Light Sentences for Attack on Christians in Indonesia Condemned


Prosecutors’ refusal to file felony charges said to encourage more violence.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, March 10 (CDN) — Human rights and Christian leaders said a West Java court’s light sentence for Islamic extremists who injured a church pastor and an elder will encourage more violence and religious intolerance.

After those involved in the Sept. 12, 2010 clubbing of the Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak and the stabbing of elder Hasian Lumbantoruan Sihombing of the Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) in Ciketing received sentences of only five to seven months, the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace released a statement asserting that the judges’ panel was acting under pressure from Muslim extremists.

“The public will think that violence, intolerance, and obstruction of worship are part of their religious worship and duties,” the institute stated regarding the Feb. 24 sentences.

After prosecutors decided to file minor charges citing “insufficient evidence” for assault charges, the judges issued verdicts that have injured people’s sense of justice, and the light sentences set a “rotten” precedent for strengthening the rule of law in Indonesia, according to the institute.

“Specifically, the verdict neither is a deterrent nor does it educate the public that violent acts in the name of religion are serious matters,” according to the Setara statement.

Saor Siagian, attorney for the church, told Compass that the facts of the case had shown that the assailants should have been charged with joint assault under Section 170 of Indonesia’s penal code, which could have resulted in sentences of five to nine years. Instead, prosecutors opted to charge them only with maltreatment under Section 351.

The alleged planner of the attack, Murhali Barda, head of the Bekasi chapter of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), received a sentence of only five months and 15 days for “disorderly conduct” (Section 335) even though he should have been prosecuted for incitement and joint assault, Siagian said.

“The trial brought to light facts that pointed toward incitement by Murhali Barda via Facebook, text messages, and orders to the defendants to attack the congregation of HKBP on Sept. 12, 2010 at Ciketing,” said Siagian. “If he had been charged with Section 170 he would have been facing a five-to-nine-year sentence, and Section 160 [incitement] carries a six-year sentence. These are both felonies.”

Judges of the State Court in Bekasi, West Java handed down a seven-month sentence to Adji Ahmad Faisal, who stabbed church elder Sihombing; the prosecutor had asked for sentence of 10 months. Ade Firman, who clubbed Pastor Simanjuntak hard enough to send her to the hospital for treatment, was given a six-month sentence; prosecutors had requested an eight-month sentence. Two under-age defendants were found guilty and turned over to their parents.

Along with Barda of the FPI, eight other defendants received sentences of five months and 15 days: Ismail, Dede Tri Sutrisna, Panca Rano, Khaerul Anwar, Nunu Nurhadi, Roy Karyadi, Kiki Nurdiansyah, Suprianto and one identified only as Ismail; prosecutors had asked for six-month sentences.

During the trial, 100 members of the FPI demonstrated in front of the courthouse, demanding that Barda and the others be immediately released. As each sentence was read out, the demonstrators shouted “Allahu Akbar [God is greater].”

The lawyer for Barda, Shalih Mangara Sitompul, said the verdicts brought about peace between both parties. His client was found guilty of incidents that took place on Aug. 1 and 8, 2010, he said, questioning why the Sept. 12 attack became the basis for criminal prosecution as Barda did not even encounter Pastor Simanjuntak on that date.

Sitompul said he would appeal the verdict.

Pastor Simanjuntak said the light sentences showed that the state was unable to fully enforce the law.

“This country is more afraid of the masses than standing for justice,” she said. “That’s what happened in the state court in Bekasi. With heavy hearts we accept the verdict.”

The stabbing victim, Sihombing, said that he was not surprised by the light sentences.

“The verdicts were not just, but I don’t know what else to do,” he said. “I’ve just got to accept things.”

Indonesia is a country that follows the rule of law, he said, and therefore it is not right to give a light sentence for stabbing.

“Even so, as a Christian and elder of the congregation, I have forgiven the person who attacked me,” he said.

Attorney Siagian said the sentences will fail to act as a deterrent.

“It passively encourages future violence in the name of religion by radical groups against minorities – not only against the HKBP church, but also against citizens in other areas,” he said. “Also, the verdict shows that the judge sides with those who committed violent acts in the name of religion, and it is a threat to pluralism and diversity in Indonesia.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Supreme Court in India Rejects Bail of Orissa Legislator


BJP assemblyman convicted in two murders in 2008 violence says he’s innocent.

NEW DELHI, January 28 (CDN) — India’s Supreme Court on Tuesday (Jan. 25) rejected the bail granted to Hindu nationalist Orissa state legislator Manoj Pradhan following his conviction in the murder of a Christian, Parikhita Nayak.

Pradhan, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was convicted on June 29, 2010 of “causing grievous hurt” and “rioting” and sentenced to seven years of prison in the murder of Nayak, of Budedi village, who died on Aug. 27, 2008. In its decision, the Supreme Court ordered the High Court to reconsider its decision to grant him bail.

Pradhan had been granted bail by the High Court on July 6 on grounds having won the April 2009 state assembly election. Contesting the election from jail, he had become a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) representing Kandhamal’s G. Udayagiri constituency. On Sept. 9, 2010 he was convicted in the murder of Bikram Nayak of Budedipada, for which he was sentenced to six years of rigorous imprisonment (see http://www.compassdirect.org, “Court in India Convicts Legislator in Second Murder Case,”
Sept. 10, 2010). He received bail within 40 days of that conviction.

Parikhita Nayak’s widow, Kanaka Rekha Nayak, had challenged the granting of bail before the Supreme Court. She pointed out in her petition that there were seven other murder cases against Pradhan, including the second conviction.

“Being an MLA was not grounds for granting of bail,” she told Compass.

Nayak’s petition also argued that, because of his position, Pradhan intimidated witnesses outside of jail. She told Compass that, after receiving bail in spite of their convictions, Pradhan and an accomplice continued to roam the area, often intimidating her.

In the Supreme Court decision, Justice B. Sudarshan Reddy and Justice S.S. Nijjaron wrote that the High Court should have taken into consideration the findings of the trial court and the alleged involvement of the respondent in more than one case.

“The [bail] order clearly reflects that the High Court was mainly impressed by the fact that the respondent is a sitting MLA,” they wrote. “In the circumstances, we find it difficult to sustain the order.”

Pradhan was accused of stopping Parikhita Nayak and then calling together a large group of persons armed with axes and other weapons, who then hacked Nayak to death; afterward they sought to dispose of the body by burning it.

Pradhan denied all charges against him, telling Compass by telephone that they were “baseless.”

“I have full faith in the judiciary system, and justice will be done,” Pradhan said, adding that he and other “innocent people” have been arrested due to political pressure and that the real culprits are at large.

On his next move, he said he would surrender himself to police custody if necessary and then file another application for bail.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, told Compass that he was pleased.

“Pradhan deserves to be behind bars in more than one case, and it was a travesty of justice that he was roaming around terrorizing people,” Dayal said. “He was not involved in every single act of violence, but he was the ring leader. He planned the violence; he led some of the gangs.”

Dibakar Parichha of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese told Compass that police records showed that Pradhan was a “field commander of Hindu extremists sent to kill Christians.”

The state government’s standing counsel, Suresh Tripathy, supported this week’s cancellation of bail.

 

Cases against Legislator

Pradhan told Compass that a total of 289 complaints were registered against him in various police stations during the August-September 2008 attacks on Christians in Kandhamal district, Orissa, out of which charge sheets were filed in only 13 cases.

Of the 13, he has been acquitted in seven and convicted in two murder cases, with six more cases pending against him – “Three in Lower Court, two in the High Court and One in the Supreme Court,” Pradhan told Compass.

Of the 13 cases, seven involved murder; of those murder cases, he has been acquitted in three.

Cases have been filed against Pradhan for rioting, rioting with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly, causing disappearance of evidence of offense, murder, wrongfully restraining someone, wrongful confinement, mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy houses, voluntarily causing grievous hurt and voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means.

Pradhan was also accused of setting fire to houses of people belonging to the minority Christian community.

The Times of India reported Pradhan as “one of the close disciples” of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) leader Swami Laxamananda Saraswati, whose assassination on Aug. 23, 2008, touched off the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal and other parts of Orissa.

 

Status of Trials

Expressing complete dissatisfaction in the trial system, Dayal told Compass that the two Fast Track courts are “meting out injustice at speed.”

“One of the main reasons,” he said, “is lack of police investigation, the inadequacy of the department of projections to find competent public prosecutors, and the inadequacy of the victim community to find a place in the justice process.”

As a result, he said, victims are not appropriately represented and killers are not appropriately prosecuted.

“Therefore, the two courts find enough reason to let people off,” Dayal said.

Complaints filed at a police station in Kandhamal after the violence of 2008 totaled 3,232, and the number of cases registered was 831.

The government of Orissa set up two Fast Track courts to try cases related to the violence that spread to more than a dozen districts of Orissa. The attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

The number of violent cases in the Fast Track courts is 231 (non-violent cases numbered 46, with total cases thus reaching 277). Of the violent cases, 128 have resulted in acquittals and 59 in convictions; 44 are pending.

Of the 722 people facing trial, 183 have been convicted, while 639 have been acquitted.

Report from Compass Direct News

Burmese Army Oppresses Chin Christians, Study Says


Report shows widespread abuses, including murder, rape and forced labor.

DUBLIN, January 19 (CDN) — Burmese soldiers are systematically using forced labor, torture and rape to persecute majority-Christian residents of Chin state in western Burma, according to a report released today.

Entitled, “Life Under the Junta: Evidence of Crimes Against Humanity in Burma’s Chin State,” the report by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) documented “extraordinary levels of state violence” against the Chin ethnic population in Burma, also called Myanmar.

Due to the influence of U.S. missionaries last century, the Chin are estimated to be 90 percent Christian, and the study indicates that it is therefore difficult to separate religious attacks from ethnic and other human rights abuses. Persecution of Christians is reportedly part of a wider campaign by the Burmese junta to create a uniform society in which the only accepted religion is Buddhism, according a 2007 government memo circulated in Karen state giving instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state.

Respondents who were specifically targeted for their Christian faith and ethnicity said soldiers had threatened them with the destruction of their homes or villages and threatened to harm or kill family members. A total of 71 households from 13 of 90 villages and towns surveyed also said government authorities had destroyed their local church buildings.

The most brutal attacks included the forced conscription, abduction or murder of children under the age of 15, and the rape of men, women and children. Burmese soldiers, locally known as the Tatmadaw, also confiscated food, livestock and other property and forced families to grow the cash crop jatropha, used to produce biofuel, instead of food crops required for basic survival. The study states that this caused many Chin to flee across land borders to India or Bangladesh.

Burmese soldiers were responsible for 94.2 percent of all specifically ethnic and religious incidents in the survey, supporting claims by advocacy organizations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide that the military government is systematically working to “cleanse” Burma of ethnic and religious minorities.

Government agents also placed votes for Chin residents during national elections last November, warning them that soldiers in a nearby camp were ready to arrest them if they complained, and ordered a church to close after the pastor refused to wear a campaign T-shirt. (See “Burmese Officials Order Closure of Chin Church,” Nov. 18, 2010.)

When asked why the Burmese army acted as it did, 15 percent of respondents answered, “Because we are Christians.” Another 23 percent replied, “To persecute us,” and a further 23 percent said, “Because we are Chin.”

The report confirms evidence submitted to the United Nations for Burma’s Universal Periodic Review, to take place in Geneva from Jan. 24 through Feb. 4, that holds the ruling military junta responsible for widespread abuse of its citizens.

 

‘Crimes Against Humanity’

PHR and five partner organizations, including the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), used scientific methods to carry out the survey in the early months of 2010, training 23 local surveyors to question a random sample of 621 households across all nine townships in Chin state. PHR identified the households only by survey number to protect their identity.

Those interviewed reported a total of 2,951 incidents in the previous 12 months, of which 95 percent were carried out by the Tatmadaw, local government officials, Burmese police or border security forces.

The report made a clear distinction between internationally recognized “crimes against humanity” and general human rights violations. Of the crimes against humanity, the most prevalent was forced labor for 91.9 percent of those surveyed, followed by ethnic-religious persecution at 14 percent. After these crimes came arbitrary arrest, detention or imprisonment at 5.9 percent, abduction at 4.8 percent, torture at 3.8 percent, rape or other sexual violations at 2.8 percent, murder at 1 percent and miscellaneous abuses at 0.2 percent.

As for lesser human rights violations, 52.5 percent of households surveyed reported livestock killed, 50.6 percent were forced to give food, 42.8 percent forced to give money, 12.8 percent had property attacked or destroyed, 11.2 percent had family members beaten and 9.1 percent had family members wounded from gunshots, explosions or deadly weapons.

In many cases, people suffered from the full range of human rights violations.

Six households, or 1 percent of those surveyed, reported family members killed by the Tatmadaw in 2009, with two households reporting multiple family members killed, and two of the victims being under the age of 15. Three of the six households believed they were specifically targeted because of their ethnicity and Christian faith.

An elderly grandfather who spoke to PHR in March 2010 said he felt depressed and helpless after a year when the Tatmadaw killed an 18-year-old family member and forced others in the family to build roads, porter supplies and carry weapons, threatening to kill them if they refused. The military also stole livestock, demanded food supplies, and forced the family to grow a single crop rather than food crops needed for basic survival.

“We dare not refuse the Tatmadaw, as even mothers with little children are beaten,” one respondent said.

Burmese soldiers tortured more than one person in the family of a 46-year-old man, while local government authorities forced them to relinquish livestock, food and money. Seventeen percent of torture victims and 29 percent of rape victims were under the age of 15.

A 36-year-old father of five in Paletwa township said Burmese soldiers had raped more than one member of his family at knifepoint within the past year, arbitrarily detained another member of the household at gunpoint, conscripted a family member into the army and burned down the church that once stood in his village.

In a foreward to PHR’s report, Richard Goldstone, a PHR board member and former U.N. chief prosecutor, and the Rev. Desmond Tutu of Chairman of The Elders, an independent group of prominent global leaders, urged that a U.N. commission of inquiry be established to investigate reports of human rights violations in Burma.

“It is unconscionable that suffering as dire as that of the Chin people under Burma’s dictatorship should be allowed to persist in silence,” they wrote.

They also urged Burma’s immediate neighbors and trade partners to use the occasion of Burma’s Universal Periodic Review to discuss the violations committed in Chin state and elsewhere in Burma, and work towards an alternative ‘roadmap’ to democracy for the Burmese people.

Report from Compass Direct News

Links between Murders in Turkey and ‘Masterminds’ Expected


Witnesses previously barred will be allowed to testify.

ISTANBUL, December 20 (CDN) — Attorneys prosecuting the murder of three Christians in southeastern Turkey are making progress linking the knifemen who slayed them to the masterminds who put them up to it, an attorney representing the family of one of the victims said Friday (Dec.17).

Two witnesses, Veysel Şahin and Ercan Gelni – whose testimony the court previously blocked – will be allowed to testify about the plans behind the killings in Malatya. The judge changed his previous ruling blocking their testimonies because of new evidence that recently became available.

The court will also protect a witness whose testimony would have possibly put him in danger. The latest court hearing was on Dec. 3.

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.

 

Establishing Links

Prosecutors have contended that the killings were related to a larger conspiracy by the military and nationalists to destabilize the government by targeting minorities in Turkish society.

“The people responsible are not just confined to the young men caught at the crime scene,” said Orhan Cengiz, one of the attorneys representing the interests of the victim’s families in the case. “Everybody knows the youngsters have connections [to the nationalists].”

The new decision shows the court’s “willingness” to look into possible links between the killers and the gendarmerie, a special police force in Turkey that deals with internal security issues and is allegedly a key player in the destabilization plot, Cengiz said.

Suzanne Geske, widow of Tilmann Geske, said she wants the Malatya murder trial linked with the trial over the Cage Operation Action Plan, believed to be part of the Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.

“I want the Zirve Publishing House killings to be merged with the case into the Cage Operation Action Plan,” Geske told Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman. “I do not believe that those young men could have carried out the murders on their own. Some de facto links are evident. There are other influences behind these murders.”

Ergenekon is an alleged “deep state” operation referring to a group of retired generals, politicians and other key figures thought by some to be the true power brokers in Turkey.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found a year ago 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.

Newspapers have reported that the Cage Plan, aimed at Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities, not only contained a list of names of Protestant Christians who would be targeted, but also named some of their children.

“I believe that there is an ulterior motive behind the killings,” Geske reportedly said. “This may be linked to Ergenekon or another criminal group. I believe that the young men who carried out the murders were directed by criminal elements. I want those criminal elements to be exposed. Otherwise, the lives of those young men will be wasted while the real criminals will go unpunished.”

The next Malatya hearing is scheduled for Jan. 20.

Report from Compass Direct News

Ethiopia Imprisons Christian Accused of Defacing Quran


Islamic principles govern Somali region in southern part of country.

NAIROBI, Kenya, November 29 (CDN) — A Christian in Ethiopia’s southern town of Moyale who languished in jail for more than three months after he was accused of desecrating the Quran has been sentenced to three years of prison, church leaders said.

Tamirat Woldegorgis, a member of the Full Gospel Church in his early 30s, was arrested in early August after a Muslim co-worker in the clothes-making business the two operated out of a rented home discovered Woldegorgis had inscribed “Jesus is Lord” on some cloth, area Christians said. His business partner later accused him of writing “Jesus is Lord” in a copy of the Quran, although no evidence of that ever surfaced.

Woldegorgis was sentenced on Nov. 18 for allegedly defacing the Quran and was subsequently transferred to Jijiga prison, a source said. Jijiga is the capital of Ethiopia’s Somali Region Zone Five, which is governed by Islamic principles, and his transfer there – after a period in which his whereabouts were unknown – puts his life in greater danger, a church leader said.

In Ethiopia’s federal state system, each state is autonomous in its administration, and most of those holding government positions in Somali Region Zone Five are Muslims.

“Three years in a harsh jail in Jijiga for an innocent man is quite costly,” said the church leader, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

The church is concerned about the condition of the father of two from Hagarmariam village.

Additionally, two of Woldegorgis’ friends were fined 5,000 Kenyan shillings (US$60) each for supporting him by either taking food to him or visiting him while in prison. The two were said to be condemned for supporting a criminal who allegedly desecrated the Quran and allegedly defamed Islam, church leaders said.

Woldegorgis’ Muslim associate, whose name has not been established, had gone to a mosque with the accusation that Woldegorgis had written “Jesus is Lord” in the Quran itself, sources said. Angry sheikhs at the mosque subsequently had Woldegorgis arrested for desecrating the book sacred to Islam, they said. Other sources said, however, that Muslims accused Woldegorgis of writing “Jesus is Lord” on a piece of wood, on a minibus and then on the wall of a house.

Sources previously told Compass that authorities had offered to release Woldegorgis if he would convert to Islam.

Hostility toward those spreading faiths different from Islam is a common occurrence in predominantly Muslim areas of Ethiopia and neighboring countries, they said. Christians are often subject to harassment and intimidation.

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

Burmese Officials Order Closure of Chin Church


Government punishes pastor for refusing to wear campaign T-shirt, amid other election abuses.

DUBLIN, November 18 (CDN) — Officials in Mergui Region, Burma, ordered a Baptist church to cease holding worship services after the pastor refused to wear an election campaign T-shirt supporting the military government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The election commission summoned 47-year-old Pastor Mang Tling of Dawdin village, Gangaw township, Mergui Region on Nov. 9, two days after the election and ordered him to stop holding services and discontinue the church nursery program, the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported yesterday.

The CHRO works against human rights abuses, including religious discrimination, for the Chin people, a minority group in Burma’s northwest estimated to be 90 percent Christian.

Village headman U Than Chaung had given the pastor a campaign T-shirt to wear in support of the USDP, and when he refused to wear it, the headman filed a report with local authorities accusing him of persuading Christian voters to vote in favor of an opposing party.

Under Burmese law, religious leaders can be penalized for “engaging in politics,” giving the pastor a solid legal reason to decline the T-shirt. The law also bans leaders of religious groups from voting in national elections, according to the CHRO, although lay members of those groups are able to vote.

“The election law is quite vague,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass today. “One of the things we were watching out for during the election was to see if church elders or council members might be excluded from voting. But these people were able to vote. The law seems to apply only to pastors, monks and imams.”

Officials interrogated Mang Tling in Gangaw until Sunday (Nov. 14), when he was allowed to return home.

Meantime, the USDP won the election amid widespread evidence of “advance” voting and other forms of voter manipulation throughout Burma.

Previously known as the Union Solidarity and Development Association, and before that the State Peace and Development Council, the USDP was formed by a ruling junta composed largely of army generals. The junta has ruled Burma without a constitution or parliament since 1998, although in 2008 they pushed through support for a new constitution that will take effect following this month’s elections, according to the 2010 International Religious Freedom report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

The new constitution forbids “abuse of religion for political purposes,” the report stated. Election laws published in March also banned members of religious orders from voting for or joining political parties and reserved 25 percent of seats in the new parliament for members of the military.

The 2008 constitution “technically guarantees a degree of religious freedom. But then, it’s Burma,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass.

 

Voter Intimidation

The Chin National Party defeated the USDP in three electorates in Chin state despite reports of widespread voting anomalies, some of which were outlined in a CHRO press release on Nov. 7.

In Tedim township northern Chin state, for example, USDP agent Go Lun Mang went to the home of a local resident at 5 p.m. the day before the election and told the family that he had already voted on their behalf in favor of the USDP. He added that soldiers in a nearby camp were ready to arrest them if they complained.

On Nov. 5, the local government had already ordered village officials to instruct residents to vote for the USDP. On Nov. 7, the day of the election, USDP agents in campaign uniforms stood at the gate of the polling station in Tedim and asked voters if they intended to vote for the USDP. Those who said yes were allowed into the station, while those who said no were refused entrance.

USDP agents also warned Chin voters in Thantlang town that they should vote for the USDP “while the door was open” or they would regret it, Burma News International reported on Nov. 5.

David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the intimidation indicated that the junta and the USDP knew how unpopular they were.

Reports by the CHRO show a long history of discrimination against the majority Christian Chin, including the destruction of crosses and other Christian monuments, state-sponsored efforts to expand Buddhism, forced contributions of finance and labor to Buddhist construction projects, arrest and detention, torture and particularly harsh treatment of pastors. In addition, officials have refused construction for all new church building projects since 2003.

A report issued by HRW in January confirmed serious and ongoing abuses against Chin Christians.

One Chin pastor interviewed by HRW described how soldiers held him at gunpoint, forced him to pray in a Buddhist pagoda and told him that Burma was a Buddhist country where Christianity should not be practiced. (See “Report Documents Abuse of Chin Christians,” Feb. 20.)

 

SIDEBAR

Suu Kyi’s Release Stirs Guarded Hope among Burma’s Christians

NEW DELHI, November 18 (Compass Direct News) – The release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in Burma on Saturday (Nov. 13) has sparked cautious optimism about human rights among Christians and the country’s ethnic minorities even as the junta does battle with armed resistance groups.

Freeing her six days after elections, the military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar) kept 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi from running in the country’s first election in 20 years, but ethnic minorities are still “very happy” and “enthused with hope and anticipation,” said Plato Van Rung Mang, who heads the India chapter of Chin Human Rights Organization.

Suu Kyi is the only leader from the majority Burmese community – predominantly Buddhist – who is trusted by the ethnic minorities, said Mang, an India-based Christian originally from Burma’s Chin state, which borders India.

“We have faith in Suu Kyi’s honesty and leadership, and she has been our hope,” he added.

The ethnic Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni people – many of whom are Christian – as well as mostly Buddhist ethnic Shan, Mon and Arakanese (some of them Muslim) people have been fighting for self-determination in their respective states and opposing the military junta’s policy of centralized control and Burmese dominion.

“We trust that Suu Kyi can fulfill her father’s ideal and political principles which have been subverted by the Burmese military junta’s Burmanization policy,” said Mang. Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was the nation’s leader at the time of independence and favored autonomy for ethnic minorities.

“Just as her father was trusted and held in high esteem by the ethnic people, Aung San Suu Kyi also has the ability to work together with the minorities to build a better, peaceful Burma where the human rights of all citizens are respected and protected,” said Garrett Kostin, a U.S. citizen who runs the Best Friend Library, built by a Buddhist monk in support of Suu Kyi, in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

While sections of the ethnic communities have been involved in armed resistance against the junta’s rule, many local residents in the region remain unarmed but are also at risk of being killed in the post-election conflict.

In the wake of the Nov. 7 election, as expected (See “Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election, Oct. 22), clashes between armed ethnic groups and the Burmese army erupted in three of the seven ethnic states – Karen, Shan and Mon – mainly along Thailand and China border, reported Thailand-based Burma News International. The violence has resulted in an influx of over 20,000 people into Thailand – the largest flow in the last five years.

According to US-based Refugees International, the Thai government forced many of the asylum seekers back.

There are also tensions in Kachin and Karenni states, which could erupt at any time, between the Burmese army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army-North, and the Karenni National Progressive Party.

Rights advocates, however, were still heartened by Suu Kyi’s release.

It’s “a wonderful opportunity for the ethnic minorities of Burma to unify in support of each other’s rights and desires,” said Kostin.

In September 2007, many Buddhist monks joined democracy activists in street protests against the military regime’s decision to cut fuel subsidies, leading to a sharp rise in gas and diesel prices. Known as the Saffron Revolution, the protests resulted in hundreds of deaths as government security personnel resisted it militarily.

In numerous clashes between the repressive military regime and political opponents and ethnic minorities, over 3.5 million Burmese have been displaced and thousands killed over the years.

Suu Kyi will continue to enjoy the trust of ethnic minorities because “she has been working so hard since the beginning [of her political career] to speak out about the plight of ethnic people with an honest and sincere commitment,” said Bangkok-based Soe Aung, deputy secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Forum for Democracy in Burma.

Chiang Mai-based Christian relief group Free Burma Rangers (FBR) recalled that Suu Kyi, the general secretary of the National League for Democracy, along with allies won more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament “in Burma’s only truly democratic election” in 1990. “The military regime, however, did not recognize the results and continued to hold power,” it said in a statement.

Last week’s election was “neither free nor fair,” FBR said, adding that “thousands of political prisoners [estimated at 2,200] are still in jail, ethnic minorities are attacked [on a regular basis], and the people of Burma remain under oppression.

“Still, we are grateful for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi as she is a leader who gives real hope to the people of Burma.”

An FBR team leader who spoke on condition of anonymity recalled Suu Kyi requesting his prayers when he met with her during a brief period when she was not under house arrest in 1996.

“The Global Day of Prayer for Burma and the ethnic unity efforts we are involved in are a direct result of that meeting,” the leader said. “As she told me then, one of her favorite quotes is, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”

Some Christians, however, remained cautious.

“Although San Suu Kyi wants Burma to be a true federal country, there is no certainty in the hearts of the Karen people because they have suffered for very long, and the so-called Burmese have turned their backs on them several times,” said a Karen Christian from Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph.

La Rip, a Burmese activist in China, also said that while Suu Kyi deserved to enjoy freedom, she and her party “do not seem to have a clear idea on how to solve the long-standing issues” related to ethnic minorities.

For her part, Suu Kyi spelled out a plan to hold a nationwide, multi-ethnic conference soon after she was freed. Her father held a similar meeting, known as the Panglong Conference, in 1947. Aung San, then representing the Burmese government, reached an agreement with leaders from the Shan, Kachin and Chin states to accept full autonomy in internal administration for the ethnic controlled frontier areas after independence from Britain.

Suu Kyi’s planned conference is seen as the second Panglong Conference, but it remains uncertain if the new Burmese regime, which is likely to be as opposed to ethnic minorities as the junta, will allow her plan to succeed.

In the awaited election results, the junta’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is likely to have majority in parliament to form the next government. Suu Kyi’s party had been disbanded by the military regime, and only a small splinter group ran in the election.

It is also feared that Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for nearly 15 years since 1990 until her release last weekend, could face assassination attempts or fresh charges followed by another term under arrest.

Burma has a population of around 50 million, out of which around 2.1 million are estimated to be Christian.

Report from Compass Direct News

Pakistani Muslim Tortures, Accuses Christian Who Refused Slavery


Land owner falsely charges young man with illicit sex, calls villagers to beat, burn him.

SARGODHA, Pakistan, October 29 (CDN) — A Muslim land owner in Pakistan this month subjected a 25-year-old Christian to burns and a series of humiliations, including falsely charging him with having sex with his own niece, because the Christian refused to work for him without pay.

Fayaz Masih is in jail with burns on his body after No. 115 Chitraan Wala village head Zafar Iqbal Ghuman and other villagers punished Masih for refusing to work as a slave in his fields, said the Rev. Yaqub Masih, a Pentecostal evangelist. The village is located in Nankana Sahib district, Punjab Province.

Sources said neither Fayaz Masih nor his family had taken any loans from Ghuman, and that they had no obligations to work off any debt for Ghuman as bonded laborers.

Yaqub Masih said the young man’s refusal to work in Ghuman’s fields infuriated the Muslim, who was accustomed to forcing Christians into slavery. He said Ghuman considered Masih’s refusal an act of disobedience by a “choohra,” the pejorative word for Christians in Pakistan.

On Oct. 3 Ghuman and 11 of his men abducted Masih from his home at gun-point and brought him to Ghuman’s farmhouse, according to Yaqub Masih and Yousaf Gill, both of nearby village No. 118 Chour Muslim. Gill is a former councilor of Union Council No. 30, and Yaqub Masih is an ordained pastor waiting for his denomination to assign him a church.

Fayaz Masih’s family members told Yaqub Masih that Ghuman was carrying a pistol, and that the 11 other men were brandishing rifles or carrying clubs, axes and bamboo sticks. They began beating Masih as they carried him away, calling him a choohra, Yaqub Masih said.   

Gill said that Ghuman’s farmhands tied Fayaz Masih’s hands and legs and asked him once more if he would work in Ghuman’s fields. When he again refused, Gill said, Ghuman summoned four barbers; three ran away, but he forced one, Muhammad Pervaiz, to shave Masih’s head, eyebrows, half of his mustache and half of his beard.

After they had rubbed charcoal on Masih’s face, Ghuman then announced that Masih had had relations with Masih’s 18-year-old niece, Sumeera, and called for everyone in the village to punish him. He and his men placed Masih on a frail, one-eyed donkey, Yaqub Masih and Gill said, and a mob of Muslim men and children surrounded him – beating tins, dancing and singing door-to-door while shouting anti-Christian slogans, yelling obscenities at him and other Christians, and encouraging villagers to beat him with their shoes and fill his mouth with human waste, Yaqub Masih said.

Some threw kerosene on Masih and alternately set him on fire and extinguished the flames, Gill said. He added that Muslims made a garland of old shoes from a pile of garbage and put it around Masih’s neck.

Yaqub Masih said the abuse became unbearable for the young man, and he collapsed and fell off the donkey.  

 

Police Ignore Court

Masih’s sister, Seema Bibi, told Compass that the accusation that Masih had had sex with her daughter Sumeera was utterly false. She said Ghuman made the allegation only to vent his fury at Masih for refusing to work for him.

Seema Bibi said that Ghuman told her daughter at gun-point to testify against Masih in court on Oct. 4. Sumeera surprised the Muslim land owner, however, saying under oath that Masih was innocent and that Ghuman had tried to force her to testify against her uncle. A judge ruled that Sumeera had not had illicit relations with Masih, and that therefore she was free to go home.

Her mother told Compass, however, that since then Ghuman has been issuing daily death threats to her family.

After Masih collapsed from the abuse, Yaqub Masih and Gill called local police. Police did not arrive until three hours later, at 3:30 p.m., they said, led by Deputy Superintendent of Police Shoiab Ahmed Kamboh and Inspector Muhammad Yaqub.

“They rebuked the Muslim villagers that they could have killed this Christian youth, and they told them to give him a bath at once and change his clothes, in order to reduce the evidence against them,” Gill said.

Family members of Masih said Kamboh and Inspector Yaqub arrested some of the leading figures within the mob, but soon thereafter they received a call to release every Muslim.

“Instead of taking the Muslim men into custody, they detained my brother, and he was taken to the police station,” Seema Bibi said.  

On Oct. 4 police sent Masih to District Headquarters Hospital Nankana Sahib for examination, where Dr. Naseer Ahmed directed Dr. Muhammad Shakeel to mention in the medical report how severely Ghuman and his farmhands had beaten him, Gill said. He said the medical report also stated that Masih had sustained burns and that his head, mustache, eyebrows and beard were shaved.

In spite of the court ruling that Masih had not had sex with his niece, police were coerced into registering a false charge of adultery under Article 376 of the Islamic statutes of the Pakistan Penal Code, First Information Report No. 361/10, at the Sangla Hill police station.

At press time Masih remained in Shiekhupura District Jail, said Gill. Gill also has received death threats from Ghuman, he said.

The 11 men who along with Ghuman abducted Masih and brought him to Ghuman’s farmhouse, according to Masih’s family, were Mehdi Hussain Shah and Maqsood Shah, armed with rifles; Muhammad Amin, Rana Saeed, Muhammad Osama and four others unidentified, all of them brandishing clubs; Muhammad Waqas, with an axe; and Ali Raza, bearing a bamboo stick and a club.

Report from Compass Direct News

Police in Sudan Aid Muslim’s Effort to Take Over Church Plot


With possibility of secession by Southern Sudan, church leaders in north fear more land grabs.

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 25 (CDN) — Police in Sudan evicted the staff of a Presbyterian church from its events and office site in Khartoum earlier this month, aiding a Muslim businessman’s effort to seize the property.

Christians in Sudan’s capital city told Compass that police entered the compound of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) on Oct. 4 at around 2 p.m. and ordered workers to leave, claiming that the land belonged to Muslim businessman Osman al Tayeb. When asked to show evidence of Al Tayeb’s ownership, however, officers failed to produce any documentation, the sources said.

The church had signed a contract with al Tayeb stipulating the terms under which he could attain the property – including providing legal documents such as a construction permit and then obtaining final approval from SPEC – but those terms remained unmet, church officials said.

Church leader Deng Bol said that under terms of the unfulfilled contract, the SPEC would turn the property over to al Tayeb to construct a business center on the site, with the denomination to receive a share of the returns from the commercial enterprise and regain ownership of the plot after 80 years.

“But the investor failed to produce a single document from the concerned authorities” and therefore resorted to police action to secure the property, Bol said.

SPEC leaders had yet to approve the project because of the high risk of permanently losing the property, he said.

“The SPEC feared that they were going to lose the property after 80 years if they accepted the proposed contract,” Bol said.

SPEC leaders have undertaken legal action to recover the property, he said. The disputed plot of 2,232 square meters is located in a busy part of the heart of Khartoum, where it has been used for Christian rallies and related activities.

“The plot is registered in the name of the church and should not be sold or transfered for any other activities, only for church-related programs,” a church elder who requested anonymity said.

The Rev. Philip Akway, general secretary of the SPEC, told Compass that the government might be annoyed that Christian activities have taken place there for many decades.

“Muslim groups are not happy with the church in north Sudan, therefore they try to cause tension in the church,” Akway told Compass.

The policeman leading the officers in the eviction on Oct. 4 verbally threatened to shoot anyone who interfered, Christian sources said.

“We have orders from higher authorities,” the policeman shouted at the growing throng of irate Christians.

A Christian association called Living Water had planned an exhibit at the SPEC compound on Oct. 6, but an organization leader arrived to find the place fenced off and deserted except for four policemen at the gate, sources said.

SPEC leaders said Muslims have taken over many other Christian properties through similar ploys.

“We see this as a direct plot against their churches’ estates in Sudan,” Akway said.

The Rev. John Tau, vice-moderator for SPEC, said the site where Al Tayeb plans to erect three towers was not targeted accidentally.

“The Muslim businessman seems to be targeting strategic places of the church in order to stop the church from reaching Muslims in the North Sudan,” Tau said.

The unnamed elder said church leaders believe the property grab came in anticipation of the proposed north-south division of Sudan. With less than three months until a Jan. 9 referendum on splitting the country according to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, SPEC leaders have taken a number of measures to guard against what it sees as government interference in church affairs.

Many southern Sudanese Christians fear losing citizenship if south Sudan votes for secession in the forthcoming referendum.

A top Sudanese official has said people in south Sudan will no longer be citizens of the north if their region votes for independence. Information Minister Kamal Obeid told state media last month that south Sudanese will be considered citizens of another state if they choose independence, which led many northern-based southern Sudanese to begin packing.

At the same time, President Omar al-Bashir promised full protection for southern Sudanese and their properties in a recent address. His speech was reinforced by Vice President Ali Osman Taha’s address during a political conference in Juba regarding the signing of a security agreement with First Vice President Salva Kiir Mayardit (also president of the semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan), but Obeid’s words have not been forgotten.

Akway of SPEC said it is difficult to know what will become of the property.

“Police continue to guard the compound, and nobody knows for sure what the coming days will bring,” Akway said. “With just less than three months left for the South to decide its fate, we are forced to see this move as a serious development against the church in Sudan.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians in Turkey Acquitted of ‘Insulting Turkishness’


But court heavily fines them for dubious conviction of collecting personal data.

ISTANBUL, October 19 (CDN) — After four years of legal battle in a Turkish court, a judge acquitted two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge.

Four years ago this month, Turan Topal, 50, and Hakan Tastan, 41, started a legal battle after gendarmerie officers produced false witnesses to accuse them of spreading their faith and allegedly “insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.”

At the Silivri court an hour west of Istanbul, Judge Hayrettin Sevim on Thursday (Oct. 14) acquitted the defendants of two charges that they had insulted the Turkish state (Article 301) and that they had insulted its people (Article 216) by spreading Christianity. Sevim cited lack of evidence.

He found them guilty, however, of collecting information on citizens without permission (Article 135) and sentenced them to seven months of imprisonment each. The court ruled that the two men could each pay a 4,500 lira (US$3,170) fine instead of serving time, said their lawyer Haydar Polat.

Tastan expressed mixed feelings about the verdicts.

“For both Turan and I, being found innocent from the accusation that we insulted the Turkish people was the most important thing for us, because we’ve always said we’re proud to be Turks,” Tastan said by telephone. “But it is unjust that they are sentencing us for collecting people’s information.”

At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which has since acquired official association status and is now called The Association for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible. The two men had used contact information that individuals interested in Christianity had volunteered to provide on the association’s website.

Administrators of the association stated openly to local authorities that their goal was to disseminate information about Christianity.

The two men and their lawyer said they will be ready to appeal the unjust decision of the court when they have seen the official statement, which the court should issue within a month. Polat said the appeal process will take over a year.

“Why should we have to continue the legal battle and appeal this?” asked Tastan. “We are not responsible for the information that was collected. So why are they fining us for this? So, we continue our legal adventure.”

Still, he expressed qualified happiness.

“We are free from the charges that we have insulted the Turkish state and the people of Turkey and we’re glad for that, but we are sorry about the court’s sentence,” Tastan said. “We’re happy on one hand, and sorry on the other.”

The court hearing lasted just a few minutes, said Polat.

“The judges came to the court hearing ready with their decision,” Polat said. “Their file was complete, and there was neither other evidence nor witnesses.”

Polat was hesitant to comment on whether the decision to convict the men of collecting private data without permission was because they are Christians. He did underline, however, that the court’s decision to fine the men was unjust, and that they plan to appeal it after the court issues an official written verdict.

“This was the court’s decision,” said Polat, “but we believe this is not fair. This decision is inconsistent with the law.”

 

Christianity on Trial

The initial charges in 2006 against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that some Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and making insults against Turkishness, the military and Islam.

In March 2009 the Turkish Ministry of Justice issued a statement claiming that approval to try the two men’s case under the controversial Article 301came in response to the “original” statement by three young men that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Two of the three witnesses, however, stated in court that they didn’t even know Topal and Tastan. The third witness never appeared in court. Prosecutors were unable to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms. At the same time, they questioned their right to speak openly about Christianity with others.

Polat and his legal partners had based their defense on the premise that Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” Polat told Compass last year. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking, it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”

The lawyer and the defendants said that prosecuting lawyers gave political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light, claiming that missionary activities were carried out by imperialistic countries intending to harm Turkey.

Tastan and Topal became Christians more than 15 years ago and changed their religious identity from Muslim to Christian on their official ID cards.

Initially accompanied by heavy media hype, the case had been led by ultranationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz and a team of six other lawyers. Kerincsiz had filed or inspired dozens of Article 301 court cases against writers and intellectuals he accused of insulting the Turkish nation and Islam.

Because of Kerincsiz’s high-level national profile, the first few hearings drew several hundred young nationalist protestors surrounding the Silivri courthouse, under the eye of dozens of armed police. But the case has attracted almost no press attention since Kerincsiz was jailed in January 2008 as a suspect in the overarching conspiracy trials over Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals, politicians and other key figures. The lawyer is accused of an active role in the alleged Ergenekon plot to discredit and overthrow Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government.

Ergenekon has been implicated in the cases of murdered priest Andreas Santoro, Armenian editor Hrant Dink, and the three Christians in Malatya: Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and Tilmann Geske.

In a separate case, in March of 2009 Tastan and Topal were charged with “illegal collection of funds.” Each paid a fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in Istanbul. The verdict could not be appealed in the Turkish legal courts. This ruling referred to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local authorities.

Report from Compass Direct News