Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, March 31, 2006

Senate group holds Islam, Christianity and World Order briefing

March 31, 2006

Washington, D.C. – The Congressional Working Group on Religious Freedom and Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom held a briefing today to reflect U.S. and British views on religious freedom, pinpointing the recent case of Abdul Rahman, the Christian convert who faced the death penalty for apostasy until international pressure secured his release on Monday. The two speakers who addressed the issue were the Rt. Rev. Dr. Michael Nazir Ali, a member of the House of Lords; and Michael P. Moreland, Associate Director for Domestic Policy at the White House.

Dr. Ali said that Islamic civilizations could not have flourished without participation of Christians and Jews. He added that Islam is not a theocracy and Shari’a is not meant to be a legal system, but rather a compilation of laws that God has given Muslims on how to live. Speaking of Rahman’s case, the Bishop said the death penalty has rarely been used as a legal mechanism to prosecute religious conversion, and there are no punishments detailed in the Quran for apostasy.

Since Bush took office, there has been a significant increase in “faith-based community efforts,” Moreland said. There is a special council now on religious rights in the Department of Justice. Internationally speaking, U.S. efforts to promote religious freedom are channeled through the Commission of Religious Freedom. Moreland said that it is a “long and hard task to change the way the world feels about religious freedom, but our efforts are on their way.”

During the question and answer period, Dr. Ali said that many philosophers of Islam have agreed on the need for an evaluation of laws governing apostasy and that more issues should be dealt with through proper interpretation of the Quran. Referring to the problem of jihad (from an inward spiritual struggle to attain perfect faith, to a political or military struggle to further the Islam) he says, “Where progress has been made, it is now being undone, in places like Egypt.”
Women’s voices from Iraq
March 31, 2006

Washington D.C – An Iraqi women’s delegation spoke to members of the media and human rights community about the situation in Iraq today at the National Press Club.

Prior to their Washington visit, during which they met with government officials to share their stories, members of the women’s delegation took part in a three-day Iraqi-U.S. Women’s Summit in New York that was sponsored by the Global Peace Initiative of Women, an international multi-faith network of women working to stimulate peace building and reconciliation efforts.

One member of the delegation, Pascal Warda, an Assyrian Kurd living in Baghdad, said, “Every time I leave my house to go out I always wonder if I will come back.” She spoke about the importance of the continuing work between the U.S. and Iraq. She also pointed out how vital it is to establish a new government step-by-step. Ms. Warda finished her testimony, saying, “On hope we will rebuild.”

Journalists in the audience asked Warda and others on the delegation panel if they wanted the U.S. to leave Iraq. One by one they answered the question:

Noha Nadhim Salin Al-Agha said Iraqis are very grateful towards the U.S. for helping Iraq. At the same time, Al-Agha said that the U.S. has misunderstood Iraqi perspectives, which has caused problems. “Today we need help and we really want to be dear friends with the U.S in the future. We are proud of you always,” Al-Agha said.

Dr. Saieb Aziz Al Gailani, the only man on the panel, had another view, saying, “There is not a problem if you stay or leave as long as you stick to your commitment, if there is no job [for the U.S. to do] you can go back,” continuing, “Now it is necessary for you to stay.” He also stated that it is important that the U.S stay for “the right reasons.”

Panelist Lamia Jamal Talabani said, “Now it is necessary for you to stay but we don’t want you to stay forever.”

Dr. Rashad Zaydan said, “Rebuild what you destroyed, then go home.”

Audience members also asked if the Iraqi delegation thought there would be a civil war, and the whole delegation was united in their answer, saying there would not be a civil war. Ms. Warda said, “We are not fanatic people in Iraq.” All of the members of the delegation said that it comes down to politics and that some Iraqi politicians are using the idea that there will be civil war to get more power. The women said that Iraq is one nation and they gave personal anecdotes of this. Talabani said – “I’m both Kurdish and Sunni and I’m married to a Shiite.”

The women were all very passionate when they discussed their situation and especially when they talked about the women and children’s situation, which was the main focus of the panel. In addition, they said that many women are highly educated in Iraq, but they need help to get into positions where they can make a difference. Explaining women’s exclusion from leadership roles in democracy building, Warda said, “The reason for the situation is due to the politics.”

A full list of delegation members, with their bios, can be found here on the website of Network: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, the organization that sponsored the trip.
President Bush Religious Freedom Address
March 29, 2006

Washington D.C – President George W. Bush spoke about religious freedom and Iraq at a Freedom House address Wednesday. Guests included members of Congress and members of the human rights community, including the Leadership Council for Human Rights.

President Bush discussed Saddam Hussein´s efforts to sow deep divisions between different religious sects that had once co-existed in harmony. He spoke about Hussein’s genocidal rampage against the Kurdish people, and also about Shiites whose mosques burned down by the regime. The President described the regime’s well-documented attacks on Kurdish cities using chemical weapons such as mustard gas. In the aftermath, Hussein gave Sunnis control over the land from which the Kurds had fled.

The President stated that Hussein’s regime is still affecting the situation in Iraq today. He said that the wounds of the people, including chasms the former dictator created between religious sects, explain why these factions are struggling to form a cohesive democratic government.

“It is going to take time for Iraq to heal,” President Bush said, adding, “Democracy is the only way to peace.” Democracy will lead to freedom and when Iraq has achieved that, Iraqis will rule the region, Bush said.

The President spoke passionately about the current conditions in Iraq, maintaining his position, “If we leave, the terrorists will win.” He drew parallels between Iraq and Afghanistan, saying, “If we leave before the work is done the terrorists will move in and then they will go against all the freedom-loving countries.” Bush said that the United States will keep its promise and finish the work it started, completing its mission in Iraq because of the threat against that nation. He said that only time would tell how long the process might take, and encouraged the Iraqi people to stand up and defend democracy.

During an extended period of Q&A, the President answered questions on a wide range of topics, from the war in Iraq to environmental concerns and also questions regarding refugees in the United States.


Egypt News Update

A New Freedom of Press

March 27, 2005

Egypt – During the Egyptian parliamentary elections last fall, many newspapers reported a fair and equal election. However, that was not the only perspective published on the election, marking a new openness in the press.

The newspaper al-Masri al-Yom, or the Daily Egyptian, reported "death threats, bribes, violence and partisan security forces." It said that "the elections were marred by irregularities and violations carried out by a large number of [Mubarak's] National Democratic Party and independent candidates and their militias, which prevented people from entering polling stations."

Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, in his piece, “The Freedom to Describe Dictatorship,” wrote that it is accurate reports like this, despite the un-democratic situation being reported, that is the strongest single sign that Egypt's stifling and stagnant autocracy has begun to unravel. If there were more laws to protect the rights of the press, however, more papers might dare to tell the truth, like al-Masri al-Yom.

Click here for Diehl’s full editorial.

Egyptian Journalist Create Press Law against Imprisonment

March 29, 2006

CAIRO – Plans to pressure the government to cancel prison sentences for publication offences topped the agenda of last Friday's Press Syndicate general assembly. AL-AHRAM newspaper reports journalists asking that the draft press law, drawn up by the syndicate several years ago, be submitted to parliament for discussion.

Prior to the opening of the Fourth General Congress of Journalists in 2004, President Hosni Mubarak informed Press Syndicate Chairman Galal Aref that custodial sentences for publication offences were no longer applicable. Optimistic journalists were silenced when the prison sentence came for two journalists from different daily Egyptian newspaper agencies. Currently more than 100 journalists are waiting for their court rulings and could soon face a life behind bars.

Click here for the full story.

Women oppressed in Arab Laws

March 29, 2006

Cairo – This week the Arab League issued a four-volume encyclopedia on the status of women in national legislation.

The road ahead is still difficult, because despite the many achievements much more still needs to be done for women in the Arab world, commented Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa at the inauguration of the encyclopedia at the Cairo headquarters of the Arab organization on Sunday.

The harshest laws for women are those concerned with marriage and divorce. Also, in many Arab states there are no personal status laws. Aside from describing places in which women have few rights, the encyclopedia discusses positive developments that have occurred.

This encyclopedia, said Hanaa Sorour, head of the Women's Division at the Arab League, is not meant to dishearten women in the Arab world. The objective, she explained, is to collect all relevant legislation and highlight areas that require attention and advocacy by national women's groups.

Click here for the full story.

Afghan Convert Welcomed in Italy

March 31, 2006

BBC News reported that the Italian cabinet has approved Afghan Abdul Rahman’s asylum request. Rahman escaped a possible death sentence under Sharia law for converting from Islam to Christianity.

Afghan MPs required Rahman to remain in Afghanistan; but The Toronto Sun reported Friday that he has arrived at a secret location in Italy.

Some Afghan politicians are outraged by Rahman’s release and Italy’s asylum offer. There had been an international outcry at the prospect of Mr. Rahman being executed for his religious beliefs, but Afghan legislators said the decision to release him from trial for apostasy was "contrary to the laws in place in Afghanistan.” Click here for the full story.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Situation in Sudan

March 29, 2006

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom held a press conference highlighting the main conclusions drawn on the situation in Sudan. Several prominent members of Congress attended the conference: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Frank Wolf, and Rep. Donald Payne. All of the members of Congress present called for a stronger bipartisan approach to resolving the issues in Sudan, and they stated their belief that a Special Envoy ought to be appointed for the country. Representative Wolf called for a passionate approach and an end to the analytical approach that Washington, and the rest of the international community, has employed until now. Each Representative showed strong support for the USCIRF and the work they have done about the violence and religious intolerance currently occurring in several regions of Sudan. Also present at the briefing were representatives from the Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group discussing their respective findings about the situation in Sudan.

The Chair of the USCIRF spoke at length on the conclusions drawn by their report being released today, and the situation as it now stands, and how it might look in the future. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in January of 2005, and the members of the commission visited in January of this year. According to their report there has been some progress, such as a fragile, but existent peace that has curbed the North-South civil war, and a unity government has taken control in Khartoum. They however note that these are small steps when many serious problems still exist. They cite significant delays in implementing major parts of the CPA, a lack of the sharing of oil wealth, limited to no protection of human rights, and an ongoing genocide in the western Darfur region. Also at issue is the treatment of other religions in Sudan, such that Christians are still subject to Shar’ia law and Muslims may not convert to another religion. There is some discrepancy about the permission to build churches not being given. In light of these problems, the Commission has drawn the following conclusions and policy steps for the U.S. Government:

1. Appointment of a “Special Representative” (Special Envoy) to the Sudan.

2. Increase our support and leadership in implementing the provisions of the CPA.

3. Maintain sanctions without hurting the South or programs aimed at implementing the CPA

4. Increase foreign assistance and promote more cultural and educational exchanges.

5. Help return those internally and externally displaced by conflict in Sudan

6. Maintain discussions with Sudanese officials on many different issues.

7. Have a United Nations’ Peacekeeping force deployed to relieve the African Union troops.

To learn more about Sudan and the USCIRF, click here.

Information from the Human Rights Watch can be found here.

To find out more from the International Crisis Group, click here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

News Update Iraq

Iraqi Woman Nominated for Non-Fiction Prize

March 28, 2006

An anonymous young Iraqi woman has been nominated for an award for her blog written about life in war-torn Iraq. The online publication, Baghdad Burning, is one of the 19 books under consideration for the BBC’s Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction.

The winner will be announced on June 14 and the prize money is £30,000.

According to BBC News:

“Professor Robert Winston, chair of the judging panel, said this year's long list contained "an exceptionally wide variety of genres".”

“This year's panel includes theatre director Sir Richard Eyre, columnist Cristina Odone and Michael Prodger, literary editor of the Sunday Telegraph.”

Click here to read the whole article

U.S.-Iraqi women's Summit Provides Glimpses of War’s Challenges

March 27, 2006

Everyday activities are a struggle in Iraq, where going to the store to buy milk, hosting a birthday party for your son or daughter or just walking down the street can mean risking death.
Despite these conditions, Iraqi women’s voices are being heard across the world.

According to an article by Paul Burkhardt of Associated Press about a U.S. delegation of Iraqi women:

“"Women have the ability to express the problem because, not only are we closer to the ground, we know the impact on children and families," said Dena Merriam of The Global Peace Initiative of Women, a leadership network that organized the summit. "It's in our blood, we're instinctive about it."”

“She added that organizers included more than 90 American women to discuss issues with the Iraqis because they "felt more that women would respond to their needs and take action."”

“Ambassador Sumaidaie agreed with others that the United Nations needs a stronger presence in Iraq to help children and families. The world body has gradually returned about 120 staff members to Iraq since all employees were pulled out following an August 2003 bombing on U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people.”

Click here to read the whole article.

U.N. to Iraq: Form Government Now

March 27, 2006

The situation in Iraq has been described by some as untenable and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Representative Ashraf Qazi says that there has to be a change now. Civilians are appalled by the daily cases of torture, arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial executions that have affected all communities.

According to United Press International:

"Iraq must come together to overcome violence," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Representative Ashraf Qazi said Monday. "There is a need, more than ever before, to speed up the formation of a government that will assert respect for Human Rights and the rule of law in an alarmingly deteriorating security situation in Iraq."

"While fully upholding respect for the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, the international community has a duty to caution Iraq's political leaders that there is no alternative to the creation of a national government," he said. "An administration which is perceived as merely a loose collection of interest groups will not succeed and is far below what Iraqis deserve."

Click here to read the article.

A New Beginning for the UN

March 28, 2006
Geneva – ABC News reported the United Nations has now closed the book on a scandal-laden history of human rights. Yesterday was the final meeting for the corrupt and much criticized Human Rights Commission. The United Nations now has a chance to make up for the 60-year history of the commission with the new Human Rights Council, set to meet on June 19th in Geneva. The General Assembly is set to vote on the members of the council on the 9th of May. This is a new beginning for the United Nations, the start of what could be a better approach to eliminating human rights violations worldwide. The United Nations needs to take this opportunity to correct the flaws with the old commission before the new council begins its important tasks this June. According to the ABC News report:

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said member states should now seize the opportunity to improve the U.N.'s tarnished rights record.

"We are, truly, in the midst of a quiet or even maybe not so quiet human rights revolution," Arbour said. "Much will rest on the profound culture shift that must accompany this institutional reform. The protection of human rights will thrive in a rigorous, frank and cooperative environment.

To read the entire article from ABC News, click here.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Empowering Afghan Women Entrepreneurs

March 27, 2006
Washington DC – Director of Women in Development Unit, Chemonics International, Mary Hill Rojas, introduced panelists Farida Azizi, Independent Consultant, formerly of Vital Voices; Mariam Nawabi, Afghan American Chamber of Commerce; and Marilee Kane, USAID (EGAT/WID), to discuss the present state of women entrepreneurs, how they have progressed, and methods of continuing the empowerment of Afghan women.

Azizi gave much attention to what she called “sexist programs,” that oppress women from furthering their entrepreneurial development. She said women have no income to pay back their loans. To fix the problem, she suggested that women should be provided with communications training, online marketing, and mentoring programs specifically for emerging business women, access to media service for ads, and help with contracting, purchasing, and advance deposit. She said there should be more women entrepreneurs in the near future because women are “accountable and reliable,” and men are busy with war and agriculture.

Nawabi emphasized the fact that women are the majority gender in Afghanistan. Now, because of the war, they are also the primary household leaders. Yet, 80% are still illiterate. In the last 2-3 years, the women have stepped up, Nawabi said, putting Afghanistan high in the charts for the repayment rate of micro loans. Women’s Enterprise Development (WED) revolutionized women and business. The challenges faced for women entrepreneurs are: lack of human capital, lack of resources such as loans (which are a challenge even for men), lack of financial capital, lack of assets, and cultural constraints.

Nawabi said that some business women are not as culturally constricted as before, because their husbands are noticing the effect their money has on the household, and thus they are able to travel around without a man. Nawabi introduced her plan of creating an entrepreneur “incubator.” She said this would be a business support process which teaches the sharing of both cost and resources. She added that this would be a “practical hands on approach.” Nawabi concluded by saying when dealing with the empowerment of women in Afghanistan, it is important to “look at the outputs versus the inputs,” to look at what has been changed rather than always looking at what needs to be done. She proposed a method to “shy away from just women and NGOs,” and to look for business men who are willing to help Afghan women as well.

A program involving veterinarians training women working with poultry to take care of chicks until they were chickens, and then giving fertilized eggs back to start the cycle all over again was a “very successful” system, Kane said. In 2003 the program was stopped so women could be linked to other businesses for more opportunity. Kane said, “We see groups of women as homogeneous, but it’s not true”; some women work better in areas that others do not. Kane said she believed the chicken system should not have been interrupted. She suggested, women should be given access to business skills and advice, English skills, financial skills, and should be provided with more opportunities to work in different sectors.

Wilson Center, March 27, 2006

Woodrow Wilson Center Event Report: Human Rights Approaches to Religion: Implications for Euro-Islamic Relations

March 27, 2006

Washington, D.C – The Wilson Center welcomed Malcom Evans, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law, and Professor of Public International Law at the University of Bristol, School of Law (UK), to talk about how Europe should deal with human rights when it comes to religious freedom and which approach they should take in a court of law.

Evans opened by addressing the history of religious freedom in Europe. He talked about the time after World War II, and how the states wanted to protect religion within whole communities and even the communities that had been broken down into smaller societies.

A time came when the state wanted to support the religious needs of the people, Evans said. The resulting problem was that laws were made protecting one form of religion but not another, as was the case with the state sponsored Anglican Church in the United Kingdom.

Evans said that a change came around 1993 with a case in Greece when the judges had a hard time deciding between freedom of expression and religious freedom. As a result, European states have taken a new approach as neutral players on religion.

Evans stated that he thinks it is very important to protect all religions and that problems can arise both in states with official religious affiliations and in states. In Evans opinion, neither model works well all the time.

Evans took an example form England of a Muslim girl who was wearing a veil in her private, secular school and was asked to take it off. The case went to court and she lost because the court said that it was not a violation of her religious freedom, since she had the opportunity to choose another school. Evans mentioned that a state church should represent the beliefs of the majority of the people there. In most cases in Europe today that is not the case, he said. For example, only a small percent of British people are practicing Anglicans. Evans also pointed out that many countries in South Eastern Europe want to have strong states at the same time as they want to have religious freedom, which is hard to combine.

In conclusion, when dealing with questions of religious freedom, it is difficult to know how best to protect everyone’s rights under different models of government. Evans made it clear that there is no right way for all the countries in Europe because of the wide range of beliefs. It is up to every state to do what provides their nation the best model, he said.
Case Suspended for Afghan Christian Convert
March 27, 2006

Kabul – Afghanistan’s Supreme Court suspended the case against Abdul Rahman, the Christian who converted from Islam. The case was sent back to the prosecutor’s office after family members testified that Rahman was “mentally unstable.”

Agence France-Presse reported: “‘[Rahman] himself has said that he hears strange voices in his head. His files have been sent back to the prosecutor-general for further investigation,’ said court spokesman Wakil Omari.”

Due to the immense pressure the courts have been getting from Western nations, a quick release for Rahman is expected.

Many people still hope for Rahman’s death, like Mohammad Salam, who said, “If we are Muslims, then we should kill him. If we don't, we have stood against the will of God.”

Click here for the full story.

Afghan Cabinet Rejected by Women’s Rights Group
March 27, 2006

Kabul – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that women’s rights activists on Saturday rejected the new Afghan parliament because it has too few women. A member of the Committee for Women’s Political Partnership, Najia Hanifi, told RFE/RL, “The new cabinet has not been chosen on the basis of meritocracy, but on the basis of the population size of different provinces like Mazar-e Sharif, Paktia, or Heart. That is why gender is of no concern to the government of Afghanistan. She said the only woman minister appointed by Karzai was in charge of women’s affairs. Hanifi added that there is not a single woman in the High Judiciary Council of the Supreme Court. “Parliament is the symbol of the people’s determination,” said Hanifi, and women should be given more posts.

Arranged Marriages Examined in New Book by an Afghan Woman
March 25, 2006

New York – Masuda Sultan is an Afghan woman who grew up in Queens, New York. Her book, My War at Home tells how Afghan customs still affected her life in the U.S. She discusses topics ranging from her failed arranged marriage, to others’ successful arranged marriages, and the “simplistic idea” Americans have toward Afghan customs. To read Joseph Berger’s book review in The New York Times click here.