Legislation passed by parliament in Iran could make it easier to arrest and imprison Christians and other religious minorities, rights advocates said.
The law enables the regime to ban any group as a sect and may lead to punishment that could be escalated to include the death penalty, said Hamid Garagozloo, U.S. representative of The International Organization to Preserve Human Rights (IOPHR), while moderating a recent webinar panel discussion with representatives of religious minorities who could be affected by the law.
Expanding the margin for Iranian authorities to justify discriminatory actions against Christian converts, the law would make it more difficult for lawyers to defend them and other religious minorities, according to a Middle East expert at advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
While the amendment has been in the pipeline for two years, it was recently approved by parliament in the middle of May, according to a researcher at advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC).
“The last couple of weeks, religious minorities have started to take notice and are thinking about what to do and how to raise awareness,” he said. “It is quite worrying, because the amendments made, rather than protecting religious freedom at all, try to define exactly who is following fundamental theology or not.”
Before the law is implemented, it must be approved by the Guardian Council in Iran, he said, adding that it is unclear when that decision could be made.
The government has been arresting Christian converts and giving them sentences of up to 15 years under vague terms such as, “acting against national security,” said Mansour Borji, advocacy director of Article 18 in the webinar hosted by IOPHR. In the past decade, these charges have been used to replace more obvious religious charges such as apostasy, he said. This obscuring of religious freedom violations by shying away from terms like “apostasy” was largely due to international pressure, according to Article 18.
Advocates believe this effort to extend greater control could be the regime’s reaction to losing credibility among its people amid economic difficulties and poor handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic. As crises in the country mount, they said, religious minorities and Western Christianity may become an easy scapegoat.
“Many Christian groups and church leaders are worried because this would add another layer to their ongoing suffering at the hands of the Islamic regime,” said the expert at CSW.
Other religious minorities that would be affected by the law include Sunni and Sufi Muslims and the Baha’i.
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Aside from Shia Islam and Judaism, Christianity is one of the three recognized religions in Iran. Protections, however, apply only to a small number of approved Christian groups, namely ethnically Christian Assyrians and Armenians.
All but a handful of churches who offered their services in the national language of Farsi have been forced to close since the Islamic revolution in the 1970s, Borji said in the webinar. The remaining churches are monitored to make sure that no Muslim-born Iranians attend them. Converts are forced to practice their faith in secret, underground churches and are routinely harassed and arrested, he said.
Most recently, four Iranian Christian converts accused of endangering state security and promoting Zionism obeyed a summons issued at the end of May and presented themselves to Evin Prison to begin serving sentences of five years each, according to MEC.
The four were among nine Christian converts belonging to the Church of Iran who were arrested at the beginning of 2019 over a four-week period. In October 2019, all nine were convicted of “acting against national security” and given five-year sentences, which were held on appeal in February.
“It is very sad, of course, for those people involved,” the MEC representative said. “It’s easy to say five years, but for the people who actually experience this, it’s so difficult.”
The remaining five men out of nine have been in Evin Prison, unable to post bail following a disagreement with a judge over their choice of a defense lawyer.
About a year-and-a-half ago, Iran set which lawyers would be able to defend political prisoners. The five were unwilling to let go of the lawyer they chose, who was not on the list. This angered the judge and caused him to set the exorbitant bail, according to the researcher at MEC.
They were immediately transferred to Evin Prison after not being able to meet the bail amount of $130,000 each, according to MEC.
REDUCTION IN SENTENCES
After an appeal, three other Christian converts who had been handed sentences of 10-years were given a reduction of their sentences.
Sentences against Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani and Zaman (Saheb) Fadaie were reduced to six years, and for Mohammadreza (Yuhan) Omidi, to two years, according to MEC.
Omidi was expected to be eligible for release in July. The decision regarding a fourth church member who was arrested and convicted at the same time, Yasser Mossaybezadeh, was not yet known.
The men will appeal again, said the expert at CSW.
The men and their families were hoping that the sentences would be completely overturned, said the expert at MEC, as they should never have been in prison in the first place.
“On the one hand it’s great that it’s been reduced, but on the other hand, they were expecting more,” he said.
Advocates are not sure why the appeal has been delayed but it could be because the case of Tamraz has become publicized, said the researcher at MEC. There are many inconsistencies and mistakes in handling the case, he said, which could be another reason for the delay. Continually delayed hearings are also often used as a form of harassment, he added.
Four other Christians belonging to the Church of Iran denomination were accused of spreading “Zionist Evangelical Christianity” and “home church meetings,” according to a CSW press statement.
They received a summons from the third branch of the Public and Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office of Tehran on June 19, according to the release.
Judges Hassan Babaie and Zenjani signed a verdict based on Article 498 of the Islamic Penal Code, which criminalizes the establishment of groups that aim to “overthrow the system,” according to CSW.
Iran was ranked ninth on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
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Getting To Know The Romani Gypsies And Their Beliefs
The Romani Gypsies And Their Beliefs
“A gypsy must’ve come in the night and stolen our best hen.” I was in rural Spain in 2002 when I overheard an elderly couple discussing a broken latch on their chicken coop door and a missing hen.
A week later, my family and I attended a crowded festival in a medieval Spanish town and were warned by locals to “watch out for the gypsies,” described as “thieves,” “beggars,” and “swindlers who rig the festival games.”
After my vacation, I returned to work and mentioned this all to a co-worker. Furrowing his brows, he insisted that I must’ve misunderstood what the locals had said because “gypsies aren’t real.”
Who are the Romani Gypsies, and what do they believe in?
‘Gypsies as a term refers to an ethnic group of people called the Roma or the Romani (also spelled Romany). The Roma are not to be confused with Romanians or with the Romans, both of which are distinct ethnic groups from the Roma.
The Romani Gypsies follow several different faiths, adopting the predominant religion of their particular country of residence. Some Romani follow a Christian denomination while others are Muslim.
Genetic research has shown that the Roma descend from a single group of people who left northwestern India 1,500 years ago. In the centuries that followed, Romanies spread throughout Europe and, by the 19th century, had migrated to the Americas.
Today, the Romani are a diverse people living in every inhabited continent in the world. The language of the Romani is also called Romani. Romani includes various distinct dialects, all of which derive from Sanskrit and are closely related to India’s Hindi language.
What is the origin of the word “gypsy?”
Gypsy as a word originated in the 16th century and meant Egyptian, since Romanies were initially believed to be from Egypt. The word “gypsy” is often considered derogatory due to its usage to connote illegal behavior and a wandering lifestyle, instead of as an identifier for a particular race of people.
The word “gyp,” which means to swindle, is also offensive to Romanies because the word likely derives from the word “gypsy” and stereotypes all those thought to be “gypsies” as swindlers.
What was life like for the first European Romanies?
Historians believe that the original Romani population who migrated to Europe were distrusted by the Europeans as a displaced people with a strange, nomadic lifestyle.
There has been discrimination against Europe from the Romani people (Gypsies.
Europeans have long portrayed the Roma/Gypsies as cunning outsiders who steal from local residents before moving on to the next town.
Because of this distrust, European nations over the centuries have enslaved, expelled, imprisoned, and executed Romani people. Other European nations used their legal system to oppress the Roma, passing laws prohibiting Romanies from buying land or securing stable professions.
Some believe that these legal restrictions placed on the Roma necessitated the continuation of their itinerant lifestyle, forcing Romanies to live on the perimeters of settled society for centuries. These nomadic Roma (gypsies) traveled in horse-drawn, brightly-colored wagons and sought jobs conducive to a transient lifestyle. Such jobs included working as livestock traders, animal trainers and exhibitors, entertainers, fortune tellers, and metalsmiths.
Based on discrimination against the Roma coupled with their migratory culture, school attendance and literacy rates among Romanies have traditionally been low. In fact, most of what we know about the Romani culture has been passed down through oral histories because the Romani language remains largely unwritten.
Traditional Romani and Gypsy culture upholds family, customs, and self-governance.
As a displaced people targeted by popular society, Romani culture focuses heavily on family, customs, and self-governance. In Romani communities that remain itinerant, the groups travel in bands made up of ten to several hundred extended families traveling together in caravans. Each band elects a male leader to govern the group, and a female leader to ensure the welfare of the band’s women and children.
Romanies/gypsies are also expected to support the larger Romani community by attending events within the community such as weddings, christenings, and funerals. Not attending these events could be viewed as disrespectful and may eventually lead to isolation from the broader Romani community.
Many Roma also follow traditional Romani customs. For example, once a Romani/gypsy girl reaches puberty, she’s expected to wear long skirts and dresses. Further, some Romani groups still follow the practice of arranged marriages, teen marriage, and “bride prices” paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s family.
The Roma also have their own internal system of self-governance to address accusations of misconduct. In particular, community leaders and courts of elders are responsible for adjudicating conflicts and administering punishments within their particular Romani group. Punishment can include a loss of reputation and, in extreme cases, expulsion from the Romani community.
What is life like for the modern Romani people?
Europe has the largest Romani/Gypsy population, home to an estimated 10 to 12 million Roma, most of whom live in Central and Eastern Europe. Some European Romanies remain nomadic, living in camps or caravans and moving from town to town in cars and RVs.
Today’s Roma (Gypsies) in Europe
However, many of today’s Roma lead settled lives. Despite settling down, the Roma remain one of Europe’s most disadvantaged ethnic groups, with 80% of Romanies living below the poverty line as of 2016. Moreover, government policies in certain European nations have sought to prevent Romani integration by hindering the Roma’s access to housing, education, and employment.
In recent years, there have been alarming reports of anti-Roma discrimination in Europe, including the systematic demolishing of Roma camps and deportation of thousands of Roma at a time in France, and the horrific forced sterilization of Romani women in countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
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In addition, in March of 2019, Amnesty International filed a complaint before the European Committee of Social Rights against the Italian government, alleging international violations against Romanies in Italy, including “widespread forced evictions…use of segregated camps featuring substandard housing and lack of equal access to social housing.”
The plight of the Romanies is also a major concern of the children’s rights organization UNICEF, which is currently working to increase literacy among Romani children in Europe through home-visitation programs that connect new parents with child education and social services.
Today’s Romani Gypsies in America
There are an estimated 1 million Roma living in the United States, arriving here from different countries and speaking different languages. The U.S. has played a role in discrimination against Romanies in the past, as some states have on their books repealed laws that limited where Romanies could rent property, where they could entertain, and what goods they could sell.
However, precise statistics about American Romanies are limited due to:
The lack of studies assessing the socio-economic realities of American Romani
The absence of Romani information on census returns
The trend of some American Romanies to hide their Romani heritage as a holdover mentality rooted in the discrimination their forefathers endured in Europe
The lack of awareness among some Americans that the Romani arean actual ethnic group, not “a Halloween costume” or” fictional characters with “wagons and horses and tambourines”
In an effort to remedy the lack of statistics on American Romanies, Harvard University has recently launched a study to assess the structural, social, and economic status of American Romani communities.
What can Christians learn from the Romani/Gypsy lifestyle?
Any Christian partial to the classical music of Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Haydn, or Brahms, or any Christian awed by the beauty and rhythm of flamenco can thank the Romani, whose acclaimed musical heritage heavily influenced these musical styles.
Further, although Christians will find some Romani traditions offensive—such as arranged marriages and bride prices—there are other Romani traditions worthy of emulation. Among these traditions are the Roma’s inclusion of extended family members, respect for the elderly, and sense of solidarity.
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It’s important to note that many of the nations criticized for discriminating against the Romani are largely Christian nations, i.e. Italy, France, and Slovakia. Recently, as an important gesture to help heal the wounds and undo the division caused by Christian oppression of Romanies, Pope Francis met with a Romani community, asked for mercy, and apologized that Christians have historically regarded Romanies “with the look of Cain rather than Abel.”
How should Christians respond to the Romani people?
Christians should respond to the Romani community in the same way that they would respond to any other child of God—by doing unto others as you’d have done unto you (Luke 6:31), and by remembering that whatever you do for the least of your brothers and sisters, you do for the Lord (Matthew 25:40).
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200 Communist Officials Demolish Church, Beat Christians in China
Some individuals were arrested which including at least two women were injured in China’s Henan province after 200 communist officials stormed into Sunzhuang Church China, which is part of a network of administration run churches, and brought it down using cranes and heavy-duty machinery.
These individuals threw the church’s furniture and other belongings out of the building before razing it, reported China Aid, which helps those who are persecuted by the Communist Party in China.
A Christian woman who tried to resist the officials lost consciousness after being pushed to the ground. Herself and another female member of the church who was beaten had to be hospitalized, the group said, and a male church attendee was taken into custody.
The Sunzhuang Church China, joined the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in June 2012, when the communist government allowed it to build a new church building. Subsequently after the building had been constructed in June 2013, the church received eviction and demolition notices from the Sunzhuang village authorities.
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The Chinese Aid said the 2013 decision to demolish the church was made without the villagers’ consent and authorities were barred from carrying out the demolition at the time. Alternatively, vehicles owned by Henan province threw tons of dirt and rocks at the church’s doorway. Administrators also cut off electricity and water to the church.
The Italian-based magazine Bitter Winter, a publication produced by the Center for Studies on New Religion which covers human rights issues in China, reported earlier this month that authorities removed crosses from more than 250 state-sanctioned churches in Anhui province between January and April.
“All Christian symbols are ordered to be removed as part of the government’s crackdown campaign,” a provincial employee from Ma’anshan city was quoted as saying.
China’s crackdown on religion and religious minorities has drawn scrutiny from international actors such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, rights groups, and the U.S. State Department.
Christians all around the world are all encouraged to pray for our brethren in China who are going through so much persecution today.
Pastor Dragged, Beaten by 150-Strong Mob While praying for Sick People
In one of the eight attacks on Christians since the COVID-19 lockdown was partially lifted in India two weeks ago, a mob of about 150 people in the southern state of the Region of Telangana dragged a pastor into the street and beat him while he was praying for a sick person.
“I was kicked like I was a football,” Pastor Suresh Rao, a church planter, told the U.S.-based Christian persecution watchdog International Christian Concern about the attack on him in Kolonguda village last Sunday.
“I was dragged unto the street and forced to the ground,” Rao added. “There, they started to trample on me. My clothes were torn to shreds, kicked me all over my body, and punched my left eye. A Serious eye injury was acquired as a result of a blood clot.”
Local Christians told ICC that Rao arrived at the sick person’s house around 9:30 a.m. for prayer. Soon after that, the house was surrounded by a mob of nearly 150 people led by a man identified as Ashok.
The attackers accused Rao of illegally converting Hindus to Christianity. “It was said that India is a Hindu nation, and there is no place for Christians,” Rao explained. “I am prepared for this kind of eventuality. I know the cost of serving Jesus in these remote villages, and I will continue to serve the people of this region.”
ICC said it has recorded at least eight separate attacks on Christians in two weeks following the partial lifting of the nationwide corona-virus lock-down.
On June 11, a group of unidentified people burned down the building of an independent evangelical congregation of about 100 Christians, Real Peace Church, in Vaylur village in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
“It was so distressing and it pained in my heart,” Pastor Ramesh, the church’s head pastor, was quoted as saying. “It was hard labor for 10 years to build the church. All the hard work and sacrificial donations from the poor congregants were brought down to the ground. All that is left is ash.”
The Hindu nationalist government of the northern state of Haryana recently pledged to enact a law to regulate religious conversions that would lead to the arrest of Christians who segment the faith given to them by God, talk about Heaven or Hell, or perform charity work for lower caste Hindus.
The draconian “anti-conversion” laws, termed as Freedom of Religion Acts, presume that Christian workers “force” or give financial benefits to Hindus to convert them to Christianity.
While these laws have been in place for decades in some states, no Christian has been convicted of “forcibly” converting anyone to Christianity.
However, these laws allow Hindu nationalist groups to make false charges against Christians and launch attacks on them under the pretext of the alleged forced conversion.
Attacks on the minority Christian community in India continued even during the COVID-19 lock-down.
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In the east-central state of Chhattisgarh, villagers had banned Christians from burying their dead until they paid fines for not taking part in Hindu festivals and rituals.
The Christians were told to make “restitution” for not partaking in or giving donations for religious rituals in those villages for all the years gone by, and pay an additional fine before their dead would be allowed to be buried.
Now in some circumstances, the attacks were perpetrated by mobs objecting to Christians holding worship services.
India is ranked at No. 10 on Open Doors USA’s World Watch List of countries where it’s most difficult to be a Christian. The organization says that Christians in the country face “horrific” levels of violence from extremists, with thousands of attacks taking place every year.
Incidents targeting Indian Christians have risen steeply since 2014, when Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, according to Open Doors, which noted that at least one Christian was attacked every day last year.