INTERNATIONAL DIGEST: Pakistani Christian murdered with ax

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--A Christian in Pakistan's southern Punjab Province was murdered March 9 for refusing to convert to Islam. Rasheed Masih, 36, allegedly was killed with an ax by six Muslim neighbors who reportedly were business rivals.

The six men were charged with torture and murder and an investigation is underway, but the suspects have not been arrested, the Compass Direct news service reported.

Iqbal Masih of the Church of Pakistan told Compass Direct that Rasheed Masih and his brother Asi had been under constant pressure to recant their faith in Christ and become Muslims. Their constant refusal "gradually turned into enmity," Asi Masih said. The police report two of the suspects had made threats of "dire consequences and death" for six months prior to the murder.

PASTOR TORTURED, THREATENED -- An Iranian pastor is being tortured in prison and threatened with execution for "converting Muslims." Wilson Issavi, 65, was arrested Feb. 2 shortly after a house church meeting in Isfahan, the Compass Direct news service reported. When his wife, Medline Nazanin, was allowed to visit Issavi in prison, she saw signs of torture and was told by officials he might be executed for his alleged activities.

Later that month, on Feb. 28, two other house church leaders in Isfahan, Hamid Shafiee and his wife, Reyhaneh Aghajary, were arrested at their home. When police came to arrest the couple, they found boxes of Bibles and began to beat Aghajary, according to Compass Direct. When her husband arrived at the house an hour later, he also was arrested. The couple's whereabouts are still unknown.

A human rights worker who requested anonymity told Compass Direct the Iranian government is set on crushing religious freedom within the country, especially the growing Christian movement.

KAZAKH BAPTIST DENIED WORK, TRAVEL -- Kazakhstan's high court has refused to hear the case of a Baptist who can neither work nor leave the country because authorities confiscated his passport.

Viktor Leven's passport was taken after he was convicted of conducting missionary activity without state permission, the Forum 18 human rights organization reported March 31. Leven, a native of Kazakhstan, and his wife are forced to provide for their six children only with what they can grow in their garden.

Leven said the family is in a "very difficult" situation. "Both my wife and I do not have any citizenship now, and therefore it is impossible for us to travel outside Kazakhstan," Leven told Forum 18. He added that they also cannot travel within Kazakhstan or get work because passports are required for those activities as well.

"We have a small plot of land attached to our house, and we live on the produce we grow," said Leven, who has six children, the oldest of which is 9.

DISSIDENT CHINESE LAWYER ALIVE -- A dissident Chinese lawyer missing for more than a year is alive and living in northern China, a human rights organization said March 29.

Gao Zhisheng, whose whereabouts have been unknown since he disappeared from his hometown in central China Feb. 4, 2009, made contact with his family in March. Gao previously had been jailed and tortured for human rights activities; the government had given only vague explanations about his location, the Associated Press reported. Gao's wife, Geng He, has appealed to the government to allow him to join the family in the United States.

"I am tremendously relieved that my husband is alive," Geng said in a statement issued by the Freedom Now human rights group. "I am so happy that my children were able to speak to him. My children and I have not seen their father since January 2009. We urge the Chinese government to allow Zhisheng to leave the country and be reunited with us in the United States."

Geng and her two children fled China a month before Gao was detained. Before being first jailed four years ago, Gao boldly represented underground Christians and the banned Falun Gong spiritual group and advocated constitutional reform, the AP reported.

Gao told an AP reporter he is living in Wutai Shan, a mountain range famous as a Buddhist retreat. A human rights lawyer in Beijing, however, said he believes Gao is not free. A statement released by Freedom Now said they assumed Gao is at least under close surveillance and may be under house arrest.

Gao was arrested in August 2006 and convicted of subversion at a one-day trial. Just before he disappeared last year, Gao publicly described the torture he endured during a 2007 detention, the AP reported. After his disappearance in 2009, a Foreign Ministry official said Gao was "where he should be."

PRESSURE ON CHAVEZ OPPONENTS INTENSIFIES -- Pressure against opponents of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez intensified in March as the country's National Assembly voted to remove the parliamentary immunity of an opposition lawmaker and the president of an opposition-aligned TV network was briefly arrested.

Lawmaker Wilmer Azuaje, who has alleged corruption by members of Chavez' family, is accused of striking a police official, the Associated Press reported. "I haven't committed any crime," Azuaje said after lawmakers voted March 28 to remove his immunity in the case. "All Venezuelans know that I'm getting a political trial."

A female police officer, Yuraima Castillo, accused Azuaje of verbally abusing her, grabbing her and hitting her on the shoulder during an argument that occurred when he came to pick up a car that had been stolen from his mother.

Globovision's Guillermo Zuloaga was detained March 25 for alleged offensive remarks made against President Hugo Chavez.

The country's attorney general, Luisa Ortega, said an investigation had been launched against Zuloaga for remarks at a press association meeting in which he blamed Chavez that protesters were shot during a coup attempt, the Associated Press reported. Ortega said the TV executive could face charges for "offensive or slanderous remarks" and also for "spreading false information."

Globovision is the only television station left on Venezuela's open airwaves that is critical of the Chavez government.

"They say I caused anxiety with some statements I made...," Zuloaga told reporters after a court hearing on the charges. "I mentioned a series of well-known historical facts because they were making false accusations against me. They say the remarks were offensive.... I said the president deployed the army to the streets."

On March 13, Chavez called for regulation of the Internet and demanded authorities crack down on a news site, Noticiero Digital, that had posted an article saying some of Chavez' close allies had been killed, the AP reported.

"The Internet can't be something free where anything can be done and said," Chavez said in a televised speech. "No, every country has to impose its rules and regulations."


Mark Kelly is a Baptist Press assistant editor.