Jan. 23 marked the 53rd anniversary of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez' ouster and the establishment of democracy in that country. Chavez' opponents compare him to that dictator, saying both men censored news media, jailed adversaries and violated basic freedoms.
"The big lesson from Jan. 23 is that we must fight for democracy and freedom every day," opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado said, according to the Associated Press. "In a country where dissidence is constantly attacked, there's no true democracy," rally organizer Virginia Zamora said.
Chavez' allies also took to the streets of the capital, rejecting claims that "El Comandante," as the former paratrooper is popularly known, is becoming increasingly authoritarian in his efforts to impose Cuban-style socialism on the South American country, the AP reported.
"Chavez has demonstrated again and again that he's a democrat. It's absurd that some think he's a dictator," Chavez supporter Alejandra Gonzalez said, according to the AP.
"Democracy was lost in Venezuela a long time ago," Marcos Ferreyra, a former Venezuelan soldier who demonstrated in Miami, told the AP.
CHRISTIAN WOMAN MARTYRED IN SOMALIA -- A mother of four was killed for her Christian faith by Islamic extremists Jan. 7 on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia.
Asha Mberwa, 36, was killed in Warbhigly village when members of the al Shabaab militia cut her throat in front of villagers, the Compass Direct News reported Jan. 17. A relative, who asked to remain anonymous, said al Shabaab learned Mbwera had become a Christian by monitoring her phone calls and the woman had received threatening messages. Mbwera had phoned the relative Jan. 5 to try to make arrangements for moving her family out of the area.
A "good Samaritan" in Mogadishu was caring for Abwera's four children -- ages 12, 8, 6 and 4 -- and her husband (who was not home at the time she was apprehended) has fled to an unknown location, Compass Direct reported.
1,500-YEAR-OLD CHURCH FOUND IN ISRAEL -- Israeli archaeologists announced they have been excavating a newly uncovered 1,500-year-old church building in the hills southwest of Jerusalem.
Researchers at the site initially thought the building, which sits on an uninhabited hill not far from an Israeli farming community, was a synagogue, until the dig revealed stones carved with crosses, the Associated Press reported. The ruin also contained a well-preserved mosaic floor with images of lions, foxes, fish and peacocks. Stone steps lead down to a small burial cave, which tradition says might have been the burial place of the Old Testament prophet Zechariah.
The Byzantine church building had been erected on top of another structure, dating 500 years earlier, the AP reported. Underneath the structure researchers found a network of tunnels they believe were used by Jewish rebels fighting Roman armies in the second century A.D.
Because Israel's Antiquities Authority discovered thieves had begun plundering the ruins, the site will be buried again until funding is obtained to open it as a tourist site, the AP said.
U.S. INTERVENES FOR JAILED AFGHAN BELIEVER -- The American embassy intervened on behalf of an Afghan Christian who was arrested in April 2010 after images of Afghans praying and being baptized were broadcast by a television station in Kabul.
Sayed Mussa, 46, was transferred to a detention center in Kabul in December from a prison where Mussa says he was beaten by guards and inmates, The New York Times reported. Mussa's family fled to Pakistan for safety and he told The Times he has not been represented by a lawyer.
During a reporter's interview with Mussa, a guard rose to beat the prisoner when he said he loved both the Quran and the Bible, The Times reported. The jail commander, who also was present for the interview, waved the guard back.
While a senior prosecutor told The Times Mussa might be released, diplomats have been unsuccessful in getting Mussa freed to seek asylum in another country. U.S. congressmen have expressed reservations about the Afghan government's failure to ensure religious freedom.
"We cannot justify taxpayer dollars going to a government that allows the same restrictions on basic human rights that existed under the Taliban," Reps. Trent Franks of Arizona and Doug Lamborn of Colorado wrote last fall to Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry.
The country's 2004 constitution guarantees Afghans the freedom to exercise their faith, but it also says the courts may rely on Islamic Sharia law, strict versions of which consider leaving Islam an offense punishable by death, The Times noted.
The Afghan government has not executed anyone for religious crimes since the Taliban's fall, according to The Times, but radical elements in Afghan society exert great pressure on the government to punish people who criticize or leave Islam.
Mussa, an ethnic Hazara who grew up a Shiite Muslim, became intrigued by Christianity during Afghanistan's civil war when two foreign women braved gunfire to help a neighbor dig through the rubble of his home, looking for family members after his home was bombed by a jet fighter, The Times recounted.
"When I saw these women and their compassion for my people, it affected me," Mussa told The Times. "I asked people who they were and they said they are the followers of Jesus Christ." Musa located an Afghan Christian in his neighborhood, received a copy of the New Testament and eventually was baptized.
Mark Kelly is an assistant editor and senior writer for Baptist Press.
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