Catching Our Eye

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  • One ‘Christian’ town freed en route to Mosul

    Published: Oct. 21, 2016

    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

    Published: Oct. 18, 2016

    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

    Published: Oct. 18, 2016

    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”.

  • ISIS defeated at ‘apocalyptic’ battleground, Dabiq

    Published: Oct. 18, 2016

    Turkish-backed Syrian rebels have reportedly recaptured the symbolically important Syrian town of Dabiq from the Islamic State (IS).

    A commander from the Hamza Brigade rebel group told the Associated Press resistance from IS was “minimal”.

    Dabiq holds major significance for IS as the location of a prophesied battle it believes will lead to the end of the world. It’s about 40km (25 miles) north-east of Aleppo and 10km (6.2km) south of Syria’s border with Turkey.

    In one hadith, Muhammad is believed to have prophesied that “the last hour will not come” until the “Romans” have been defeated by an Islamic army in Dabiq. (IS takes the “crusader” armies of America and its allies to be the modern-day “Romans”.)

    Every issue of IS's propaganda magazine, which is named after the town, contains this quote, attributed to Al-Qaeda’s former Emir, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq”.

  • Jordan curriculum change ‘acknowledges’ Christians

    Published: Oct. 15, 2016

    Jordan has introduced reforms to school curricula to curb the influence of Islamic extremists on society and improve its education system.

    However, the Ministry of Education has faced a backlash from conservatives such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front, which described the reforms as “an affront to our heritage and values [which is] aimed at distancing future generations from its religion, its Arab identity, its history and traditions,” Al-Monitor reported on 21 September.

    Educators have revised school textbooks for the three primary years in such topics as Islam, Arabic, history and civic education. In civic education, for example, “reference is made to acknowledge Christians as a demographic component of the population with pictures of churches as well as mosques. In religion, entire texts from the Qur’an and sayings of the [Islamic] Prophet Mohammad are left out and in Arabic literature a picture of a veiled woman is replaced by one of an unveiled woman.”

    Henriette Kats, analyst at the World Watch Research unit of Open Doors, said the changes implemented by the Jordanian Ministry of Education are a “bold and important move.”

    “In many countries of the Middle East, the region’s Christian community is not even mentioned in school books, leading to the impression that Christians are a non-indigenous, foreign group,” Kats said. “The question is to what extent the ministry will be able to hold on to this decision in the face of so much opposition from conservative Islamic elements in society.”

    Although Christians in Jordan enjoy better levels of social and professional integration than in most other countries in the Middle East, government officials have at times marginalised Christians. A study by scholar Andrea Pacini found that when Muslim Brothers occupied key positions in the country’s Ministry of Education following elections in 1989, they propagated an ideology that aimed to reduce the rights of the Christian communities in order to assert the political superiority of Islam, and instituted “a regression of democratic practices”.

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