BERLIN - Asir’s life was preprogrammed. The North African Muslim was to be trained to be a jihadist in a Palestinian terrorist camp. There he would learn how to build bombs and kill non-believers. But just before he was due to leave, he started to have doubts.
"I realized that there were several versions of the Koran, and that some texts contradict each other," he says now, four years later. His imam was unable to explain these contradictions satisfactorily. Questioning the dogma underlying his Salafist affinities and the religious fanaticism environment around him, he ended up tearing up his passport – thus making the trip to the camp impossible.
It was during this period of religious confusion that Asir met a Christian, who told him about Jesus. He looked for more information on Christianity on the Internet, called a Christian hotline, came across a Christian TV station, and started reading the Bible. He ended up converting to Christianity – which means that his life is at constant risk in his country.
Azni from Chechnya is also a Christian, and she’s paying a high price for her beliefs. Her brothers want to kill her. Her husband says she has put a curse on the family. The 40-year-old woman prays fervently for her survival. "I’m tired and I’m scared," she says.
Saliha’s home is in northern Nigeria, where sharia law prevails. The 20-year-old grew up a Christian. Then one day her father converted to Islam. Her mother refused to do so, so the man threw her and his then eight-year-old daughter out of the house. But he later came after Saliha and forced her to wear the veil and attend an Islamic school.
She ultimately fled, and today lives in a Christian institution where she is considered an excellent student. She must continue to be careful though, because her father is still after her and if he finds her, she faces forced marriage to a Muslim.
Three Christians, three fates. They represent 100 million people that are persecuted around the world for their Christian beliefs, according to the Christian aid organization Open Doors. In the 2013 edition of their World Watch List the organization puts North Korea – for the 11th time – at the head of 50 countries where the persecution of Christians is strongest.
North Korea the worst offender
In North Korea, between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians are interned in labor camps, Open Doors reports. Under the dictatorship, just owning a Bible can mean the death penalty or internment of the whole family. An estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Christians have to live their faith in secret, but despite the persecution the government has yet to eradicate what is in fact a growing network of believers who worship at services in each others’ homes.
Also topping the Open Doors list are Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, the Maldives, Mali, Iran, Yemen and Eritrea. The Arab revolts against dictatorial regimes have apparently done little to change the persecution of Christians. Indications so far point to one autocracy having replaced another.
"Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists used revolutions and democratic elections such as Egypt’s as a stepping stone to power," says Markus Rode, head of Open Doors in Germany. "Unfortunately we see no end to Islamic extremism spreading across country and massive persecution and displacement of Christian minorities."
In Syria, Christians are mostly targeted by foreign Islamists who have joined the Free Syrian Army. The result is that on the 2013 list Syria has moved up from number 36 to 11th place. Libya moved from 26 to 17th place, Tunisia from 35 to 30. Egypt occupies the 25th place.
For the first time, the annual list includes Sub-Saharan countries – Mali, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Niger – because the situation of Christian minorities in those countries has worsened dramatically. Violent attacks on Christians have also been tracked by Open Doors in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Niger and Nigeria.
China has moved down to 37th place from 21st because those conducting services in their homes – as long as they obey set limitations – are generally not persecuted although the regime is ramping up measures to keep home churches under control and at least 100 Christians are in prison because of their beliefs or religious activities.
According to Open Doors, there has been clear improvement in the position of Christians in Chechnya, Cuba, Turkey, Belarus and Bangladesh, which no longer figure on the 2013 list. This by no means that Christians aren’t persecuted in these countries, just that the countries aren’t among the top 50 worst offenders.
Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?
BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.
The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.
This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.
Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.
"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.
Can you trust environmental officials?
For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.
This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.
It could have sunk because of the rain.
After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.
The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.
"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.
"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.
Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water
A questionable claim
That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.
"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.
He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."
Living in pollution
The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.
"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.
He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.
The mining work should have been stopped long ago
Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.
The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.
In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.
The mine has affected the landscape around the villages
Resisting lignite mining
The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.
The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.
They were dependent on others' land for work.
Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.
In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.
The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.
"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.