India’s Anti-Christian Violence in 2008 Linked to Terrorists


Christians call for agency to probe anti-Muslim terrorism ties to Orissa-Karnataka attacks.

NEW DELHI, March 25 (CDN) — Right-wing terrorists played a key role in attacking and killing Christians in Orissa and Karnataka states in 2008, one of the Hindu extremist suspects in anti-Muslim bomb blasts has told investigators, leading to renewed demands for a probe by India’s anti-terror agency.

Pragya Singh Thakur, arrested for planning 2008 bombings targeting Muslims in west India, told the National Investigation Agency (NIA) that Lt. Col. Prasad Srikant Purohit had “masterminded” the 2008 anti-Christian violence in Orissa and Karnataka, The Indian Express daily reported on Wednesday (March 23). Purohit is accused along with Thakur for the 2008 bombings of Muslims.

Thakur had met with Purohit after the August 2008 Kandhamal attacks against Christians began and told her “he was into big things like blasts, etc., and had masterminded the Orissa and Karnataka ‘disturbances,’” the national daily reported.

The NIA, a recently formed agency to prevent, probe and prosecute terrorism-related incidents on a national scale, is investigating several cases involving right-wing terrorism aimed at the Muslim minority in retaliation for Islamist attacks. Both Thakur, formerly a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, and Purohit, who was serving in the Indian Army when he was arrested for his role in blasts in Malegaon city in western Maharashtra state, were part of the Hindu extremist Abhinav Bharat.

Thakur’s statement to the NIA came soon after a Directorate of Military Intelligence report said Purohit had confessed to having killed at least two Christians in Kandhamal and playing a role in violence in Karnataka and other states.

The revelation by Thakur was not surprising, said John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council.

“We have held that the military precision of the Kandhamal riots, which spread fast and raged for months, could not be a work of mere common people, and that higher brains were at work to ‘teach the Christians a lesson’ while sending out signals of their power lust to the entire nation,” Dayal told Compass.

The violence in Kandhamal began following the assassination of a Hindu extremist leader Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008. Though Maoists claimed responsibility for the murder, Hindu extremists blamed Christians for it. The violence began after the arrival of Indresh Kumar, an executive committee member of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and a suspect in blast cases, said Kandhamal activist Ajay Singh. Local media reports said Kumar was part of Saraswati’s funeral procession, which was designed to trigger the attacks, Singh added.

The RSS denies having played any role in terrorism. On March 12, Ram Madhav, an RSS national executive committee member, called the allegation against Kumar “a concerted political campaign.” Those who were dragging the RSS leader into blast cases “will stand thoroughly exposed,” The Times of India daily quoted him as saying.

Dayal and another Christian leader, Joseph Dias, said they had separately written to India’s prime minister and home minister seeking inclusion of the anti-Christian attacks in an ongoing NIA investigation. Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) said he had petitioned the president for the same.

Dias, general secretary of the Catholic-Christian Social Forum, a Maharashtra-based rights group, recalled that violence in Kandhamal spread across 13 other districts of Orissa.

“In Kandhamal alone, more than 6,600 homes were destroyed, 56,000 people rendered homeless, thousands injured, and about 100 men and women [were] burned alive or hacked to death,” Dias said. “Among the women raped was a Catholic nun.”

In September 2008, as the violence continued in Kandhamal, a series of attacks on Christians and their property rocked Mangalore city in Karnataka state.

“In Karnataka, it was hundreds of churches that were desecrated, Christians brutally beaten up, over 350 false cases foisted on them, property held by the community taken over, and no relief to date [has been] received,” Dias said.

While the government of Orissa downplayed the violence as “ethnic tensions,” Karnataka officials blamed it on Christian conversions.

The RSS and outfits linked to it such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, which claims to work for tribal welfare, facilitated the Kandhamal attacks together with alleged Hindu nationalist terrorists, Dayal said.

“We want the truth about Hindu groups’ anti-national terror activities against minority Christians to come out,” said George, whose GCIC is based in Karnataka.

Dias warned that that the latest statement by Thakur must not to be seen in isolation, as the Military Intelligence report revealed that the Abhinav Bharat had targeted Christians in several states, including Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

The “game plan” is to “cripple Christian religious places, property and institutions, besides eliminating its nascent community leadership at the grassroots,” Dias added.

The Abhinav Bharat was formed in 2007 by a few right-wing Hindus allegedly disillusioned with the leaders of the Hindu nationalist movement, whom they thought were too timid to make India a Hindu nation, rather than one based on religious pluralism.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Christian in Bangladesh Goes to Prison for Evangelism


DHAKA, Bangladesh, March 23 (CDN) — A Christian has been sentenced to one year in prison for “creating chaos” by selling and distributing Christian books and other literature near a major Muslim gathering north of this capital city.

A magistrate court in Gazipur district handed down the sentence to Biplob Marandi, a 25-year-old tribal Christian, on Feb. 28 after he was arrested near the massive Bishwa Ijtema (World Muslim Congregation) on the banks of the Turag River near Tongi town on Jan. 21.

A copy of the verdict says that he was sentenced according to Section 296 of Bangladeshi law 1860 for “creating chaos at a religious gathering.”

“Duty police found Marandi creating chaos as he was propagating his religion, Christianity, by distributing the tracts as a mobile court on Jan. 21 was patrolling near the field of the Bishwa Ijtema,” the verdict reads. “The accusation – creating chaos at a Muslim gathering by distributing Christian booklets and tracts – against him was read out in the court before him, and he admitted it. He also told the court that he had mainly wanted to propagate his religion, Christianity.”

The Rev. Sailence Marandi, pastor at Church of Nazarene International in northern Thakurgaon district and older brother of Biplob Marandi, told Compass that there was no altercation when his brother was distributing Christian tracts; likewise, the verdict makes no mention of any confrontation.

“I guess some fanatic Muslims found my brother’s works un-Islamic,” he said. “They created chaos and handed over my brother to the police and the mobile court.”

Pastor Marandi said he could not understand how a court could determine that one man could disturb a gathering of hundreds of thousands of Muslims.

“Fanatic Muslims might say this impossible thing, but how can the honorable court can say it?” he said. “In the verdict copy it is written that my brother admitted his offense in the court. This case being very religiously sensitive, I suspect that his confession statement might have been taken under duress.”

Pastor Marandi said his brother was selling Christian books to supplement his livelihood as an evangelist on a street near the event, and there were many curious pedestrians of all faiths among Muslims from around the world.

“Where there were more people, he would go there for selling books and distributing Christian tracts,” he said.

The pastor said he was surprised that Marandi was convicted and sentenced so quickly.

“My brother did not get the chance for self-defense in court,” he said. “Without opportunity for self-defense, sentencing him for one year for evangelical activities was a travesty of justice. It cannot be accepted in a democratic country.”

He added that the family hired a Muslim lawyer for Marandi who did little for him.

“If he had worked, then there would have been cross-examination regarding the confession statement,” Pastor Marandi said. “I think that some Muslim fanatics could not tolerate his evangelical activities near the religious gathering place and handed him over.”

The family has since hired a Christian attorney, Lensen Swapon Gomes, who told Compass that he filed an appeal on Monday (March 21) as Marandi’s religious activities were protected by the religious freedom provisions of the country’s constitution.

“I appealed to the court for his bail and also appealed for his release from the one-year punishment,” said Gomes. “I hope that the honorable court will consider his case, because he is an innocent man and a victim of circumstances. The offense for which he is convicted is bailable.”

The Bangladeshi constitution provides the right for anyone to propagate their religion subject to law, but authorities and communities often objected to efforts to convert people from Islam, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom report.

Every year several million male Muslims – women are not allowed – attend the event to pray and listen to Islamic scholars from around the world. Some 9,000 foreigners from 108 countries reportedly attended the event, but most of the worshippers are rural Bangladeshis. About 15,000 security personnel were deployed to maintain order.

Bangladeshi Muslims equate the annual event with the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. This year the Bangladesh event was held in two phases, Jan 21-23 and Jan. 28-30.

Jagadish Edward, academic dean of Gloria Theological Seminary in Dhaka, told Compass that Marandi had engaged in evangelical work after completing three years at the seminary in 2005. Marandi had come to Dhaka from northern Thakurgaon district some 400 kilometers (249 miles) away.

“He was very polite and gentle,” said Edward. “As an evangelist, he knew how to respect other religions. I was really surprised when I heard he was arrested and sentenced for one year.”

At the same event in 2009, Muslim pilgrims beat and threatened to kill another Bible school student as he distributed Christian literature. A patrolling Rapid Action Battalion elite force rescued Rajen Murmo, then 20, a student at Believers’ Church Bible College, on Feb. 1, 2009.

Bangladesh is the world’s third-largest Muslim-majority nation, with Muslims making up 89 percent of its population of 164.4 million, according to Operation World. Christians are less than 1 percent of the total, and Hindus 9 percent.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Turkey Arrests 20 Allegedly Linked to Malatya Murders


Suspects in Ergenekon network long sought in homicide case to be questioned.

ISTANBUL, March 18 (CDN) — In simultaneous operations in nine different provinces of Turkey, authorities yesterday arrested 20 people suspected of playing a role in the murder of three Christians in Malatya in 2007, according to local news reports.

Zekeriya Oz, chief prosecutor overseeing the investigation into a clandestine network known as Ergenekon allegedly aimed at destabilizing the government, ordered the arrests based on information that linked the suspects to both the network and to the Malatya murders, Turkish press reported after Istanbul Chief of Police Chief Huseyin Capkin announced the sweep at a press conference yesterday.

“This was an operation related to the Malatya Zirve publishing house murders,” Capkin said, according to online news agency Malatya Guncel. “They were just arrested. This is connected to the Zirve publishing house. That’s the framework.”

Those apprehended include Ruhi Abat, a Muslim theology professor from Malatya Inonu University, Mehmet Ulger, a retired commander of the Malatya Gendarmerie in service at the time of the murders, and other members of the military. Oz will question the suspects in Istanbul, according to reports.

Police also raided the guesthouse of the Izmir Gendarmerie, seizing computers and documents. News sources listed Malatya, Siirt, Mugla, Mersin and Izmir as some of the cities in which authorities conducted raids and arrests.

A plaintiff attorney in the Malatya murder case, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, told Compass that the names on the list of those arrested were suspects he and his colleagues have been trying to convince the Malatya prosecutor to pursue since the court received a tip in May 2008.

“They are all the usual suspects,” Cengiz said. “All their names were mentioned in the first informant letter. Unfortunately, despite all our efforts, we couldn’t find anyone to investigate these allegations.”

The letter was the first of many informant letters the Malatya court has received since it started hearing the case on Nov. 22, 2007. Penned by someone who identified himself by the pseudonym “Ali Arslan” but unsigned, the letter claimed that Ulger incited Emre Gunaydin, one of the suspects, to carry out the murders and that he communicated with Gunaydin through Abat and two gendarmerie officers, reported Turkish English daily Today’s Zaman.

Cengiz said that, though it was the duty of the Malatya prosecutor to pursue leads in the informant letter, the prosecutor deferred the investigation to the military court, which in turn refused to investigate, claiming that the name on the letter was fake and the letter was not signed.

“It was like a joke,” Cengiz said.

On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim, were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Gunaydin.

From the beginning of the court hearings, plaintiff lawyers have brought evidence to the court showing the five young suspects were connected to a wider plot to kill the three Christians as well as other key Christian leaders across Turkey. Known as the Cage Plan, the plot is believed to be part of the alleged Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found in 2009 in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

Cengiz told Compass that new evidence in the Ergenekon case might have convinced Oz to pursue those detained yesterday, and he called the move “a very big step” in shedding light on the Malatya case. He and colleague Erdal Dogan said their efforts – especially a request they sent to Oz on Jan. 18, 2010 asking him to investigate the allegations that Ergenekon members were behind the Malatya murders – surely helped to move the process along.

“I believe our efforts had a very big influence on this,” Cengiz said. “We submitted a petition and requested this from Oz last year. He is acting with the Malatya prosecutor on this.”

At the request of the Istanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office, the Istanbul Police Department prepared a report last year revealing links between the Malatya murders and Ergenekon, according to Today’s Zaman. According to the report, Sevgi Erenerol, spokesperson for a bogus ultranationalist association known as the Turkish Orthodox Church, described foreign missionary activity as “spying” and “provoking.”

“A piece of evidence in the report was a conference on missionary activity given by Sevgi Erenerol … at the General Staff’s Strategic Research and Study Center,” reported Today’s Zaman.

Erenerol was arrested in connection with Ergenekon in 2008. Her suspected links with those thought to have masterminded the Zirve murders may have influenced yesterday’s arrests, Today’s Zaman reported.

She is also believed to be one of the key people behind false accusations against two members of Turkey’s Protestant Church, Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal, who were arrested in October 2006 for insulting Turkishness and Islam because they openly shared their faith.

After four years of legal battle, a judge finally acquitted the two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge. The two men are in the process of appealing the fine.

The Turkish Constitution grants all citizens the right to speak about their faith.

Plaintiff attorneys in the Malatya murders case said they believe yesterday’s arrests bring them closer to their requests that the Malatya murders case file be joined to that of the Ergenekon trial.

“From now on, we can predict it is very possible that our case will be sent to Istanbul soon and that these two cases will be merged,” said Cengiz.

The next Malatya hearing is scheduled for April 29.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Christians in Turkey Face Harassment; Murder Trial Stalls


Departure of presiding judge in Malatya case could further delay justice, attorneys fear.

ISTANBUL, March 15 (CDN) — Though the horrific scale of the 2007 Malatya murders has not been repeated in Turkey’s Protestant church, a recent report shows harassment continues to be a daily problem for the country’s Christians and churches.

Discrimination, slander and attacks against churches were among the examples of ongoing harassment that the Turkish Association of Protestant Churches (TEK) recorded in 2010.

In an eight-page report published earlier this year, TEK’s Committee for Religious Freedom and Legal Affairs outlined problems Protestants face. Turkish laws and “negative attitudes of civil servants” continue to make it nearly impossible for non-Muslims to establish places of worship, the committee reported. Three churches faced legal problems last year regarding their buildings, according to the report.

Missionary activities are still considered a national threat despite the existence of Turkish laws guaranteeing citizens the freedom to propagate and teach their faith, and children are victims of discrimination at school, according to the report. Though the Religious Education General Directorate for Higher Education and Training Committee allows non-Muslim students to stay out of religious classes, parents have reported cases in which they were not able to take their children out of such
courses.

“After four years [since the Malatya murders], Turkey’s religious freedoms have not improved as desired,” said attorney Erdal Dogan. “Christians, Alevis [a Shiite sub-community] and people of other beliefs are still not protected by law. And people of other faiths apart from Muslims have no legal status. Since racism is still prevalent in the context of freedom, discrimination in its turn has become a fact of life.”   

About a third of Turks are estimated to be Alevis.

Turkey rose to 30th place in Open Doors’ 2011 World Watch List of nations in which persecution against Christians takes place, up from 35th place the previous year. The Christian support organization cited deteriorating conditions as the secular country applied some laws in discriminatory ways against Christians.

TEK estimates that there are up to 3,500 Protestant Christians in Turkey.

 

Malatya Trial Stalled

In the trial of the five primary suspects in the murder of three Christians in Malatya, plaintiff attorneys fear the departure of one of the three judges to a Supreme Court of Appeals post in Ankara could further stall the nearly four-year-old case.

The loss of Judge Eray Gurtekin, who had presided over the case since it began on Nov. 22, 2007, could threaten to set back the progress of the court that has been examining links between the killers and alleged masterminds, according to Dogan, a plaintiff attorney in the case. Gurtekin was appointed as a judge in the Supreme Court of Appeals in Turkey’s capital Ankara last month.

“In a three-member panel [of judges], the change of one is not really helpful,” said Dogan, “because just as the previous presiding judge had started to understand and pay close attention to the case file, a new judge came in his place. I hope he will catch on quickly.”

The new judge joined the Malatya hearings panel this month, and Dogan said there could be more changes in the panel.

The 12th Istanbul High Criminal Court is expected to hear the testimony of another witness on March 29, and the court is trying to locate two more witnesses in order to shed light on the Malatya murders.

On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim, were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin.

From the beginning of the court hearings, prosecuting lawyers have brought evidence to the court showing the five young suspects were connected to a wider plot to kill the three Christians as well as other key Christian leaders across Turkey. Known as the Cage Plan, the plot is believed to be part of the alleged Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found in 2009 in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

Questioned by the judges, Varol Bulent Aral – suspected of being one of the people who planned the murders and linked the killers to the masterminds – said he wanted the court to find out who was supporting the Zirve Publishing Co. He added a cryptic remark to Tilmann Geske’s widow, Suzanne Geske, who continues to live in Malatya with her three children and regularly attends the murder hearings.

“I want to ask Suzanne, what business does a German have here?”

The judges finally threw Aral out of the courtroom for contempt of court when he told the judges: “You are in the clouds!”

Prosecuting lawyers still hope judges will join the Malatya case files to the Cage Plan case, which is being tried at an Istanbul court.

The threat of violence against Christians continues. Last week Turkish news sources reported that Istanbul police arrested two suspects, ages 17 and 18, accused of plotting to assassinate a priest on the European side of the city. The Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office is examining their case.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Islamic Mob Burns Down Church in Egypt


‘Kill all the Christians,’ local imam tells villagers.

CAIRO, March 8 (CDN) — A Muslim mob in a village south of Cairo last weekend attacked a church building and burned it down, almost killing the parish priest after an imam issued a call to “Kill all the Christians,”  according to local sources.

The attack started on Friday evening (March 4) in the village of Sool, located in the city of Helwan 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Cairo, and lasted through most of Saturday. A local imam, Sheik Ahmed Abu Al-Dahab, issued the call during Friday afternoon prayers, telling area Muslims to kill the Christians because they had “no right” to live in the village. The attack started several hours later.

The Rev. Hoshea Abd Al-Missieh, a parish priest who narrowly escaped death in the fire, said the clamor of the church being torn apart sounded like “hatred.”

“I was in the attack, but I can’t describe it,” he said. “The sound of the church being destroyed that I heard – I can’t describe it, how horrible it was.”

According to villagers, the mob broke into the Church of the Two Martyrs St. George and St. Mina, and as they chanted “Allahu Akbar [God is greater],” looted it, demolished the walls with sledgehammers and set a fire that burned itself out the next morning. Looters removed anything valuable, including several containers holding the remains of venerated Copts – most of whom were killed in other waves of persecution – then stomped and kicked the containers like soccer balls, witnesses said.

After the fire went out, the mob tore down what little remained of the church structure. The group of Muslims then held prayers at the site and began collecting money to build a mosque where the church building once stood, said the assistant bishop of Giza the Rev. Balamoun Youaqeem.

“They destroyed the church completely,” he said. “All that was left is a few columns and things like that. As a building, it’s all gone.”

During the fire, Al-Missieh was trapped in a house near the church building that was filling up with smoke. He faced a difficult dilemma – choke or burn to death in the house, or face an angry mob of thousands screaming for blood.

“When the smoke was too much, I told myself, ‘I am dying anyway,’ so I decided I would go out and whatever happened, happened,” Al-Missieh said.

When he went outside, a man with a rifle told the priest to follow him. At first Al-Missieh was reluctant, he said, but the man fired off two rounds from the rifle and told the crowd to step away.

“No one will touch this man, he is with me,” the priest remembered the man yelling at the mob. Al-Missieh was taken to a house where he met three other workers who were at the church when it was attacked. The men all relayed stories similar to the priest’s.

Friday’s attack was another in a long list of disproportionate responses in Egypt to a rumor of an affair between a Muslim and a Copt. Earlier this month, Sool villagers accused a Muslim woman in her 30s and a Coptic man in his 40s, both of them married, of being involved with each other. On Wednesday (March 2) a village council of Coptic and Muslim leaders convened and agreed that the man should leave the village in order to avoid sectarian violence.

The next day, the woman’s cousin killed the woman’s father in a fight about the honor of the family. The same day, the cousin died of wounds he sustained in the fight. By Friday, Al-Dahab, the local imam, had blamed the entire incident on Christians in the village and called on all Muslims in Sool to kill them.

Because of the attack, Copts in Sool fled to adjacent villages. The women who remained in the village are now being sexually assaulted, according to Youaqeem, who added that he is receiving phone calls from women in the village begging for help. Those reports have not yet been independently confirmed.

“Everybody tried to find a way to get out,” Youaqeem said.

Groups of Muslims have set up blockades around Sool, declaring they intend to turn it into an “Islamic village,” Youaqeem said.

On Sunday (March 6), roughly 2,000 people gathered outside the Radio and Television Building in Cairo to protest the attack and what Copts see as a long-standing government refusal to address or even acknowledge the persecution of Christians in Egypt. Protestors also accused the government of not sending enough troops to the village to control the situation. Holding up crosses and signs, the protestors shouted the name of Jesus and chanted, “We need our church.”

Soldiers armed with AK-47s with fixed-sheathed bayonets held the crowd back from the building as several priests took turns addressing the crowd. When the Giza parish priest, Bishop Anba Theodosius, said the army had pledged to rebuild the church but would not give a written guarantee of the promise, the crowd became enraged and pushed through the line of soldiers.

No one was injured in the push. More protests about the attack continued Tuesday in Cairo.

Youaqeem said the attack has devastated and enraged the Coptic community, but he sees hope.

“As they say – ‘All things work to the good of those who love the Lord,’” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News

One Dead as Islamist Mobs in Ethiopia Destroy Church Buildings


Total structures razed at 59; at least 4,000 Christians displaced.

NAIROBI, Kenya, March 7 (CDN) — At least one Christian was killed and others injured when thousands of Islamic extremists set fire to 59 churches and at least 28 homes in western Ethiopia in the past five days, Christian leaders said.

More than 4,000 Christians in and around Asendabo, Jimma Zone have been displaced as a result of attacks that began on Wednesday (March 2) after Muslims accused a Christian of desecrating the Quran by tearing up a copy, sources said.

“The atrocity is still going on, and more people are suffering,” said a source in Addis Ababa who is in close contact with area church leaders.

The Christian killed, believed to have been a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, has not yet been identified.

“One Orthodox believer, whose daughter is a member of Mekane Yesus Church, has been killed,” an Ethiopian church leader told Compass. “Ministers were injured, and many more believers have been displaced.”

A pastor based in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa noted that evangelical church leaders have reported the attacks to authorities and asked officials for help, but no action had been taken at press time.

“The church requested more police protection,” he said. “The authorities sent security forces, but they were overwhelmed by the attackers.”

After the destruction began at Asendabo, it spread to Chiltie, Gilgel Gibe, Gibe, Nada, Dimtu, Uragay, Busa and Koticha, as Muslim mobs in the thousands rampaged throughout the area, sources said.

“Police at the site are not taking any action – they just watch what is happening,” said another source. “It is difficult to estimate the attack in terms of deaths, since we have no access to any location.”

Those displaced are in shelters in Ako, Jimma, Dimtu and Derbo, he said.

“We are very concerned that the attack that began on March 2 in Asendabo, which is the rural part of Jimma, is now heading to Jimma town,” he said.

The extremists also destroyed an Ethiopian Kale Hiwot Church (EKHC) Bible school building and two church office buildings, the source said. Of the churches burned, he said, 38 belonged to the EKHC; 12 were Mekane Yesus buildings; six were Seventh-day Adventist structures; two were Muluwongel church buildings, and another belonged to a “Jesus Only” congregation.

“Women and children are the most affected in this sudden attack,” he said. “It is needless to mention the believers’ houses and properties burned down. The overall estimated cost, may be worth over 60 million birr [US$3.55 million].”

Anti-Christian attacks in western Ethiopia in 2006 killed at least 24 people.

“Attacks on the church have been a common occurrence in predominantly Muslim areas of Ethiopia like Jimma and Jijiga,” the source said, adding that Christians are often subject to harassment and intimidation.

Asendabo, in Oromia Region, is about 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Addis Ababa.

The attacks erupted as heavy fighting was taking place at the borders of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. Ethiopian troops were trying to repel Islamic extremist al-Shabaab troops from Bulahawo, Somalia, near Mandera, Kenya, with several casualties and hundreds displaced.

Ethiopia’s constitution, laws and policies generally respect freedom of religion, but occasionally some local authorities infringe on this right, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

According to the 2007 census, 44 percent of Ethiopia’s population affiliate with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 19 percent are evangelical and Pentecostal and 34 percent are Sunni Muslim.

Report from Compass Direct News

Police, Islamists Put Up Obstacles to Worship in Indonesia


Church services over Christmas season blocked; property seized.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, January 10 (CDN) — Government officials in West Java Province blocked one church from worshipping, and Islamic groups pressured authorities to seize the property of another during the Christmas season.

The Bogor Regency Administrative Leadership Council tried unsuccessfully to forbid the Gereja Kristen Indonesia (Indonesian Christian Church, or GKI) in Bogor’s Taman Yasmin area from holding a Dec. 25 Christmas service, but authorities did block it from its regular Sunday service on De.26. In Rancaekek, Bandung, Islamic demonstrators on Dec. 19 got police to remove items from a Huria Kristan Batak Protestan (HKBP) church building that had already been sealed.

In Bogor, GKI Yasmin spokesperson Bona Sigalingging said police telephoned church leaders to forbid Christmas services that were to begin at 7 p.m. on Dec. 25.

“At that time the leaders rejected the police order,” Sigalingging told Compass.

Church leaders went to a strip of land in front of the GKI Yasmin building, which the Bogor city government has sealed, to set up a rented tent for the Christmas service. Local police arrived and ordered that the service be cancelled, but again church leaders refused, Sigalingging said.

They continued setting up the tent and arranging benches, and at about 5:30 p.m., 10 women wearing Muslim head coverings (hijabs) arrived to demonstrate against the Christmas service. Male demonstrators in Muslim clothing joined the demonstration at 7 p.m., and protestors from the Islamic People’s Forum (FUI) pressured police to stop the service.

At 8 p.m., the Christmas prayer and reflection service began, with demonstrators screaming, “Allahu akbar [God is greater]!” and “Break it up!” They also yelled, “Arrest the provocateurs,” Sigalinging said.

Though upset, the congregation continued to worship, he said. As they sang “Silent Night” and lit candles, the demonstrators shouted all the louder, moving toward the worshippers. They came within three meters of the worshippers before police were finally able to restrain them.

The congregation continued in solemn prayer and song, with the mob yelling until the service finished at 9 p.m.

Church leaders were meeting at 12:45 a.m. to plan the next morning’s 8 a.m. worship service when a member of the legal team received a phone call asking them to meet with members of the army and intelligence services, as well as with Bogor city and West Java police. At the meeting, a soldier speaking for the Bogor municipality requested that the GKI cancel Sunday morning worship scheduled for Dec. 26, Sigalingging said.

“The soldier also spoke about the growing issue of defamation of religion [Islam defaming Christianity], and how this would be very embarrassing if the issue spread,” Sigalingging said. “Because of this, he asked the church to cancel services.”

Church leaders rejected the request, saying that the way to resolve religious defamation problems was to enforce the law and stand firm against intolerance and intimidation, Sigalingging said.

“They could also obey the decision of the State Administrative Court, which had found that the church had a legal building permit and had the right to worship even by the roadside,” said Sigalingging.

The roadside services marked a retreat from the church legal position, he said, as the administrative court had ruled that the church could worship in its building.

“Although the City of Bogor had requested a rehearing, this is no reason to delay the execution of the decision according to law 14/1985,” he said.

Sigalingging said that the decision of the administrative court had the force of law, and that the GKI Yasmin congregation should have been allowed to worship in its building. The court had found that the building permit was legally obtained and that the Bogor municipal government could not revoke the permit. The court had ordered Bogor to rescind the revocation order.

The meeting finished at 1:30 a.m., with the church firmly committed to holding Sunday worship on Dec. 26. Bogor officials responded by sending police to the worship site on Abdullah bin Nuh Street in Yasmin Park; from early morning on, the road was barricaded at both ends.

As a show of force, water canon trucks appeared.

“The police excused their action by saying that it was designed to stop troublemakers who might try to use religion as a mask,” Sigalingging said. “These kinds of people had been there since morning. However, such excuses were not accepted by the congregation. The congregation could not get close to their church, and they were even asked about their permission to worship.”

As a result, the congregation was not able to worship; they did pray in the middle of the street, he said.

In a press conference at the Wahid Institute protesting the discrimination, GKI Yasmin leaders along with representatives of the Indonesian Fellowship of Churches said that they were concerned.

“Discrimination is becoming systemic and spreading, yet it is ignored by the nation in many places,” Sigalingging said in a statement he read that was also signed by Pastor Ujang Tanusaputra and Pastor Esakatri Parahita.

An interfaith group that has been assisting the GKI church issued a three-point appeal: cease all slander and obstructions to finishing construction of the GKI church building, which was legally underway, and allow the congregation to worship in it; the state must be firmer in dealing with intolerant groups that terrorize those of a different faith; and strengthen the constitution, Pancasila (the state philosophy that includes belief in one God without specifying any particular religion) and the practice of unity in diversity (Bhineka Tunggal Ika).

The executive secretary for research and communication for the Fellowship of Churches in Indonesia, the Rev. Henry Lokra, said at the press conference that contrary to the claims of protestors, no illegal worship exists in the nation.

“Because of this, when the government apparatus is passive, it is violating the constitution,” Lokra said. “In the case of GKI Yasmin, passivity has led to the blocking of those who wish to worship rather than blocking those who demonstrate. This is a basic human rights violation.”

Organizations such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the FUI and the Islamic Reform Movement (Garis) “have absolutely no constitutional right to forbid the building of a place of worship, because the forbidding of permission for a place of worship is the right of the government,” he said.

Chairul Anam of the Human Rights Working Group commented that the incident was a violation of the constitution and the law by the Bogor municipal government, which sealed the church even though the GKI had won decisions in the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

“When Bogor asked for an appeal, the Supreme Court refused,” Anam said.

An appeal in any legal system does not nullify a previous decision, said Anam. “Because of this [principle], the Supreme Court decision regarding GKI Yasmin cannot be revoked,” he said.

The central government should sanction or otherwise take strong actions against those in the Bogor city government who disobeyed the law and the constitution by sealing the church building, he said.

Another problem, Anam said, was the extreme measures police took, using mobile barricades and water cannons to control 50 demonstrators.

“What the police did was actually terrorizing the congregation,” he said, adding that the measures prevented GKI members from getting to their church site. “The police were supposed to neutralize the 50 demonstrators that were propagandizing, instead of blockading the congregation from worship.”

The state has given in to a small gang of Muslim thugs, “and this small gang of Muslims does not represent the Indonesian Islamic community,” he said, adding that the Bogor city government should quickly remove the seal. “The police must act decisively and not make those who disobey the law heroes.”

The head of the Legal Advocacy and Human Rights Association of Indonesia, Hendrik Sirait, said that politics played a role in the GKI Yamin church’s problems. A Bogor police official, Sirait said, indicated that obstacles to the church’s worship resulted from a pact between the Bogor government and a political party.

“The police have become intimidators rather than peace officers,” he said.

 

Church Property Seized

In Rancaekek, Bandung, Islamic protestors occupying the front part of the Huria Kristan Batak Protestan HKBP church premises on Dec. 19 clamored for police to remove property from the building; eventually authorities removed the pews and other items.

The local government had already sealed the building, but demonstrators from the hard-line Muslim Intellectuals Gathering Forum of Rancaekek arrived at 4 a.m. on Dec. 19 calling for its belongings to be removed, sources said.

The Rev. Badia Hutagalung said he was sleeping in the rented house adjacent to the place of worship when he saw 15 demonstrators locking the property fence and calling for him to wake up and leave the premises.

“Why do you live in a place that has been sealed?” asked one in the crowd when Hutagalung came out. He explained to the protestor that the district head had unsealed his home when he realized it had nothing to do with the church worship.

At 7 a.m., when the mob forced the pastor to leave the house, he climbed over the 1.5-meter fence – the crowd had glued shut the lock – and called one of the elders, Jawadi Hutapea. He arrived, and Hutagalung also called police and the district head to ask them to come immediately. Three policemen arrived but only watched the mob from a distance, he said.

When Compass arrived at 8:30 a.m., nearly 100 protestors were occupying property in front of the fence and shouting for the local government remove all property inside.

The district head of Rancaekek, Meman Nurjana, arrived at 9 a.m. but was unable to calm the protestors. The district head, police chief, representatives from the Police Civil Service (Satpol PP) and the Muslim Intellectuals Gathering Forum held a discussion in the middle of the crowd. Authorities promised to remove the items later, but the crowd demanded it be done immediately.

Local officials ultimately brought three cars to take property out of the place of worship, and at 10:30 a.m. the pews along with other items were seized.

The chairman of the Bandung Muslim Intellectuals Gathering Forum, Abu Sofyan, told reporters that the HKBP Rancaekek church should have been closed since 2006. A lawyer for the HKBP Rancaekek church, Usman Poncho Silitonga, said he did not understand why demonstrations were continuing after the church and others had been sealed.

“There’s no rule that allows the removal of property from the the HKBP church,” he said.

The sealing by the local government was illegal, a church representative said, because it was not given public notice.

Report from Compass Direct News

Vietnam Grants Last-Minute Permit for Christmas Event


Officials present several obstacles to large-scale worship service.

HO CHI MINH CITY, December 29 (CDN) — Granted permission only five hours before a scheduled Christmas event, house church leaders turned an empty field into a rudimentary stadium and welcomed some 20,000 people for a time of worship and evangelism on Sunday (Dec. 26) in Vietnam’s largest city.

The last-minute permission for the event in Ho Chi Minh City reflected the byzantine manner in which authorities have applied Vietnam’s religions laws. The central government’s Bureau of Religious Affairs (BRA) in Hanoi, the body charged with managing religion in communist Vietnam, gave permission for the event to the newly registered Vietnam Assemblies of God (AOG) organization in early December. The Vietnam AOG represents a large grouping of mostly unregistered house churches in the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF).

Organizers were grateful for the early permission this year – last year they received only 42 hours notice for an event that 40,000 people attended – but when the AOG superintendent, Pastor Duong Thanh Lam, and other VEF leaders began working out particulars with the Ho Chi Minh City BRA, they met with considerable resistance. After the Ho Chi Minh City BRA finally consented, church leaders said, the organizers found that landlords with potential venues, clearly under pressure, refused to rent them space.

The stand-off lasted until Christmas Day. Meantime, based on the permission from Hanoi, organizers sent invitations to many thousands of Christians in the city and surrounding provinces, and Christians were preparing to come with friends and neighbors to the event, sources said. Some 300 buses, each carrying 60 to 70 passengers, were to bring people from the provinces, they said.

By 11 a.m. on Christmas Day, in spite of official promises, the required permission papers had not yet been granted, church leaders said. Organizers debated whether to push ahead or call off the event – wondering whether communicating word of a cancellation was even possible at that point. Finally at 5 p.m., in an emergency meeting with the city’s ruling People’s Committee, they got a verbal go-ahead and a promise of a written permit.

They said this meant they had only 24 hours to build a perimeter around the field, bring in electricity and water, prepare sanitary facilities, set up chairs, erect a stage, and install the sound and lighting systems.

But the next morning – the Sunday of the planned event – authorities informed organizers that the permission was not for their program but only to provide a place where the buses and people could come so organizers could explain, apologize and send them home, sources said. Organizers said it was another in a series of deeply discouraging betrayals, but that many Christians in Vietnam and worldwide were praying fervently.

Just before noon, a church leader went to the BRA office in a last-ditch attempt to get written permission. He urged officials to think through the possible consequences of many thousands of people arriving in the city for a much anticipated event and finding nothing. Finally at 1 p.m., just five hours before the event was scheduled to start, the BRA issued written permission for a gathering of 5,000 people.

Permission at last in hand, organizers called and text-messaged the many people standing by to help set up to come to the venue in district 12. Sources said they came quickly, like a small army, encountering huge cement culverts and pilings on roads as they approached the venue. These had to be manually removed to allow buses and trucks to enter.

Too late now to set up properly, they said, they did only what was absolutely necessary. They brought in 14,000 chairs on flatbed trucks, and one of the trucks served as the stage. As a backdrop they had time only to put up a large red cross with a white border that, when lit, sources said, stood starkly and powerfully against the night sky.

Crews and volunteers worked feverishly erecting towers and installing sound and lighting systems. Christmas worshippers began arriving in large numbers at 5 p.m., even though people reported authorities had prevented a significant number of buses from embarking on their journey, and that others were intercepted and forced to turn around.

The program began only 30 minutes later than the announced start time of 6 p.m., which organizers regarded as a miracle, and people continued to pour into the venue until well after 7 p.m. while worship music was underway. Those attending enthusiastically participated in loud and joyful praise, and sources cited as especially moving a local choir of hundreds singing “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.”

As they did last year, the Jackson family of six from the United States sang at the rally. The state-controlled media had earlier given ample coverage to the unique sight of the Christian group giving away their CDs in a busy downtown area.

Pastor Ho Tan Khoa was well into his evangelistic message when the lights went out, although sources said that, miraculously, the sound system was not affected. Thousands of people in the crowd opened their cell phones, lighting the darkness with their digital candles. The failure – or cutting – of the electricity did affect the live video broadcast on www.hoithanh.com , but within about 15 minutes power was restored.

After a song and prayer for healing, Pastor Pham Dinh Nhan asked those who wanted to follow Christ to come forward. Hundreds streamed up, and sources said those who arrived first rushed onto the flatbed truck serving as a stage and clung to the large cross. Organizers estimated 2,000 people indicated a first-time decision to follow Christ.

In a fitting closing song, the Jackson family sang both in Vietnamese and English, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Pastor Duong Thanh Lam then graciously thanked the relevant government departments for “recognizing our need to worship” and for “creating the conditions for this event to happen.”

Those who follow religion in Vietnam were puzzled that the government went to such lengths to hinder the gathering. They cited the government lock-out of a scheduled Christmas celebration in Hanoi on Dec. 19 as an example of interference that will also long be remembered (see http://www.compassdirect.org, “Vietnam Authorities Move to Stop Protestant Christmas Events,” Dec. 20).

“It seems Vietnam squandered an excellent public relations opportunity at a time when there are renewed efforts in the U.S. Congress to put Vietnam back on the religious liberty blacklist,” said one long-time observer.

Some Vietnamese church leaders and international observers have said they believe officials have clamped down on Christmas celebrations this year because they were alarmed at the size of last year’s Christmas events.

One church leader told Compass of Directive No. 75 of the Ministry of Interior, an Oct. 15 order that presumably forbids such gatherings. Though no church leader has been shown the directive, an official considered to be sympathetic to Christians told a pastor that the directive orders strict adherence to the Decree on Religion 22. This 2005 decree, the main law governing religion, forbids Christians in unregistered groups from any public gatherings, restricting their religious activity to
single family worship in their household.

In practice, sources said, many house churches have experienced considerably more freedom than that. Last year many unregistered groups were allowed, though reluctantly, to hold large public Christmas gatherings in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

The unregistered house churches are becoming increasingly frustrated. Most have tried to register their congregations according to existing laws but have either been refused or ignored. The freedoms that members of registered churches enjoy are not available for unregistered Christians, sources said, and unregistered Christians are unable to register.

Many speculate that concern over security in the run-up to the January 2011 Party Congress, held every five years, is one reason for the government’s approach. Whatever the reason, all concerned church leaders agreed that the efforts to stop the large Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City Christmas events this year were ordered from the top level of government. No leaders said they believe the obstacles resulted merely from disagreements and delays among government departments, as it was sometimes made
to appear.

A number of other events held in public venues by the registered Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) and the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) went ahead peacefully. The largest one in Ho Chi Minh City on Dec. 17 attracted an estimated 9,000 people, with about 1,000 indicating a desire to follow Christ.

In some places, unregistered house church organizations held small Christmas events without difficulty. According to one count, at least 6,000 people throughout Vietnam indicated a first-time decision to follow Christ in this year’s Christmas events.

Report from Compass Direct News

Authorities Move to Stop Protestant Christmas Events


Apparent central government crackdown puts halt to Yuletide celebrations in five areas.

HANOI, Vietnam, December 20 (CDN) — In what appeared to be part of a central government crackdown on Protestant Christianity in Vietnam, hundreds of Christians from 10 northern provinces were locked out of a Christmas celebration that was supposed to take place here yesterday.

The throngs who arrived at the National Convention Center (NCC) in the Tu Kiem district of Hanoi for the Christmas event found the doors locked and a phalanx of police trying to send them away, sources said. Deeply disappointed, some of the Christians began singing and praying in the square in front to the center, they said.

Police moved in, striking some Christians with fists and night sticks in the melee that followed. A number of video clips of the action were posted online by Monday morning (Dec. 20), Hanoi time. Christian leaders worked to calm the disappointed crowd, which eventually left, but not before at least six people – including the Rev. Nguyen Huu Bao, the scheduled speaker at the event – were arrested. They had not been released at press time.

Similar incidents occurred on Christmas Sunday (Dec. 19) in at least four other places throughout the country.

Unregistered house churches under the umbrella of the Hanoi Christian Fellowship rented the auditorium in the name of one of their members. A copy of the six-page contract obtained by Compass says the event was to be a reunion of Vietnamese who had worked in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. Many of northern Vietnam’s house church leaders became Christians during their time there.

While it was understood that this was to be a Christmas event, the managers of the state-owned facility did not want to put this in writing. Organizers had hoped that some 4,000 people would come.

The contract called for at least five days’ written notice before the event if either side wanted to terminate the contract. According to one source, the NCC informed event organizers on Dec. 15, four days before the event, that the contract was voided but gave no reasons as the contract required. The organizers, having completed major preparations and distributed several thousand invitations, considered this a breach of contract and decided to try to go ahead.

When the first Christians arrived Sunday afternoon, they found the doors of the NCC locked. According to a source at the scene, a sign indicated a wedding was taking place. When more than 1,000 people had arrived, some decided to sing and pray in the square in front of the NCC. Police called for reinforcements.

One witness said “possibly hundreds” of uniformed and plainclothes personnel came to try to disperse the growing crowd. Reports from the scene and video clips on the Web show pushing and shoving, with some Christian leaders trying desperately to calm the agitated crowd. Some witnesses said officials punched some Christians, and others were struck hard with night sticks. Late police reinforcements carried electric cattle prods, according to one source. In one clip, people can be seen comforting an 86-year-old woman who was knocked down.

Gradually the Christians dispersed. For many Christians who tried to come – some from great distances and at great personal expense – this would have marked the first time they had ever worshipped in a large gathering.

Sources in Vietnam told Compass that similar stoppages also took place yesterday (Dec. 19) in Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, and Quang Nam provinces, and in the city of Danang in central Vietnam.

In Thanh Hoa province, Christians of various house church denominations planned a joint celebration yesterday at the home of a woman identified only as Tuyet in Dong Phu commune. Pastor Ho Van Thom sent an appeal to the church worldwide asking for the prayers. He arrived at the scene to find some Christians had been beaten and wounded by police intent on preventing their Christmas worship.

In Danang city in central Vietnam, the Rev. Ho Tan Khoa, superintendent of the unregistered United Presbyterian Church of Vietnam, was invited to preach at a house church Christmas celebration yesterday. Pastor Khoa reported that a distraught church leader told him authorities had come that morning and, without a warrant, carted off the chairs, the pulpit and the sound system. They also tore down the Christmas decorations including a backdrop painstakingly decorated by church members, he said.

In Ho Chi Minh City, house churches have received permission for a public Christmas celebration both from authorities of the central government in Hanoi and of Ho Chi Minh City for an event on Dec. 26.  But church leaders say that potential venue owners, obviously under threat, will not dare rent to them.

Even those who closely follow Protestant church developments in Vietnam were somewhat surprised at the severity of the crackdown. One well-respected overseas Vietnam leader observed that it is now clear that this was a coordinated, well-planned and executed crackdown involving top Communist Party and government officials.

He noted that sometimes officials in remote areas of the country are excused when they persecute Christians on the grounds they do not yet know the new, more enlightened religion policies of the central government.

“In this case,” he said, “the strong actions against Christians are taking place in Vietnam’s three largest cities. They can’t use that excuse.”

Another observer said that authorities likely became alarmed at the size and attraction of the Christmas events in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi last Christmas. The events in those two cities attracted more than 50,000 people. They were organized by unregistered house churches that somehow obtained permission in spite of prohibitions of such events by Vietnam’s Decree 22, which governs religion.

One key church leader in Vietnam informed Compass that Directive No. 75, a secret Ministry of Interior document dated Oct. 15, ordered the crackdown on unregistered groups.

Unregistered groups are caught in limbo. Denominations with a history before the 1975 communist takeover of Vietnam have now been registered, but many groups that began in the 1980s and later have tried but failed to register their congregations as provided by Vietnam’s regulations. Their requests have mostly been ignored or denied, leaving them vulnerable to capricious repression.

As Christmas Day draws near, it appears the 400,000 or so Protestants that belong to unregistered churches will be denied celebrating together.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians Fear Civilian Casualties in Burma


Junta targets ethnic minority states as civil war looms.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, December 8 (CDN) — Civilians in two ethnic minority states with large Christian populations fear their lives will be in danger as skirmishes between rebels and a Burmese junta bent on instilling Buddhist nationalism threaten to escalate into war.

“It is likely that the military junta will carry out a military offensive against ethnic armed groups now that the elections are over,” Nang Mya Naddy, ethnic program coordinator of the Democratic Voice of Burma radio program, told Compass.

Christians fear that full-scale civil war in Burma (also known as Myanmar) could result in either ethnic cleansing or total subjugation of minorities. Persecution of Christians in Burma is part of a wider campaign against ethnic minority tribes to create a uniform society in which the only accepted religion is Buddhism, according to the British daily Telegraph, citing a 2007 government memo circulated in Karen state giving instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state.

Independent media reports suggest that the possibility of a major clash between ethnic armies and government troops is highest in Kachin and Karen states. Burma’s ethnic minorities, who inhabit states along Burma’s border with Thailand, China and India, have been demanding independence or autonomy for decades.

There are an estimated 1.2 million people in Kachin state, of which around 1 million are Christian. About 40 percent of the 3.5 million people in Karen state are estimated to be Christian. The Burmese junta, dominated by an ethnic Burman Buddhist majority, also seems to be preparing for war in the predominantly Buddhist state of Shan.

The junta has blocked trade links and deployed troops in Karen state, where the Karen National Liberation Army has not been offered a truce.

“The refugees from Burma continue to flow into neighboring Thailand as fighting fails to die down in Karen state between Burmese government troops and breakaway forces of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army [DKBA],” reported The Irrawaddy, a Chiang Mai, Thailand-based publication covering Burma and Southeast Asia. “The latest military action was reported early on Monday [Dec. 6] from Myawaddy Township, where the Metta Linn Myaing village was shelled by junta troops. More than a dozen artillery shells hit the area of the village, according to local sources.”

Around 1,200 refugees are living at a border patrol police base in Mahawan area in Tak Province’s Mae Sot district in Thailand, a Thai official told The Irrawaddy.

“Sadly, so far neither side in the recent fighting has shown much regard for the civilians caught in the crossfire,” Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told The Irrawaddy. “The situation in Karen state was further complicated when the Karen National Union (KNU) entered into the conflict in support of the DKBA breakaway forces.”

David Takapaw, vice chairman of the KNU, told The Irrawaddy, “We will not stop fighting if they [the Burmese army] insist on trying to deploy in our area.”

The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers (FBR) relief aid group. The Burmese Army attacked a Christian village in Karen state four months ago, according to the FBR, and on July 23 burned all houses and the state’s largest church in Tha Dah Der village.

 

Saber-Rattling

To intensify its battle for control in ethnic minority states after its Nov. 7 election victory, the Burmese army has blocked sea and land routes to Karen and Kachin states, increased deployment of troops in areas controlled by rebel groups and transported ammunition in large quantities.

In 2008, Burma’s government ordered all armed groups under ceasefires to meld into the Border Guard Forces. Many rebel groups have refused to comply.

Although the election – the first in the last two decades – was held last month and the government released pro-democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, it is becoming clearer daily that the junta is in no mood to address grievances of the country’s ethnic minorities.

While rights groups around the world are calling for national reconciliation, the Burmese junta, whose proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, is likely to have a majority in parliament, is preparing for a military fight with ethnic minority rebels.

“The recent purchase by the State Peace and Development Council [SPDC] of 24 Russian military helicopters, as well as the establishment of new helicopter bases near the Salween River, suggests that the Tatmadaw, the name for the Burmese military, is gearing up for a ‘military solution’ to the ethnic issue,” noted an opinion piece in The Irrawaddy on Nov. 29.

One of the military’s main targets is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

The KIA has had a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government since 1994, but “it has recently been broken, and we are waiting to see what will happen next – if we can reconcile or not,” a leader of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand identified only as Shirley told Compass. “The KIA wants reconciliation with the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council, Burma’s junta-controlled regime], but the government hasn’t allowed Kachin political groups to participate in politics or in the recent election.”

Indirect negotiations for peace are underway now, she said, adding that she was unsure if the Kachin will be attacked or not. “The KIA is ready to fight back,” she said.

Media reports indicate that the likelihood of the Burmese regime attacking is greater than chances of it seeking reconciliation.

 

Kachin State

“The threat to the Kachin Independence Organization [KIO, armed wing of the KIA] has increased manifold with the Burmese military junta dispatching significant quantity of arms to Kachin state, northern Burma,” reported the independent online Kachin News Group (KNG).

The military has also ordered the KIO to close down all its branch liaison offices in northern Burma. Only the main liaison office in Kachin’s capital, Myitkyina, has been allowed to function, KNG added.

In addition, the junta has provided arms training to workers of an agriculture company it supports, Yuzana Co., “in preparation for civil war with the Kachin Independence Organization,” the news group reported. In October, the military provided “60 Chinese-made M-22 assault rifles, copies of the Russian AK-47” to Yuzana workers in the Hugawng Valley, according to KNG.

The Rangoon-based Yuzana Co. came to the Hugawng Valley in 2006 and “grabbed up about 400,000 acres from the ethnic Kachin people with assistance from the local Burmese military and administrative authorities,” KNG reported. “Since 2006, the company has transported thousands of Burman ethnics from southern Burma to the Hugawng Valley every year.”

Mizzima, a New-Delhi based news organization, reported that the KIO has urged businessmen in the northern Burma stronghold of Laiza to leave, given the high probability of military conflict. A KIO spokesperson told Mizzima that “fighting was likely to break out soon.”

KNG also reported on Dec. 2 that Burma’s military junta “has a secret mission” to spread HIV in Kachin state as part of an ethnic cleansing effort. “Beginning 1990, the junta has systematically dispatched HIV-infected sex workers from the Thai-Burma border to Kachin state, especially to the Hpakant jade mining city,” it reported.

Shirley of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand said she was not sure if “ethnic cleansing” was the goal of the Burmese army, but that the junta did want to spread AIDS as well as sell drugs to the Kachin people.

“The SPDC does not allow the expansion of churches and took over church land in certain areas,” she said. “The construction of new churches is not allowed, and the Kachin people have to ask permission to organize religious meetings, which is a detriment to community-building activities since the church is the foundation for the community, with 85 percent of the population being Christians.”

 

Emulate Sri Lanka?

Christians also fear that the Burmese regime may emulate the Sri Lankan government’s recent war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Rights groups say thousands of civilians were killed in Sri Lanka before its government claimed victory over the areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers.

But Htet Aung, election specialist for The Irrawaddy, told Compass that while the Burmese regime may use Sri Lanka’s military strategy, “the nature of armed conflicts and their historical contexts are different.”

“While Sri Lankan’s government faced LTTE alone, the junta is now facing several armed ethnic groups,” Aung said. “The junta, unlike Sri Lanka’s present government, is facing a strong democratic leadership by Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Tensions in ethnic states are far greater than has been reported, sources said. Shirley added that there are only a few channels of communication in Kachin state, and the suffering of civilians there often goes unreported.

The Burmese regime projects that close to 70 percent of the country’s population is ethnic Burman. Ethnic minorities dispute the claim, saying the figure is inflated to make a case for Burman Buddhist nationalism.

The new constitution, which will come into force with the first session of parliament, was passed through a referendum in May 2008 that was allegedly rigged. It provides for religious freedom but also empowers the military to curb it under various pretexts.

Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 360 (a), however, says this freedom “shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice,” apparently to bar religious groups from any lobbying or advocacy.

Further, Article 360 (b) goes on to say that the freedom “shall not debar the Union from enacting law for the purpose of public welfare and reform.”

Adds Article 364: “The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.”

Furthermore, Article 382 empowers “the Defense Forces personnel or members of the armed forces responsible to carry out peace and security” to “restrict or revoke” fundamental rights.

Report from Compass Direct News