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Silent treatment

Silent treatment

Thomas Kang (Handouts)

Two separate incidents in Russia point to the growing trend of government-sanctioned persecution against religions not sponsored by the state. First, officers continue to hold a Presbyterian pastor with U.S. citizenship in a Russian detention center on charges of attempted bribery. 

Thomas Kang has lived in Russia for more than 10 years and had just completed the construction of a large home that was to be used as a ministry for low-income families and the children of soldiers. As pastors from across Russia, South Korea, and the United States began arriving for the grand opening of Kang’s “House of Joy,” officials from the Federal Migration Service called Kang to tell him that the work permit for one of his builders had expired just a few days earlier.

Kang rushed in to pay the small fine and added an extra 1,000 rubles ($33) as a “donation” to the police—not an unusual step. He was immediately arrested on charges of attempted bribery and has been held in a detention center in Tula, Russia, since last September. 

Just weeks prior to Kang’s arrest, a group of men backed by local police destroyed the Holy Trinity Pentecostal Church in the suburbs of Moscow (See “Wreckage by night,” Oct. 6, 2012). Attempts to clarify the state’s intentions have been met with silence, and there are no signs of the rumored sports complex to be built on the land. The church’s pastor, Vasili Romanyuk, told me he’s received information that nothing will be built on the site except a walking park. 

Romanyuk’s congregation continues to meet at the site of the demolished church when weather permits, and two local pastors from opposite ends of Moscow have invited his congregation to use their buildings. “Pray for God’s leading to see what His will is. For now I see it in finding resources to buy land and build a simple building,” Romanyuk said.

Evangelical Christians and other religious minorities are labeled as threats to the country’s Russian Orthodox identity. —Jill Nelson

Abortion bans

Overriding a veto from Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, conservative lawmakers in Arkansas passed the strictest abortion ban in the country March 6, prohibiting most abortions after about 12 weeks of gestation. Nine days later the North Dakota Legislature, not to be outdone, passed its own bill prohibiting abortions performed as early as six weeks.

Both state measures employ a new pro-life strategy of prohibiting abortions once a baby’s heartbeat can be detected, possible in the sixth week of pregnancy using a trans-vaginal ultrasound. (Arkansas’ law only allows the heartbeat to be measured using less invasive technology, such as an abdominal ultrasound, which picks up a heartbeat at 12 weeks.) Ohio and Kansas are also considering fetal heartbeat bills. Abortion advocates have promised to challenge the laws in court.

North Dakota’s heartbeat bill awaits a signature from Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple—along with another that would prevent selective abortions for genetic conditions like Down syndrome.

No states’ rights on contraception

A federal judge struck down critical portions of a Missouri law that gave employers as well as individual employees an exemption from the contraceptive mandate based on religious objections. Missouri’s law, the first of its kind to provide religious freedom protections from the federal contraceptive mandate, passed last fall after the Republican state legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto. U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig in her March 14 ruling struck down the parts of the Missouri law that provided an exemption from the contraceptive mandate, saying they conflicted with federal law. The law’s backers said Fleissig’s ruling made the mandate worse than it already was: Because she only struck down the exemption portion, the portion of the state law requiring employers to provide contraceptives (even those already exempted under the federal mandate, like churches) still stands. The state attorney general has not yet indicated whether he will appeal.

Crackdown in Libya

In a growing crackdown against Egyptian Christians living in Libya, at least one evangelical died after his arrest in March, and dozens of Coptic Christians say they endured torture in a detention center in Benghazi.

By late March, Islamic militants in Libya continued to hold as many as 100 Egyptian Christians jailed for possessing Christian books and other material.

Authorities on Feb. 10 arrested an Egyptian Christian who owns a bookstore in Benghazi. Days later, officials detained four of the businessman’s acquaintances and charged the men with proselytizing. (Libya is a Muslim nation, and Christian evangelism of nationals is illegal.)

One of the men, an evangelical Christian named Ezzat Atallah, died days after his arrest. Authorities claimed Atallah died of natural causes on March 10, but his wife said she observed signs of torture on his body.

In a separate incident, Libyan militants detained at least 50 Coptic Christians selling clothes in a Benghazi market on Feb. 26 and accused them of proselytizing. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry persuaded the Libyans to release the prisoners, but several of the freed Christians told the Associated Press they endured torture and humiliation during their ordeal.

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians live in Libya, where many moved years ago to seek work during a failing Egyptian economy. Coptic Christians in Egypt called on President Mohamed Morsi to press Libyan officials to release any Christians still in jail on arbitrary charges. But considering Morsi’s reluctance to advocate for Christians in his own country, those pleas may go unheeded.

Homeless in Lahore

It took only a routine argument between drinking partners—a Muslim barber and a Christian sanitation worker—to spark the burning of Christian homes March 9. After the barber accused the sanitation worker of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad, a mob descended on Joseph Colony, a community of minority Christians in the city of Lahore, and set fire to dozens of buildings. An aid worker said the mob burned around 160 homes, 18 shops, and two churches.

No one was injured since police warned residents to flee their homes before the attack began. The residents complained police later stood by while the Muslim mob looted and started fires.

The attack was similar to one in 2009, when extremists burned Christian homes and churches in Gojra. Human Rights Watch noted attacks against minority groups have escalated in the past year in Pakistan. Pakistan’s government condemns the violence, but local police often sympathize with the perpetrators and do little to stop them. The Christian sanitation worker, 26-year-old Sahwan Masih, faces a blasphemy charge that could carry a death penalty.

On trial

Prosecutors on March 18 opened the trial of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortionist accused of severing babies’ spines with scissors and storing fetal body parts in jars. Gosnell, 72, faces the death penalty if convicted of murdering seven infants allegedly born alive in his abortion center. He pleaded not guilty to those deaths and to the 2009 death of a female immigrant who expired after Gosnell’s staff gave her too much anesthetic and pain medication. The 12-member jury won’t count Gosnell’s abortion profession against him, though: During jury selection, Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Minehart dismissed Roman Catholics and others who expressed religious or moral qualms with killing the unborn.

Pain test

The fetal pain laws pro-life legislators have used to restrict abortion in 10 states (including Arkansas, as of February) since 2010 are facing their first major challenge after a federal judge ruled Idaho’s law unconstitutional March 6. The state’s ban on abortions after 20 weeks of gestation—based on medical evidence that a baby in the womb can feel pain at that age—places an “absolute obstacle” in front of women seeking abortions, wrote U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill. The judge ruled Roe v. Wade allows abortions to be restricted only after the point of viability, considered to be about 23 to 24 weeks.

Mary Spaulding Balch, state legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, welcomed the ruling as an opportunity to have fetal pain laws constitutionally tested. If the case is eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, she said, “there are strong indications that five of the sitting justices would look with sympathy” on laws protecting babies who feel pain in utero.

Academic choice

The White House on March 13 named Melissa Rogers, a religious academic known as an expert on church-state issues, as the new director for the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “Melissa has long been a strong advocate of protecting the rights of religious organizations,” said Stanley Carlson-Thies, founder and president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. Barrett Duke, of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called Rogers “fair-minded.” Duke said Rogers “will approach her job by reaching out to all faith groups and providing them access to government funding on an equal playing field.” Rogers will confront tension between the administration and conservative religious groups over the contraceptive mandate found in the new healthcare law. A Baptist, Rogers has a law degree and in 2008 co-authored a book on religious freedom and the Supreme Court. Observers believe she may have been tapped to help the administration navigate lawsuits associated with the mandate.