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Indian Governor Seeks to Suppress Religious Freedom

Bhopal: The Governor of Madhya Pradesh in India agreed on 31 July to forward a controversial bill, already approved by the Madhya state Assembly, to the President of India for constitutional review and approval before signing it into law.

The bill is titled the "M.P. Freedom of Religion Amendment Bill 2013". But despite its name, its purpose is to require individuals who wished to change or disaffiliate from any religion in the state to notify the District Magistrate prior to the change. It also requires religious leaders to get permission from the District Magistrate before administering or taking part in any religious ceremony. The bill provided penalties of significant fines and even a jail term of up to four years for anyone who failed to adhere to the law.

Having the Governor send the bill to the President of India prior to signing was a victory for regional civil rights groups and minority religious groups who had been organizing state-wide protests for several weeks to lobby the Governor to take this action.  These groups saw the bill as limiting and restricting the ability of individuals to join their communities and reinforcing the power and control of the majority Hindu community over individuals' exercise of religious freedom. The bill was supported by local Hindu leaders and representatives in the state Assembly.

Freedom of religion is enshrined in India's 1947 constitution and is considered a foundational principle of the State. Yet India is one of the most diverse religious countries in the world, having been the birthplace of four world religions: Hinduism; Jainism; Buddhism; and Sikhism.  The country also has large MuslimSikhChristian and Zoroastrian populations, with Islam being the largest minority religion in India.  Despite the Constitutional guarantee, many regions and localities in the country promote and privilege their local majority religion and have passed anti-conversion laws.  Madhya Pradesh passed a similar law in 2006 requiring one month's notice to the government before one could convert to another religion. But that law was struck down by the Solicitor General of India as unconstitutional.

The groups pressuring Governor Ram Naresh Yadav to forward the bill to the President of India expect a similar ruling for this bill.




 

Witchcraft Accusation Rages in Northern Ghana

The atmosphere may appear calm and serene, and the people friendly and hospitable. Life in the regional capital, Tamale may not be much of the hustle and bustle one finds at the state capital, Accra or in other capital cities across the region. There is low traffic and the streets are hardly overcrowded except when a new chief is being installed, a political campaign is going on or a top politician is visiting the area.

Still all is not well in the northern region of Ghana because beneath this veneer of calmness and tranquility lurks a vicious, virulent and violent trend- witchcraft accusation.

Northern Ghana is a region charged and enchanted with allegations of witchery, spiritual possession and attack. Witchcraft is at the root of a silent battle,an ongoing  war that has torn apart families and communities, internally displaced many  people, turning them into refugees in their own land. In the past 3 weeks there have been 3 cases of accusation within the regional capital, Tamale, alone. I guess there could be other or more cases. But these are the ones that've come to my notice. Most cases of accusation take place in the rural parts of the region with no accessible roads, power or telephone service. In these remote communities, traditional beliefs and institutions are very strong. Cases of accusation are not reported in the news. They are rarely taken to the police stations, where such stations exist. Except on the highways or border posts, there are virtually no police presence in the rural communities. Most cases of witchcraft accusation are resolved locally and traditionally. By that I mean the matter is taken to the local chief and elders who often refer the issue to a local shrine for confirmation. In some cases they are pressured to banish the accused without a confirmation by a local priest. Sometimes accused persons are forced to flee on their own. Accused persons who are banished are relocated to other communities. But in most cases they are taken to one of the seven ‘safe spaces’ otherwise known as ‘witch’ camps in the region.

This report is based on the three cases of accusation I am currently studying in Tamale metropolis.

In the first case, a middle aged woman, Mateda, was accused of being responsible for the death of a 20 year old seamstress. The seamstress sew some wedding clothes for Mateda’s daughter. But shortly after Mateda paid the seamstres, she took ill and died.The parents of the seamstress said their daughter took ill after drinking some porridge she bought with Mateda's money. They claim she gave their daughter spiritual poison through the money. So they accused Mateda of being behind the death of their daughter.

They reported the matter to the chief and asked him to banish the woman immediately from the community. But the chief declined and instead suggested that the matter be taken to a local shrine for confirmation. But the family of the deceased and a local mob refused and insisted that Mateda be banished right away. In protest they marched to the palace of the paramount chief of Tamale and reported the matter. But he sent them back to the village chief, who insisted that the case be taken to a shrine.

But the angry ‘youths’ started throwing stones at the palace of the village chief and threatened to burn down the building. They broke a window of the palace and a ‘sacred’ pot used in keeping some water for the ancestors to drink when they come visiting at night! The chief invited the police, but before the police convoy arrived, the mob had dispersed. The Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit and the Criminal Investigation Department are currently questioning the suspects. As I was trying to meet and interview the accusers, I was told of another case of accusation that could erupt very soon. An elderly man has been sick for several months and a woman in the neighbourhood is being suspected of being responsible. I was told that if the man died, the ‘youths’ in the area might attack this woman or get her banished from the community. I am trying to nip this accusation in the bud.

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Iran is one of seven nations...

Iran is one of seven nations (Afghanistan, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan being the other six) where apostasy is legally punishable by death.  A stronger incentive not to be counted as infidel is probably harder to come by. And yet, to date, 3,468 atheists in Iran have gone to atheistcensus.com to do just that.

To be part of society in Iran, religious affiliation – Muslim or otherwise - is required: for official forms, for social inclusion, for just appearing “normal”.  Despite the religious appearance, Iran is one of the top 10 contributors to the Atheist Census, suggesting that atheists do indeed exist there.  It’s just that they are hidden.

In this context, it was heartening and harrowing to receive an unsolicited email from an Iranian woman who warmly thanked the creators of Atheist Census for giving her a forum to be counted.  It was notable that she identified herself as atheist, an Iranian and a global citizen.  She was appreciative, but was not satisfied with counting herself anonymously.  She mentioned that she was going to tell her “numerous” non-religious friends about the site.

According to the latest statistics on Atheist Census, 88% of Iranians who took the short, six question survey, were raised Muslim.  They have now rejected their (former) faith.  They are apostates.  The entomology of apostasy comes from the Greek “apostasia” which means “revolt”.  When apostasy is possibly a life and death situation, it is not hyperbole to say that being counted as an atheist is a revolutionary act.  Perhaps it is even more so when a woman professes herself as infidel, given the oppression of women in particular in Islamic countries.  This atheist, this Iranian, indeed this global citizen who was counted in Atheist Census and then took the time to send me an email, was one woman among the (only) 20% of Iranians who have been counted in Atheist Census that identify as female.

Often surveys are important to those who have created them.  This short story shows that some surveys can also be important to those who participate in them.

For Indonesian Atheists, a Community of Support Amid Constant Fear

Indonesian Atheists, an AAI Affiliate, began on Facebook in 2008 and has grown to provide a community for non-believers in Indonesia.  The group was profiled in the New York Times on 26 April:

JAKARTA — Karina is an atheist, but her friends jokingly call her “the prophet.” That is because she is helping nurture a community for unbelievers in predominantly Muslim Indonesia, where trumpeting one’s disbelief in God can lead to abuse, ostracism and even prison. 

“It’s very normal for atheists to be paranoid because the environment does not support them,” said Ms. Karina, 26, who uses only one name. But, she said, “in this group people don’t need to be afraid.”

For the full article click here.

Tree Planting at Kasese Humanist Primary School

Pupils at Kasese Humanist Primary School numbering close to sixty participated in an event that involved planting of trees along their recently acquired permanent site on the river banks of River Nyamwamba, which borders the property in the west.

The students left  from school in the evening hours of Thursday 18 April 2013 led by the School Director accompanied by the School Headteacher plus some 3 teachers.  Movement to this site was by foot from the current site, along the Kasese - Fortportal highway, and they purchased a number of trees seedlings from a nearby nursery bed.  We passed along the Majengo-Rukoki Trading center and headed to the School Project.

The children were so excited to learn of the news that this is going to be a future permanent home of the school. They posed for a photograph at the recently plastered building within the property. There are some plantains, bumpkins, pepper and mangoes and the kids tried their luck and took what was available.

Each child planted a tree in a hole and the trees will be looked after such that they grow and as it's rainy season now, there is a good chance they will grow. This exercise took close to two hours.

The purpose of the trees along the river bunks includes to curb soil erosion, provide shade and fresh air and to add on the beauty of the scenery. This exercise is going to continue in more weeks to come.

A fundraising campaign is in progress as the school management tries to mobilise resources to put up classroom blocks on the site and all well wishers and friends of Kasese Humanist Primary School are encouraged to support us materially, financially or morally such that we succeed in commencing bigger construction works in March 2014.  If you would like to support Kasese Humanist Primary School please donate through AAI.

Secular World Episode 11 - Bills, Boston and Bangladesh

In their “welcome back” episode, Jake and Han discuss the sneaky politics of the Christian right, the exclusion of humanists and atheists from the post-bombing events in Boston, and the free speech protests this week.  Enjoy it all here!

Defend Dissent - Support the Bangladeshi atheist bloggers

On 25 April Atheist Alliance International stands in solidarity with the Bangladesh atheist bloggers who have been arrested and persecuted simply for expressing their views.   If you support freedom of expression, then support the bloggers today by:

joining a protest in New York, Washington DC, Columbia (MO), Ottowa, Calgary, Toronto, London or Dhaka
- writing a letter of protest to a Bangladesh embassy
- contacting your members of parliament to highlight the situation
supporting a petition to the Bangladeshi government
- posting about the bloggers on Facebook and/or tweeting with the hastags #Bangladesh #Bloggers and #DefendDissent
 

You Ask, An Atheist Answers

Karl from Indonesian Atheists, an AAI Affiliate, talks to the Jakarta Globe about "You Ask, An Atheist Answers":

Discussions between atheists and theists, or those who believe in the existence of God, are fragile events that rarely, though not impossibly, manage to do anything more than reinforce just how disparate the two factions’ stances are. This profound divergence is evidently true in Indonesia, where the concept of atheism is still seen as remarkably foreign, to put it mildly. 

Stigmas and assumptions about Indonesian atheists often paint them as smart-aleck contrarians with a penchant for hedonistic nihilism who leave the burden of proof to believers. 

To disprove this widespread view, two Indonesian atheists have taken up the call, Karl Karnadi and Virgi Albiant, the latter of which is a pseudonym used by the founder of “Anda Bertanya, Ateis Menjawab” (“You Ask, an Atheist Answers”), an Internet-based forum and community that aims to build a friendly bridge between believers and non-believers. 

Read the full article here.

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