Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Indonesia: saying "NO" to Islamic Intolerance

-- specifically to the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI)

By Elizabeth Kendal

Something happened in Palangkaraya, the provincial capital of Central Kalimantan, on Saturday 11February 2012 that may prove pivotal for Indonesia. While it was not the first time Indonesian moderates, reformists, human rights activists and peace-loving citizens have taken a stand against Islamic intolerance, it was an inspirational victory.

On 11 February, four prominent leaders of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI: Front Pembela Islam) flew into Central Kalimantan from Jakarta to inaugurate their organisation in Palangkaraya. Upon landing, however, the FPI delegation -- which included FPI founder, Saudi-educated Habib Rizieq -- was blocked by a crowd of around 800 locals, mostly indigenous Dayaks, at Palangkaraya's Tjilik Riwut Airport.

After first staging a street protest -- displaying banners at strategic locations and railing against the FPI and its plans to open an office in the city -- the protestors met up at Tjilik Riwut Airport in time to besiege the FPI leaders on their plane. According to Tempo Interactive, "The residents said they did not want the organization, which often uses violence, to enter their area."

The protestors forced their way onto the runway to confront the FPI officials, causing air traffic to be disrupted for over three hours. They dispersed only after airport officials convinced them that the FPI members would not be permitted to disembark and would travel on to another destination.

The Jakarta Globe headline on 16 February was a classic: "Could Palangkaraya Be Our Rosa Parks' Moment in the War Against Violence?" According to Jakarta Globe correspondent Pangeran Siahaan, "The people of Palangkaraya believe violence, which the FPI advocates, is intolerable and they found FPI’s presence in their city as a threat to society. The residents were successful in ousting the FPI, as the FPI officers . . . fled without stepping off their plane."

From Palangkaraya to Jakarta . . .

As Peter Alford, Jakarta correspondent for The Australian comments, "Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) bullying is so rarely confronted that the spectacle of its officials being almost literally run out of town in Central Kalimantan last weekend grabbed national attention.

"Civil society activists in the national capital, where the hard-liners wield their strongest influence, have tried to seize upon FPI's momentary discomfiture to galvanise a 'Movement for an FPI-free Indonesia'."

Jakarta's 'Movement for an FPI-free Indonesia' held its inaugural public demonstration at the Hotel Indonesia (HI) traffic circle on 14 February. "If Kalimantan can do it, Jakarta can also do it," activist spokeswoman Tunggal Pawestri told the Jakarta Globe.

The Jakarta Globe's Pangeran Siahaan attended the demonstration, which he says was inspired by the courage, determination and principle on display in Palangkaraya and fuelled by the same spirit.

"Everybody," writes Siahaan, "has said that they’re fed up with the unlawful behavior of such organizations, but nothing had been done publicly to declare a war against violence and intolerance until the citizens of Palangkaraya stood up and their voices reached the people of Jakarta. Driven by the same spirit and anger caused by the government’s leniency towards violence, I joined the protest rally at the HI traffic circle. It was a peaceful event as the protesters unfurled banners and posters while chanting, 'Indonesia Damai! Tanpa FPI! Tanpa Kekerasan' ('Peace in Indonesia! Without FPI! Without Violence!')."

Siahaan despairs that when FPI militants disrupted the protest and began assaulting some of the protestors, the police chose to shepherd the protestors, rather than the attackers, away from the HI traffic circle, supposedly for safety reasons.

"What a bucket of nonsense," rails Siahaan, "because what’s the purpose of the police’s being there if not to prevent harm to the rally attendants?"

Vivi Widyawati, a coordinator with the "Movement for an FPI-free Indonesia" said the Jakarta rally was intended to widen opposition to the hardline group following the Dayaks’ 11 February protest at Palangkaraya airport.

. . . to Surabaya and beyond

And as Megawati Wijaya reports for Asia Times, opposition to the FPI is widening. "The anti-FPI movement spread to Surabaya, another major metropolitan area where people referring to themselves as 'Surabaya Residents Against Violence' held a similar rally on February 17. Although the group did not specifically refer to the FPI in its addresses promoting non-violence, yells of 'Indonesia without FPI, Indonesia without violence' could be heard from the gathered mass, according to local press reports."

In order to maintain momentum, Jakarta's "Movement for an FPI-free Indonesia" is planning to take the battle online using Twitter, blogging and other social media tools. Bhagavad Sambada, one of the movement's founders, is confident: "The snowball has rolled and it is getting bigger. The movement will be more widespread and will be unstoppable."

The FPI has slammed the movement as a "Western-funded plot".

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Related:
FPI files reports to police over hostile Palangkaraya welcome
Dicky Christanto, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Mon, 02/13/2012 11:54 AM

No love shown to the FPI
Bagus BT Saragih, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Wed, 02/15/2012

FPI and the Government: Best Friends?
by Calvin Michel Sidjaja, Jakarta Globe, 21 Feb 2012

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mexico: a tribute to Ciudad Juarez's angels

By Elizabeth Kendal

The following story is not a religious liberty issue per se; but it does demonstrate the great value of religious liberty. Though their city is wracked by drug-related violence, the teenagers in this story are free to witness for Christ. And it is because they are free to witness, and are not banned on the grounds that they might offend someone else's religious or irreligious sensitivities, they are undoubtedly making a difference.

This posting is my way of paying tribute to these remarkable young Christians. They are indeed Ciudad Juarez's angels.

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On 18 February 2012, the BBC reported: "Mexican President Felipe Calderon has said murders in the country's most violent city, Ciudad Juarez, almost halved since hitting a record in 2010, when more than 3,000 people died."

See: Mexico drug wars: Murders down in Ciudad Juarez
BBC, 18 February 2012

Most of the violence plaguing Ciudad Juarez has been linked to a deadly war between two rival drug cartels -- the Sinaloa and the Juarez -- for control of the lucrative drug smuggling routes to the United States. Consequently, some analysts believe the reduction in violence "could mean that the Sinaloa cartel has succeeded in edging out its rivals from the Juarez cartel from the city." (emphasis mine)

According to the Mexican President, key to the fall in violence has been the government's success in creating jobs.

A Stratfor Intelligence report dated 24 January 2012 shows just how dramatically Ciudad Juarez's murder rate has fallen and how untypical this is for Mexico as a whole. Stratfor, reports: "violence in Mexico has persisted, though it seems to have shifted geographically, abating in some cities and worsening in others. For example, while Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, was once again Mexico's deadliest city in terms of gross numbers, the city's annual death toll reportedly dropped substantially from 3,111 in 2010 to 1,955 in 2011.

According to the BBC, not only did the murder rate in Ciudad Juarez drop by 45 percent percent between 2010 and 2011, but "the figures for the first six weeks of 2012 were even more promising, suggesting a 57 percent drop in homicides compared to the same time period in 2011".

While job creation has undoubtedly been significant and beneficial, analysts really need to factor in another variable -- one neither the BBC nor Stratfor mentioned at all. For in 2010, at what is now described as the peak of the crisis in Ciudad Juarez, something else other than jobs started appearing. For at that time, Ciudad Juarez also witnessed the emergence of angels.

Ciudad Juarez's Angels

Initially these angels started appearing in photographs being used to illustrate stories on horrific violence in Ciudad Juarez's escalating drug wars. While the presence of the angels was noted in the photo captions, the angels were never the subject of the article. In fact the angels were hardly ever mentioned at all.

See: Mexican drug cartels flood across borders
By Fabiola Moura, Washington, 25 September 2010
(caption: A woman dressed as an angel in a Ciudad Juarez square holds a sign that reads, ''Hitman, Christ loves you, repent.'' Photo: Reuters)
AND
Killings grow more gruesome as Mexican drug cartels try to out-shock
Associated Press, 10 Oct 2011
(caption: A young member of the Christian church Psalm 100 dressed as an angel holds a sign reading "Hitmen, believe and repent" while a woman throws a bucket of water on a puddle of blood at a crime scene on Saturday where a man was shot dead in Ciudad Juarez. Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters)

However, by late 2011 the media were beginning to realise that the story of Ciudad Juarez's angels was a story in itself. Here are a few of the best. If you are not aware of this story, the reports are truly inspirational reading while the video report by AFP is absolutely wonderful.

NY Times: 10-foot teen angels stand silent vigil in murder-plagued Juarez
By Rob Kerby, Senior Editor beliefnet.com, 10 November 2011
(includes Spanish-language video)

Angels Send Message of Peace to Juarez, Mexico
By John Burnett NPR, 19 Dec 2011
(includes 10 great photographs)

Video, 20 Dec 2011(youtube)
AFP: Angels take to Mexican streets to fight drug crime

As yet, not too many journalists have put the angels and the encouraging statistics in the same report. Here is one that does.

Mexico’s messenger angels amid the drug war violence
19 Feb 2012 By Myles Estey, a freelance writer based in Mexico.

Actually, I would like to go further than Estey and actually make a direct link between the appearance of the angels and the decline in violence. I believe we can confidently assert that these angels -- through their witness, their ministry and their prayers -- have undoubtedly had more to do with the improving security situation in Ciudad Juarez than most journalists would ever dare suggest.

May God continue to bless and protect them, and use them to bring spiritual awakening to Mexico.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Kashmiri Christians forced to revert to Islam

By Elizabeth Kendal

Kashmiri Christians are coming under increased pressure to return to Islam since Kashmir's Islamic clerics and scholars decided to crack down hard on fitna (anything that could shake the faith of a Muslim) and put an end to apostasy in the semi-autonomous province.

The clerics established the Majlis Tahaffuz-e-Imaan (Council for Protection of Faith) after video footage emerged of seven young Kashmiri men being baptised in All Saints Church, Srinagar.

Background: Eliminating fitna in Indian-administered Kashmir
By Elizabeth Kendal, Religious Liberty Monitoring, 22 Jan 2012

According to Sajan K George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), the atmosphere in Srinagar is increasingly tense. "The situation is precarious and unstable. Islamic fundamentalists have threatened to seize all the properties of the families of the converts in order to have them go back to Islam. Intimidations have had their effect, at least partly. Three of the seven converts have decided to abjure Christianity."

On 29 January, Kashmir Watch (a Europe-based news portal of Kashmir International Research Centre) posted an article entitled: "Over 20,000 converted to Christianity since 1990 in Kashmir". The article gives further insight into the pressure Kashmiri Christians are facing.

After detailing the Christian missionary "operation", which allegedly is advanced by means of "close coordination under a well-thought out strategy", the writer reports:

"A north Kashmir religious Madrassa is presently working on 115 Kashmiri Christian converts to bring them back to Islamic fold. A functionary of the Madrassa involved the job told the Honour [the writer] that the Madrassa has already brought back 150 converts over the past some months. He said that there are reports of scores of other people who have converted to Christianity. 'We are collecting details. We would try to catch them all and persuade them to revert to Islam', he said. (emphasis mine)

"Details also revealed that the conversions are voluntary, and are done for material benefits. One of the eight (sic) converts, whose video was posted on YouTube recently, is reported to have converted for a paltry sum of Rs.5000. He is a poor labourer who changed religion in the hope of getting some financial aid from the Christian Missionary to pay off bank loan his father had taken."

The writer goes on to lament that "ritual press statements, street protests, in-house meetings, seminars and routine condemnations was all that came up from the religious leadership. Mufti Bashiruddin did not move beyond asking for expulsion of Pastors." The writer would like to see the religious leadership sleeping less and acting more, so they might actually become "the embodiment of what they say" in their sermons.

The writer did not elaborate on what this would mean in practice.

In an article entitled "Kashmir zealots push Christians into valley of fear" (23 Jan 2012, Times of India), Randeep Singh Nandal comments that the recent conversions have opened the door "for further pressure on the 400-odd Christians in the Valley. The two missionary schools in Srinagar are now facing calls to include Islamic prayers as part of the curriculum and prove they do not promote Christianity.

"The few foreign nationals who live here are harassed," Nandal writes, quoting one foreigner who told him: "I got a call around midnight, and this man on the phone asked me how many Bibles I had, how my 'real motive' was known to him."

"Local converts are worse off," notes Nandal. "A few weeks ago, the mere rumour that a few boys in a Ganderbal village had converted led to a raids by five carloads of men led by a maulvi from a madrassa. Their homes were ransacked."

Into this already incendiary climate came a highly inflamatory and no doubt slanderous feature article. Published 20 January 2012 on greaterkashmir.com , it alleges to be the confession of a repentant convert.

See: "Apostasy Unveiled!"
When teenager converted to be John Douglas
By M HYDERI, Greater Kashmir, 20 Jan 2012

As Randeep Singh Nandal (Times of India) notes, "the alleged first person account of one of the boys pastor Khanna had converted . . . reads like a film script".

The boy -- whose name is given as Imran -- claims he was trapped by Pastor Khanna who used a girl to entice him to drink alcohol. After filming Imran in a "boozy" state, the pastor then allegedly used the video recording to blackmail the boy. Imran claims that, on account of the pastor, he became "progressively addicted to alcohol, women, money, drugs, and the promise of weapons".

"At each stage," notes Nandal, "pastor Khanna's personal involvement is recorded."

For Nandal, this passage was the "highlight":

"And then came the Black Sunday. Imran says he was asked to attend a prayers at a place other than church. There were candles lit up all around and an empty glass was lying inside. As prayers went on someone brought a jug full of red liquid and poured it into the glass. When Imran asked what it was, he was told it was swine blood which they all had to drink. 'For a moment I couldn't even think of touching but then in no time Khanna took some sips, next I drank it and after that many more including Khanna's daughter did the same.'"

According to Nandal, "This is the most talked about news in Srinagar - on twitter and facebook, in living rooms and cafes.'One comes to know the extent to which these people will go to convert,' read a facebook comment."

Uncertain future

As Sudha Ramachandran writes for Asia Times online (1 Feb 2012): "The treatment meted out to clergy and threats to the Christian community and its institutions have triggered fears that they, like the Pandits before them, will have to flee the Valley."

Ramachandran explains how between January and March 1990, some 300,000 Hindu Pandits were forced to flee the Kashmir Valley after the Hizbul Mujahideen ordered their expulsion.

Memory of this event still brings anxiety to the hearts of Kashmir's religious minorities.

"The past two decades has witnessed the rise of a doctrinaire Islam in Kashmir," writes Ramachandran. "Kashmiri Christians fear that they are now in the crosshairs of religious radicals."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

SYRIA: religious minorities being buried under a mountain of propaganda

By Elizabeth Kendal

At the end of January 2012, the League of Arab States Observer Mission to Syria issued its report. It included the following observations:

Par 8) "In accordance with the protocol, the Syrian Government confirmed its readiness to facilitate the Mission in every way by allowing the free and safe movement of all of the observers throughout Syria, and by refraining from hindering the work of the Mission on security or administrative grounds. The Syrian Government side also affirmed its commitment to ensuring that the Mission could freely conduct the necessary meetings; to provide full protection for the observers, taking into consideration the responsibility of the Mission if it were to insist on visiting areas despite the warning of the security services; and to allow the entry to Syria of journalists and Arab and international media in accordance with the rules and regulations in force in the country."

Par 13) "Immediately on arriving in Homs, the Head of the Mission met with the Governor of the city, who explained that there had been an escalation in violence perpetrated by armed groups in the city. There had been instances of kidnapping and sabotage of Government and civilian facilities. Food was in short supply owing to the blockade imposed by armed groups, which were believed to include some 3000 individuals. The Governor further stated that all attempts by religious figures and city notables to calm the situation had failed."

Par 26) "In Homs and Dera'a, the Mission observed armed groups committing acts of violence against Government forces, resulting in death and injury among their ranks. In certain situations, Government forces responded to attacks against their personnel with force. The observers noted that some of the armed groups were using flares and armour-piercing projectiles."

Par 27) "In Homs, Idlib and Hama, the Observer Mission witnessed acts of violence being committed against Government forces and civilians that resulted in several deaths and injuries. Examples of those acts include the bombing of a civilian bus, killing eight persons and injuring others, including women and children, and the bombing of a train carrying diesel oil. In another incident in Homs, a police bus was blown up, killing two police officers. A fuel pipeline and some small bridges were also bombed."

Par 28) "The Mission noted that many parties falsely reported that explosions or violence had occurred in several locations. When the observers went to those locations, they found that those reports were unfounded."

Par 29) "The Mission also noted that, according to its teams in the field, the media exaggerated the nature of the incidents and the number of persons killed in incidents and protests in certain towns."

Par 71) "The Mission determined that there is an armed entity that is not mentioned in the protocol. . ."

Par 75) "Recently, there have been incidents that could widen the gap and increase bitterness between the parties. These incidents can have grave consequences and lead to the loss of life and property. Such incidents include the bombing of buildings, trains carrying fuel, vehicles carrying diesel oil and explosions targeting the police, members of the media and fuel pipelines. Some of those attacks have been carried out by the Free Syrian Army and some by other armed opposition groups."

Actually, the report by the League of Arab States Observer Mission to Syria makes very interesting reading as it turns the Western-Saudi-Gulf Arab narrative, of an evil regime vs a peacefully protesting nation, on its head. This is doubtless why the report was so decisively quashed -- until it was leaked:

League of Arab States Observer Mission to Syria
Report of the Head of the League of Arab States Observer Mission to Syria
for the period from 24 December 2011 to 18 January 2012

Author Pepe Escobar, an expert on the geo-politics of the Middle East, has written a stinging critique:

Exposed: The Arab agenda in Syria
By Pepe Escobar, Asia Times online, 4 Feb 2012

As Escobar notes: "The report is adamant. There was no organized, lethal repression by the Syrian government against peaceful protesters. Instead, the report points to shady armed gangs as responsible for hundreds of deaths among Syrian civilians, and over one thousand among the Syrian army, using lethal tactics such as bombing of civilian buses, bombing of trains carrying diesel oil, bombing of police buses and bombing of bridges and pipelines."

Escobar describes the Syrian National Council as "essentially a Muslim Brotherhood outfit affiliated with both the House of Saud and Qatar". He describes the Free Syrian Army as a conglomerate of Sunni defectors, well-meaning opponents of the Assad regime, and "foreign mercenaries weaponized by the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council], especially Salafist gangs".

As Escobar notes, "GCC leaders House of Saud and Qatar bluntly dismissed their own report and went straight to the meat of the matter; impose a NATOGCC regime change via the UN Security Council."

But Russia and China would not stand for it. They vetoed the resolution, decrying it as unbalanced and biased.

Text of proposed UN Security Council resolution on Syria vetoed by Russia, China
By Associated Press, Published: 5 February 2012

It was the existence of an "armed entity" that Russia sought to address when it proposed amendments to the UN Security Council resolution.

Russia wanted guarantees that the Syrian opposition would "dissociate themselves from armed groups". Russia also wanted assurances that the Syrian Army would only be required to withdraw as the armed groups also withdrew, thereby ensuring that the vacuum left by the withdrawal of Syrian forces would not be filled by foreign jihadist outfits. Russia also rejected the vague wording of the resolution, claiming it left the door open for possible international military intervention in Syria -- something that Russia believes would only aggravate any civil war.

See: Russia, China veto UN Security Council resolution on Syria
4 Feb 2012 , RT "TV-Novosti"

Syria Tribune editor Ali Mohamad told RT that he doesn't believe the Western backers of a UN Security Council resolution on Syria "are working for the best interests of the Syrian people."

"Mohamad says, 'there was a very good chance this week to find a draft that could satisfy all sides – but it was not supported by Western countries. The Arab league initiative, supported by the Security Council, wants to portray an image where the problem is between Assad and the Syrian people, but this is not the reality.'"

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As noted previously on this blog, the battle in Syrian includes a battle for Syria. It is a battle that will determine the balance of power in the Middle East. It is a battle between the Iranian-Shi'ite axis and the US-Saudi-Gulf Arab axis.

Iran needs Syria to link it geographically to Lebanon; while Syria's minority Alawites need Shi'ite legitimisation and protection for their security. Meanwhile, the Saudi and Gulf Sunni Arabs want to bring Syria back into the Sunni-Arab axis to counter the Iranian-Shi'ite ascendency.

The West supports the Sunni-Arab agenda as being in the West's economic interests. It will not, however, bring security to the region, for in the wake of the "Arab Spring" the Sunni-Arab axis is increasingly as belligerent as the Iranian-Shi'ite axis. Furthermore, if the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups are empowered in Syria like they have been in Egypt it will certainly spell a bloody end to the religious liberty that has been a feature of minority-ruled secular Syria for the past half century.

Of course the Saudi and Gulf Arabs are not bothered by the fact that countering Iran by means of regime change in Syria will come at the cost of Syria's religious minorities. But the West should be. The West should be rejecting the cost as absolutely unacceptable. Instead they seem to be intent on burying these inconvenient peoples under a mountain of propaganda.