less than 87 Chinese Christians and 33 foreign missionaries martyred on Chinese soil between 1648 and 1930. Beijing was furious and with characteristic insensitivity claimed many deserved to die. More important than the war of words, however, was Beijing's direct warning to the Catholic Church not to make much of this canonization ceremony.

The official Catholic Church in China meekly complied, but not Hong Kong's Catholics. Bishop Zen not only denounced this as "meddling with religious freedom" but went on to explain in a Hong Kong newspaper how he had been sent not-so-subtle signals from the Beijing leadership to tone down his remarks. Someone came to Zen at a diplomatic reception and whispered, "Beijing is not so pleased with you."

Often in a Chinese context, such hints are enough. Bishop Zen refused to play the game by exposing this quiet manipulation. It earned him the respect of Hong Kong's 300,000 Catholics. Concern remains, however, that the Hong Kong's Basic Law is being subverted so quietly that the church will not be aware of its restrictions until it is too late.

Hong Kong 2000

September 30: Catholic commission condemns suppression of the China church.

October 1: Vatican canonizes 120 martyrs killed in China before 1930.

October 29: Catholics celebrate the canonization of the 120 Chinese and foreign saints despite complaints from Beijing.

October 30: Catholic Church announces plans for annual memorial services to honor the new saints.

Indonesia

MASSACRES IN THE MALUKUS

Gory headlines of the deadly Muslim-Christian carnage in the islands that make up the provinces of northern and southern Maluku dominated the international perception of Indonesia in 2000. However, in more populous regions such as Java, the church enjoyed greater freedoms as the country groped uncertainly towards a more stable democratic system. Dr. Iman Santoso, director of LINK -- a national prayer network -- stressed that Christians in most areas in the post-Suharto era were freer to evangelize, build churches and distribute literature. Since the majority of Indonesia's 15-25 million Christians live in such areas, this benefit must not be undervalued.

But concerns rightly centered on Maluku where roughly two million people live, half of them Christian, half of them Muslim. A grizzly civil war, waged with machetes and bows and arrows since January 1999, has resulted in 100,000 Muslim refugees fleeing the conflict. This changed dramatically for the worse in April with the arrival of a 3,000-strong Muslim jihad force armed with rifles and artillery. That such a large group could slip through the naval blockade defied belief, and local Christians feared army connivance.

These jihad warriors quickly set about their task, striking first the Christian village of Duma in Halmahera Island, killing more than 200 people with unspeakable brutality. A declaration of civil emergency in Maluku on June 26 by President Wahid seemed powerless to stop the carnage, and for the first time, Christians began to leave the islands by the thousands.

Statistics released in November by a local watchdog group, the FKKI, claimed the total number of refugees from the conflict came to 187,244, and the death toll was 3,931. Church leaders refused to meet Indonesian President Wahid on September 2 because he could not bring rogue army elements under control.

Peace talks are underway, but the killings continue and are spreading to other areas of Indonesia. Separatism fueled by religious intolerance is the greatest threat to the future of this sprawling, fledgling democracy. At the moment, the forces of toleration are just tipping the balance, but if more fighting breaks out in other regions, the nation could easily become a gigantic Maluku.

Indonesia 2000

January 17: Churches are burned as violence erupts on Lombok island.

April: A force of 3,000 Muslim fighters arrives in the Malukus.

June 19-20: More than 200 Christians massacred in Duma on Halmahera island.

June 26: President Wahid declares a state of civil emergency in Maluku province.

September 17: Pastor in Medan, Sumatra, attacked for the third time.

November 15: Muslim extremist leader announced a "Lets Snuff Out all the Candles in December" campaign, vowing to stamp out Christianity on the island of Halmahera in northern Maluku.

Nigeria

ISLAMIC LAW IN THE NORTH

The campaign by several northern Nigerian states to implement Islamic law has brought new Muslim-Christian conflicts to a country already plagued by religious, ethnic, economic and political problems. The population is evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, but the desire for Islamic law in the north threatens to forever dash any hope of national unity.

In February and May, religious clashes resulted in the death of several hundred Christians and Muslims in Kaduna state. Twenty Christian pastors were among those who died. Other incidents too numerous to mention have brought increased friction to all sides and threaten to spin the country out of control.

Nigeria 2000

February 21-24: Hundreds die in religious clash over Islamic law in Kaduna.

March 1: President Obasanjo, a Christian, calls for national reconciliation.

May 23-24: Muslims and Christians clash again in Kaduna.

June 22: Kano becomes the fourth state to propose Islamic law.

July 7: Vice President Abubakar, a Muslim, voices supports for Islamic law.

September 7-9: 25 killed during religious riot in Gombe state.

Tajikistan

CHURCH BOMBED

The deliberate bombing of the largest Protestant church in Dushanbe killed nine Christians and wounded 70 more during a Sunday worship service in October. Although Tajik authorities condemned the attack against the Korean-led Grace Sonmin Church and extended compensation to families of the victims, at least 12 local church leaders were detained and subjected to heavy-handed interrogations, some for an extended period.

Three weeks later, the Tajik government labeled the bombing an act of "religious fanaticism" and charged three suspects from a local Islamic institute with the crime. With its three-story complex left in shambles, the church is working rapidly to complete the construction of a new Mission Center before winter snows fall.

During the past year, the church had been subjected to several anonymous threats of violence, as well as arrests of some of its members. The government warned that the church's registration status could be revoked for "illegal missionary propaganda." For the past decade, the traditional Muslim republic has allowed more freedom for Christians than most of its Central Asian neighbors.

Tajikistan 2000

October 1: Two bombs explode and 12 local church leaders detained for questioning.

October 22: First of 3 severely injured patients flown to Korea.

October 22: Interior Minister announces arrest of three Islamist suspects.

October 31: Last detained church leader released.

Yemen

CONDEMNED CHRISTIAN RESETTLED

Former Muslim Mohammed Omer Haji was given a seven-day ultimatum by a Yemeni court in July to either recant from his conversion to Christianity two years earlier, or face execution for apostasy.

The Somali refugee's pending verdict was the first known public case in Yemen's courts to apply strict Islamic law prohibitions against apostasy. The Yemen courts back-pedaled in the face of extensive coverage on the case, agreeing within two weeks to UNHCR negotiations for emergency resettlement for Haji and his family.

Together with his wife and infant son, Haji was finally deported from Yemen on August 25 to New Zealand. During their initial seven weeks in an Auckland resettlement center, the couple were subjected to strong pressures from other Muslim refugees to return to Islam. Haji's wife has since declared herself still a Muslim and sought separation from her convert husband.

Yemen 2000

January 16: Haji first arrested in Aden, detained for two months.

March: Released from jail after verbally recanting his faith.

June: Re-arrested.

July 5: Sentenced to death, with seven days to recant.

July 11: Adopted by Amnesty International as a "prisoner of conscience."

July 17: Transferred to Immigration Jail.

August 2: UNHCR announces his emergency resettlement to New Zealand.

August 24: Released from Aden prison, flown to Sana'a with his wife and son.

August 29: Arrives with family in Auckland, New Zealand.

September: Other Muslims in Auckland refugee center pressure family to recant.

October 19: Moved from Auckland center to sponsors in Christchurch.

November: Wife professes Islam, seeks separation, returns to Auckland.

November 23: Distressed father flies to Auckland for son's first birthday.

Copyright 2000 Compass News Direct, Worty News.

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