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FAITH UNDER FIRE
Sunday School teachers get 3 years prison
Islamic radicals threaten Christians tried for teaching Muslims
In an Indonesian court under threat of violence from Islamic radicals, three women were found guilty yesterday of violating the country's Child Protection Act by "Christianizing" Muslims.
Rebecca Laonita, Ratna Mala Bangun, and Ety Pangesti – who conducted a "Happy Week" program in their homes – were sentenced to three years in prison.
Indonesia's Child Protection Act of 2002 prohibits the enticement of minors to convert to another religion.
three women had operated the Sunday School program out of one of their
homes until it was closed by a local branch of the Muslim Clerics
Council in May, according to the British-based human-rights group Jubilee Campaign.
The women began accepting Muslim children only after receiving permission from the children's parents or guardians, the British group said.
But the Muslim Clerics Council, claiming the women had no such permission, pressured the police to arrest them in mid-May.
The women remained in jail for the duration of their trial.
At the trial, radical Muslim activists staged vociferous protests, conducting prayers both outside and within the courtroom and loudly demanded that the defendants be convicted.
An observer who had attended most of the court sessions said yesterday was no different.
"[The protestors] arrived in nine trucks and brought a coffin to bury the accused if they were not found guilty. Their violent threats continued in their speeches before the session began. When the panel of judges read the verdict … the crowd erupted with 'Allahu akbar' or 'Allah is greatest.'"
The three women, described by friends as "ordinary housewives," were relieved that they had not been given the maximum five-year prison sentence, reported the Compass Direct news service, which specializes in stories about persecution of Christians.
All three, however, were devastated at the prospect of being separated from their children, who range from 6 to 19 years of age, Compass said.
Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., told Compass Direct the case could establish a dangerous precedent.
"It's especially troubling and worrisome since it occurred in Indonesia, a country long known for its relative religious freedom," Marshall said. "If it signifies the future direction of the country, the consequences will be terrible."
Defense attorneys argued that several of the Muslim parents had been photographed with their children during the Sunday school activities, Compass reported, demonstrating parental approval.
But when Muslim leaders complained, the parents refused to testify in support of the women.
The "Happy Sunday" program was established in September 2003 to meet legal requirements for a local elementary school.
Zakaria, who pastors the Christian Church of David's Camp in Harguelis, West Java, was approached by the school in August 2003 and asked to provide a Christian education program for Christian students that complied with the National Education System Bill that came into effect that year.
Compass Direct said that since the first accusations were made, Muslim authorities in West Java have forced Zakaria's church to close.
Over the past year, Muslim leaders have forced at least 60 unlicensed churches in West Java to shut down.
A controversial 1969 ministerial decree required all houses of worship to obtain a permit from local authorities in the Muslim-dominated state.
Police Chief Insp. Gen. Firman Gani told the Jakarta Post in a story published Wednesday that police would protect licensed churches from forcible closure but would uphold the decree.
A Post editorial said the forced closure of churches had reached an alarming level, and the government seemed to have no political will to uphold freedom of religion as guaranteed in the constitution.
writer concluded, "It is time now to stop pretending that Indonesia is
a perfect model for religious tolerance ... the people of this nation
are less tolerant now toward differences in religion."
Warns of Terrorists' 'Great Ramadan Offensive'
The attacks, planned to coincide with the Muslim observance of Ramadan and dubbed the "Great Ramadan Offensive," are designed to create a "fateful confrontation" with the U.S. and Israeli forces in the Middle East, according to a May 30 letter from Zarqawi to bin Laden. The contents of the letter are referenced in the report written by Yossef Bodansky, the former director of the U.S. Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare.
The Sept. 2 report is accessible only to government officials on the Global Information System (GIS) database. Cybercast News Service obtained the report on the same day as its release. It warns of planned attacks in Western Europe, Russia and perhaps the continental U.S. The specific targets are believed to include airports at Schiphol in the Netherlands and Fiumicino in Italy.
Italy remains on high alert and barricades have been placed around Rome's Colosseum. "Terrorism is coming home," the GIS report quotes one unnamed German senior official. "And it's coming home to those countries whose governments may have believed they were immune from terror because for years they have provided safe haven to notorious Islamic extremists."
An associate of Zarqawi named Abu Abdul Rahman al-Jazaeri, was said to be in Italy, but could not be located by authorities, according to Bodansky, who added that Jazeiri was believed to have recently received from a Zarqawi messenger "the definitive mandate to plan and carry out a major terrorist operation in Italy."
In late August Italy announced that it was at an elevated risk for a terrorist attack. The country expelled 700 suspected militants and arrested 141 others. News organizations reported that locks to the entrances of 49 subway stations had been changed and metal barricades erected around the 2,000-year old Colosseum in Rome.
Piecing it all together
Details of the planned attacks were pieced together from intercepted communications between top al Qaeda leaders in the latter part of August, analysis of what counter- terrorism experts described as a dramatic increase in the volume of communication among jihad forces and the observation of an unprecedented movement of jihadists and messengers around the world apparently delivering instructions.
Zarqawi, linked to numerous bombings and the beheadings of several Western hostages in Iraq, reportedly titled his letter to bin Laden, "A Message from a Soldier to His Commander." According to the GIS report, Zarqawi's letter to bin Laden alluded to "the forthcoming grand offensive comprised of escalation in the Middle East and a series of spectacular terrorist strikes" meant to overshadow the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist strikes in New York City and Washington, D.C.
The letter also indicated Zarqawi was expecting bin Laden to approve and authorize the escalation: "I think that the plan for the next stage that was drawn up has reached you or is on its way to you. O God. Make the expedition of Osama proceed toward its goal ... We await your orders as to the next stage of the plan," Zarqawi wrote.
An Aug. 8 televised message from bin Laden's overall second-in-command -- Ayman al-Zawahiri - is now viewed as the approval Zarqawi was anticipating. "What you have seen, O Americans, in New York and Washington and the losses you are having in Afghanistan and Iraq, in spite of all the media blackout, are only the losses of the initial clashes ... You will see the horror that will make you forget what you had seen in Vietnam," Zawahiri said.
The al Qaeda official's threat, according to the report, wasn't delivered until the jihad forces were organized and ready to strike.
The GIS report also cites an Aug. 21 message recorded by Zarqawi, which references the next phase of the terrorist jihad. "The [mujahedeen] in Iraq, have, praise be to God, moved the battle from the ground (in Iraq) to the land of the cross."
Zarqawi's message claimed that "[J]ihadist units have been founded in all of Western Europe, to defend the powerless within the nation. For the crimes the Crusaders have committed against the Muslims, they will reap in their own homes, God willing."
A few days later, according to GIS, a doctrinal statement from Zarqawi emerged, which stressed the priority of al Qaeda in Iraq establishing "another base that will export jihad to all parts of the world the same way the mother al Qaeda in Afghanistan was."
'The heart and lair of the Great Satan'
Bodansky's report states that "concrete preparations for the consolidation of Islamist-jihadist springboards against the heart and lair of the Great Satan are being completed -- for Western Europe in the Balkans, for Russian and Eastern Europe in Chechnya, and for the United States in the tri-border area in Latin America."
Widespread anticipation throughout the Muslim world of the Great Ramadan Offensive was being picked up by intelligence analysts in August and then was reinforced by a slew of theological statements -- all buttressing what the GIS report calls "a forthcoming, well-coordinated global onslaught."
The marked increase in the volume of communication, both encrypted and open, exceeded that of the months prior to September 2001, the report states.
Bodansky said there is a growing awareness among Western European intelligence services of the "chatter" and activation of jihadist units, led by veterans of Iraq and Chechnya. In early August 2005 Pakistanis arrested a senior operative called Osama bin Yussaf who had detailed maps of Italian, German and British cities stored in his computer.
Germany faces the challenge of second and third generation immigrants inspired by the idea of a global jihad, the GIS report notes. Such young jihadists often hold down a regular job, have European passports and are valued assets due to their low profile, and easy mobility.
Bodansky also points to the Aug. 23 decree by Islamist rebels in Chechnya establishing an "emergency government." Details of the decree, not previously reported, inidcate that a "war leadership council" was established and would likely "implement the next cycle of terrorist strikes against Russia" as part of the coordinated global attacks.
Hurricane Katrina's message
Terrorist leaders may also have taken the devastation wrought by hurricane Katrina as a symbol that God is pleased with their plans to launch the "Great Ramadan Offensive," according to the GIS report.
"Allah has punished America with winds and water," said one imam quoted in the report. America is under "the curse of the Jews," said another.
"It's clear the jihadists regarded Katrina as a sign from God they're doing the right thing," said Gregory R. Copley, president of The International Strategic Studies Association in Washington, D.C.
In a separate analysis, Christopher Brown, research associate with the Hudson Institute's Transitions to Democracy project, warned of the strategic opening that the hurricane aftermath offers jihadists.
"If this attack is launched soon, the devastation to the American economy alone could easily far exceed that of the September 11th attacks and could be equivalent in terms of economic impact to the detonation of a small nuclear device on American soil," Brown said.
He also suggested that the timing of Zawahiri's past video messages indicates a terrorist attack may be imminent.
His first messages, on Sept. 9 and Nov. 9 of 2004, preceded the Dec. 6, 2004 attack on the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Feb. 20 and June 17, 2005 video messages by Zawahiri preceded the July 7 series of bombings in London. A third set of messages - on Aug. 4 and Sept. 1 - also creates cause for concern, Brown contends.
"If the pattern that has been outlined holds true," says Brown, "then al Qaeda is very likely about to launch a new major or series of major attacks within the next month."
Copley agreed, telling Cybercast News Service that, "I think Europe is going to be a prime target, but I think there's no question the U.S. is very much on the schedule.
"There will be big things happening over the next few months," he added.
Ramadan, a religious observance which includes a period of
is scheduled according to the Islamic calendar. This year it is
scheduled from Oct. 4 to Nov. 2. Muslim soldiers on the battlefield are
exempt from Ramadan.
Their religion, Mandeanism, comes from the same general background as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They share many of the same prophets, but particularly honour John the Baptist.
This is a religion almost solely confined to Iraq, but since the US-led invasion in 2003, many Mandeans have fled the country and now more than half of them live outside its borders. The refugees speak of kidnap, murder and attempts at forced conversion.
One woman, Ibtisam Sabah Habib, said there had always been some threats and pressure to convert to Islam, but under the previous Iraqi regime there had been limits.
"Now, there are no rules and no government," she said, describing how an armed gang of Islamic extremists had got into her house, killed her father and stolen all their money.
"They would telephone us at home, threatening us and trying to convert us. Then they tried to kidnap me. "It was our neighbours who saved me. They're Muslims - not all Muslims threaten us. But the extremists are very strong now - our neighbours couldn't protect us all the time."
Ibtisam was speaking from the safety of Syria, where she has fled with her husband and children. Mandeans have traditionally been protected under Islamic law, as believers in one god - like Jews and Christians.
But since the war in Iraq, they have found themselves targeted by Sunni and Shia Islamic extremists, and by criminal gangs who use religion to justify their attacks. One leaflet which Mandeans said had been distributed to homes in Baghdad gave this warning to boththem and Christians (who form another of Iraq's minorities):
"Either you embrace Islam and enjoy safety and coexist amongst us, or leave our land and stop toying with our principles. Otherwise, the sword will be the judge between belief and blasphemy." "They don't accept us," said Madeha Miran Daftah, who fled to Syria after her son was murdered and his corpse mutilated by people claiming to have killed an unbeliever.
"We don't know what to do now. We lost everything in Iraq. We used to feel it was our country, but things are different now." One of her surviving sons, 24-year-old Shawq, who was kidnapped and tortured, said he could not imagine ever returning home. "I just want to live, not die like my brothers."
Another woman, Shada Hanal, said she used to work as a teacher until she was sacked for refusing to wear the Islamic headscarf. Then her brother-in-law was attacked in his shop. "His attackers beat him up and stole everything," said Shada.
"When we went to seek justice, the judge said the Muslims had the right to steal from us. He said we were a sin in the world."
Individuals from all religious and ethnic groups are suffering criminal and religious violence in Iraq, but the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has said Mandeans are particularly vulnerable. "We're very concerned about them," said a UNHCR spokesman, Peter Kessler. "There is so much discrimination against them and even persecution, and the numbers coming out of Iraq have been enormous compared to their population there, which is so small." Mandeans have their own language - Mandean - which is from the same family as Arabic and Hebrew.
Their central religious ceremony is baptism in flowing water, first in childhood, then marriage and at any time an individual wants to be cleansed of sin or make a life change. Just 13,000 Mandeans are now left inside Iraq. As the community there shrinks and people seek refuge outside, becoming a thinly scattered diaspora, many people are worried that their religion may not survive.
Maajis Saeb, a Mandean priest, says there are not enough men of religion to serve the various diaspora communities.
Luay Zahran Habib, a researcher in Mandeanism, is even more pessimistic: "Mandeanism may be finished in a few years' time if we're not gathered together somewhere, because it will be difficult to find marriage partners and perform our ceremonies. "It's not that we want to leave Iraq for no reason. We just need a safe place.
By Kate Clark
BBC News, Damascus