INTERNATIONAL DIGEST: Pakistani pastor murdered by gunman; bookstore owner freed

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--A masked gunman murdered a pastor Jan. 17 in Peshawar, capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier province.

Sajid William, 29, worked as an office manager for "Shelter Now," a Christian relief and development agency. He reportedly was accosted on the street while on his way home, according to the human rights organization International Christian Concern. The pastor was shot three times in the chest, and the gunman then used William's cell phone to call the victim's family and tell them he had murdered him.

"We believe William was murdered for his faith," another pastor told ICC.

Police authorities opened an investigation into the murder only after William's family registered a complaint. Officers took possession of the cell phone and William's laptop as evidence. During 2007, Christians in several parts of the province received threats to "embrace Islam or die," according to ICC.

In Pakistan, Shelter Now operates a fish farm and is working to rebuild 105 schools ruined during a 2005 earthquake. The agency also provides clothes, shelter and food for refugees.

CHINESE BELIEVER FREED -- A Christian bookstore owner jailed in Beijing Nov. 28 and held initially without charges has been released on bail, according to the China Aid Association, a Texas-based organization that focuses on religious freedom issues in China. Authorities say criminal charges against Shi Weihan and two dozen others associated with his case have been dismissed.

Prosecutors assigned to the case said they were unable to proceed due to "insufficient evidence" related to the charges that were eventually filed: Illegal printing and distribution of Christian literature. A source close to the family, however, told Baptist Press that Shi's bookstore only carried books for which he had received government permission.

CAA President Bob Fu noted that international attention on the case likely influenced the court's decision. During a Communist Party conference on religious policy in December, Chinese President Hu Jintao also emphasized the government's "free religious policy" that stressed law-abiding management of religious affairs and support to self-governance of religious groups.

In spite of Shi Weihan's release, hundreds of people languish in Chinese prisons because of their Christian faith, Fu noted. Zhou Heng, for example, has been imprisoned since August 2007 on the same charges as Shi Weihan. "These accounts, and others, are examples of the Chinese government's failure to remain consistent in cases receiving less international attention," Fu said.

MANY CHILD DEATHS 'PREVENTABLE' -- In 2006, nearly 9.7 million children died before their fifth birthday -- and the vast majority of those deaths could have been prevented, according to a new United Nations report. Sierra Leone, Angola and Afghanistan ranked as the countries where children were most likely to die.

Diarrhea, malaria or malnutrition caused most of the childhood deaths, the U.N. Children's Fund reported. Simple health-care measures such as vaccinations, mosquito nets and vitamin supplements would have prevented many of the deaths.

"The loss of 9.7 million young lives each year is unacceptable, especially when many of these deaths are preventable," UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman told the Associated Press.

The global mortality rate for young children has been reduced by 23 percent since 1990, the report noted. The rate worldwide in 2006 was 72 deaths per 1,000 births, while the average in industrialized countries was six deaths per 1,000 births. Sierra Leone's child mortality rate was 270 deaths per 1,000 births. Twenty-eight of the 30 countries with the highest child mortality rates were in West Africa.

AL QAIDA USING MENTALLY DISABLED BOMBERS -- Another sign has emerged that the Al Qaida terrorist network is resorting to desperate measures in its struggle against the Iraqi government and its allies: The use of mentally disabled women in suicide bombings.

Two women described as suffering from Down syndrome were blown up by remote control Feb. 1 in two pet markets in Baghdad, killing at least 91 people. The explosions came 20 minutes apart in different parts of the city.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the bombings prove Al Qaida is "the most brutal and bankrupt of movements," according to the Associated Press. Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said, "There is nothing they won't do if they think it will work in creating carnage and the political fallout that comes from that."

Women are being used successfully in suicide attacks because Iraqi cultural taboos forbid men to touch women who are not their relatives. The black, full-body garb usually worn by Iraqi women makes it easy to hide explosives.

CHAVEZ: U.S. PLOTS 'AGRESSION' -- When U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Colombia on a diplomatic mission in late January, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez accused Colombia and the United States of plotting a military "aggression" against Venezuela.

Citing intelligence reports but not offering any evidence to support his claim, Chavez said, "I accuse the government of Colombia of devising a conspiracy, acting as a pawn of the U.S. empire, of devising a military provocation against Venezuela," according to an Associated Press report.

Chavez, who is faced with sharply lower public support because of domestic social and political issues, often accuses the United States of plotting to kill him or drive him from power. This is the first time he has taken such a sharp tone with neighboring Colombia, a U.S. ally that has protested Chavez appointing himself as a negotiator with rebels fighting the Colombian government.

The Venezuelan president warned Colombia about attempting a "provocation" and said his country would cut off oil exports if a military strike was launched from Colombia. "In that scenario, write it down: the price of oil would reach $300, because there wouldn't be oil for anyone," Chavez said, according to news reports. "The invaders would have to step over our dead bodies."

DPRK STILL WORST PERSECUTOR--The Democratic People's Republic of North Korea once again tops a list of countries where Christians suffer the most intense persecution. North Korea received 90 of a possible 100 points to lead the annual "World Watch List" compiled by Open Doors USA, a California-based ministry to persecuted Christians around the world.

It is the highest score a country has ever received in the ranking and the sixth consecutive year North Korea has topped the list, Open Doors President Carl Moeller told Mission Network News. Other countries identified as seriously violating the human rights of Christians in 2007 included China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Maldives, Bhutan, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Laos, Uzbekistan, Eritrea and the Palestinian territories.

Worldwide, 200 million Christians are persecuted because of their faith and another 400 million face discrimination, Open Doors estimates.


Mark Kelly is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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