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One ‘Christian’ town freed en route to Mosul

As anti-Islamic State (IS) forces continue their operations to recapture Iraq’s second city of Mosul, Christians from towns around it have welcomed the retaking of their two-years’ deserted homes.

According to sources monitoring the situation on the ground, Bartella, a town with a significant Christian presence prior to the IS invasion, was back in Iraqi government hands on Thursday (20 Oct.).

The town, located 21km east of Mosul, has yet to be cleared of mines and other explosives.

According to Almasdar News, Bartella had a pre-IS population of 30,000. It had a Christian Assyrian majority before mass migration by Kurds, and others, made Assyrians a minority in 2003.

Meanwhile, the battle continues for Qaraqosh (32km southeast of Mosul), a town that was once home to Iraq's largest Christian community, considered one of the oldest in the world.

On Tuesday (18 Oct.), displaced Christians in nearby Erbil held a vigil, cheering and dancing, but their jubilation may be premature.

Several towns from which Christians have been displaced since the summer of 2014 are yet to be freed, while an influx of new refugees from areas currently being clawed back from IS could further irreversibly change the demography of an area once seen as the last stronghold of ancient Christianity around Iraq’s north-eastern Nineveh Plain.

Mosul is the capital of Nineveh province, formerly home to the largest concentration of Christians and other ethno-religious minorities left in Iraq.

Iranian pastor released after six years in prison

An Iranian pastor has been released from prison after serving six years for “acting against national security”.

Behnam Irani, from the self-styled “Church of Iran”, was originally given a five-year suspended sentence in 2008. He was re-arrested in 2010 during a service at a “house church” and in 2011 he was told he must serve his five-year sentence, plus an additional one year.

He suffered serious health issues during his time in prison, much of which was a result of the physical abuse he received at the hands of fellow prisoners, according to Middle East Concern. In February 2014, he reportedly underwent an operation for bleeding from his stomach and colon.

Later that year, he was sentenced to a further six years in prison, solitary confinement and exile to a remote outpost near the Afghanistan border for “spreading corruption on Earth”. However, the additional charges were dropped on appeal.

He was finally released last night (17 October).

Maldives leaves Commonwealth over rights progress

The Republic of Maldives has withdrawn from the Commonwealth after the Indian Ocean nation was accused of failing to show progress on democracy, says the BBC.

Describing its move as “difficult but inevitable”, the nation says the Commonwealth did “not recognise its achievements in strengthening its democratic institutions and a raft of measures promoting human rights”.

The Commonwealth had issued a warning of suspension if changes were not made, but its Secretary-General, Baroness Scotland, said that although she is saddened by the Maldives’ decision to leave, she hopes it will be a “temporary separation”.

Islam is the only recognised religion. Life as a non-Muslim in the Maldives is difficult, according to the charity Open Doors, which ranks it 13th in its World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. It says: “the promotion of any other religion is illegal and punishable by 2-5 years in prison. Although the state recognises expatriate Christians, they are not allowed to hold any religious activities, including Christian weddings, funerals or baptisms”.

The constitution denies citizenship to non-Muslims and the country introduced a strict defamation law in August, with stiff punishments for comments or actions considered insulting to Islam. Thomas Muller, analyst at Open Doors’ World Watch Research, commented at the time: “It is surprising that this new law restricts freedom of religion even further... What this law adds is that the religious unity of the country should receive protection too. As a consequence, all expressions of Islam that the government does not approve of will be in trouble too. One observer concludes that, given the close ties the Maldives has formed with Saudi Arabia, religious practice is increasingly likely to orientate towards Wahhabism [conservative Islam]. For Christians, this law will not bring much change, but it remains to be seen if Christian migrant workers [in the tourism sector] will be affected by it”.

The pressure group, The Ethical Maldives Alliance, said last year that “the Maldives has a long and sad history of political oppression and human rights abuses… Most tourists to the islands remain blissfully unaware of the realities of life for the local population”.

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