Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election


Military hostilities against insurgents may result in Christian casualties and persecution.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, October 22 (CDN) — With Burma’s first election in over 20 years just two weeks away, Christians in ethnic minority states fear that afterward the military regime will try to “cleanse” the areas of Christianity, sources said.

The Burmese junta is showing restraint to woo voters in favor of its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but it is expected to launch a military offensive on insurgents in ethnic minority states after the Nov. 7 election, Burma watchers warned.

When Burma Army personnel attack, they do not discriminate between insurgents and unarmed residents, said a representative of the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers relief aid group in Chiang Mai, close to the Thai-Burma border. There is a large Christian population in Burma’s Kachin, Karen and Karenni states along the border that falls under the military’s target zone. Most of the slightly more than 2 million Christians in Burma (also called Myanmar) reside along the country’s border with Thailand, China and India.

The military seems to be preparing its air force for an offensive, said Aung Zaw, editor of the Chiang Mai-based magazine Irrawaddy, which covers Burma. The Burmese Air Force (BAF) bought 50 Mi-24 helicopters and 12 Mi-2 armored transport helicopters from Russia in September, added Zaw, a Buddhist.

Irrawaddy reported that the BAF had procured combat-equipped helicopters for the first time in its history. Air strikes will be conducted “most likely in Burma’s ethnic areas, where dozens of armed groups still exert control,” the magazine reported, quoting BAF sources.

“Armed conflicts between ethnic armies and the military can flare up any time,” said Zaw. “However, to boost the morale of its personnel, the military is expected to attack smaller ethnic groups first, and then the more powerful ones.”

Seven states of Burma have armed and unarmed groups demanding independence or autonomy from the regime: Shan, Karenni (also known as Kayah), Karen, Mon, Chin, Kachin, and Arakan (also Rakhine).

The junta has designated many areas in this region as “Black Zones” – entirely controlled by armed ethnic groups – and “Brown Zones,” where the military has partial control, said the source from FBR, which provides relief to internally displaced people in states across the Thai-Burma border.

“There are many unarmed Christian residents in these zones where Burmese military personnel attack and kill anyone on sight,” the source said.

A Karen state native in Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph, who fled Burma as a child, referred to the junta’s clandestine campaign to wipe out Christians from the country. At least four years ago a secret memo circulated in Karen state, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” that carried “point by point instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state,” reported the British daily Telegraph on Jan. 21, 2007.

“The text, which opens with the line, ‘There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced,’ calls for anyone caught evangelizing to be imprisoned,” the Telegraph reported. “It advises: ‘The Christian religion is very gentle – identify and utilize its weakness.’”

Persecution of Christians in Burma “is part of a wider campaign by the regime, also targeted at ethnic minority tribes, to create a uniform society in which the race and language is Burmese and the only accepted religion is Buddhism,” the daily noted.

The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the FBR. Three months ago, Burma Army’s Light Infantry Battalions 370 and 361 attacked a Christian village in Karen state, according to the FBR. In Tha Dah Der village on July 23, army personnel burned all houses, one of the state’s biggest churches – which was also a school – and all livestock and cattle, reported the FBR.

More than 900 people fled to save their lives.

 

Vague Religious Freedom

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 after the election, 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.

The Burmese junta is expected to remain at the helm of affairs after the election. The 2008 constitution reserves one-fourth of all seats in national as well as regional assemblies for military personnel.

A majority of people in Burma are not happy with the military’s USDP party, and military generals are expected to twist the results in its favor, said Htet Aung, chief election reporter at Irrawaddy.

Khonumtung News Group, an independent Burmese agency, reported on Oct. 2 that most educated young Burmese from Chin state were “disgusted” with the planned election, “which they believe to be a sham and not likely to be free and fair.”

They “are crossing the border to Mizoram in the northeast state of India from Chin state and Sagaing division to avoid participating,” Khonumtung reported. “On a regular basis at least five to 10 youths are crossing the border daily to avoid voting. If they stay in Burma, they will be coerced to cast votes.”

There is “utter confusion” among people, and they do not know if they should vote or not, said Aung of Irrawaddy. While the second largest party, the National Unity Party, is pro-military, there are few pro-democracy and ethnic minority parties.

“Many of the pro-democracy and ethnic minority candidates have little or no experience in politics,” Aung said. “All those who had some experience have been in jail as political prisoners for years.”

In some ethnic minority states, the USDP might face an embarrassing defeat. And this can deepen the military’s hostility towards minorities, including Christians, after the election, added Aung.

For now, an uneasy calm prevails in the Thai-Burma border region where most ethnic Christians live.

Report from Compass Direct News

Thousands of trafficked girls found in Mali slave camps


Nigerian girls are being forced to work as prostitutes in Mali "slave camps," Nigerian officials say, reports CISA.

The girls, many of them underage, are often promised jobs in Europe but end up in brothels, said the government’s anti-trafficking agency. According to BBC correspondent, the brothels are run by older Nigerian women who prevent them from leaving and take all their earnings.

Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons (Naptip) said officials visited Mali in September to follow up "horrendous reports" from victims, aid workers and clergy in Mali.The agency said it was working with Malian police to free the girls and help them return to Nigeria.

They said there were hundreds of brothels, each housing up to 200 girls, run by Nigerian "madams" who force them to work against their will and take their earnings.

"We are talking of thousands and thousands of girls," Simon Egede, Executive Secretary of Naptip, told a news conference in Abuja, adding that they were between 20,000 to 40,000.

He, however, did not give details as to how the figure had been reached.

In a statement, Egede said girls were "held in bondage for the purposes of forced sexual exploitation and servitude or slavery-like practices."

"The madams control their freedom of movement, where they work, when they work and what they receive," he said.

The trade is centred on the capital Bamako and large cities, but the most notorious brothels are in the mining towns of Kayes and Mopti, where the sex workers live in "near slavery conditions," said Naptip.

Many of the brothels there also had abortion clinics where foetuses were removed by traditional healers for use in rituals, said Egede.

Most of the girls were reported to have come from Delta and Edo States in Nigeria.

Many were lured with the promise of work in Europe, given fake travel documents and made to swear an oath that they would not tell anyone where they were going.

On arrival in Mali, they were told they would have to work as prostitutes to pay off their debts. Prostitution is legal in Mali but not if it involves minors.

Naptip said it had also uncovered two major trafficking routes used to transport the women from Nigeria through Benin, Niger and Bukina Faso to Mali.

Egede said Naptip was working with the police in Mali to return the girls to Nigeria safely, shut down the trade and prosecute the traffickers.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Homosexual activist speaks at ‘Christian’ festival in UK


Leading homosexual activist Peter Tatchell appeared at the Greenbelt festival on 28 August to speak about “the struggle for queer freedom in Africa,” reports Christian Concern for our Nation.

Greenbelt, a controversial ‘Christian’ festival, drew over 21,000 visitors this year. The festival is sponsored by Christian Aid, CMS, the Church Times, the Church Urban Fund and the Mothers Union.

Prior to the weekend, Mr. Tatchell had told Ekklesia that he was “looking forward” to the weekend and that, while not a Christian himself, “we have more in common than divides us”. In his talk he spoke about homosexual rights and the church, and accused the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, of “colluding” with the persecution of homosexuals in Africa.

Anglican Mainstream encouraged people to boycott Greenbelt because of Mr. Tatchell’s presence on the programme. Spokesman Lisa Nolland said that “Greenbelt, ‘the UK’s largest Christian festival’, is sending out a sub-text that is totally at odds with a Christian understanding of sexuality by including Peter Tatchell on its programme.”

“Young people who attend Greenbelt and hear Peter Tatchell are given false assurance that Peter Tatchell is the sort of person they should be listening to. Greenbelt has enough respect for Peter Tatchell as a public figure to place him on the platform …….thus, there is a de facto legitimisation of the plausibility of his views across the board.”

Mr. Tatchell is well known for his view that the age of consent should be lowered to 14 for homosexuals. On his website he states that if children under 14 have consensual sex, and if there is no greater than a three year age differential, there should not be a prosecution.

Mr. Tatchell is also a strong advocate of pornography which he believes is good for people. In his book “Safer Sexy: The Guide to Gay Sex Safely” he writes approvingly of sadomasochism, bondage, infidelity, orgies and public cruising for sex.

On 12 April 1998 Mr. Tatchell was prosecuted for leading an OutRage! protest which disrupted the Easter sermon by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, with Mr. Tatchell forcing his way onto the pulpit to denounce what he claimed was George Carey’s opposition to legal equality for homosexuals.

Andrea Minichiello Williams of Christian Concern for our Nation said: "We wholeheartedly support the statements of Lisa Nolland and the brave stand that Anglican Mainstream has taken. We are living in a time when the church at large has been deeply compromised by a failure to stand for the truth of the gospel and has allowed itself to be strongly influenced by current fashionable political trends."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Christian Nursing Student Nearly Dies from Assault in Pakistan


She charges Muslim doctors threw her from hospital window after gang-rape.

KARACHI, Pakistan, July 26 (CDN) — A Catholic nurse trainee has regained consciousness after a Muslim doctor allegedly raped her and threw her from a hospital’s fourth-floor window this month.

The student nurse told media and rights groups that on July 13 several Muslim men, led by Dr. Abdul Jabbar Meammon, beat and raped her, and then threw her from the window of Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center (JPMC) to keep her from revealing the abuse.

Meammon, who had taken over a room in the all-female wing of the hospital, has a history of abusing Christian nurses, a hospital administrator said. Dr. Seemi Jamali, chief of JPMC’s Emergency Department, told Compass that Meammon had been suspended from the hospital seven times for drinking alcohol on the job and other misbehavior, and that he was drunk when he assaulted Ashraf.

A medico-legal officer at the hospital who carried out autopsies, Meammon was forcibly occupying a room in the women-only wing of the doctors’ hostel, Jamali said. She added that Meammon is an influential figure backed by a leading political party in Karachi.

The third-year student nurse, Magdalene Ashraf, was unconscious for 56 hours as surgeons fought for her life at the intensive care unit of JPMC and is still in critical condition. On July 19 she gave a statement to police that has not been released. Later that day she spoke to media and a lawyer from the Christian Lawyers’ Foundation (CLF), saying several men took hold of her at 4:30 p.m. on July 13, and after abusing her for several hours threw her from the window.

Ashraf said that fellow nurse Sajjad Fatima tricked her into going into Meammon’s room by telling Ashraf that he wanted to talk with her about a grade on a class assignment. When she arrived, she told media and the CLF, another doctor and Meammon’s driver were also present, and that Meammon grabbed her.

“When I resisted and tried to escape, nurse Fatima slapped both my cheeks and pushed me into Dr. Jabbar,” Ashraf said. “I cried out but no one arrived there to rescue me. They not only gang-raped me, they also tortured me physically and ruthlessly beat me.”

She dismissed claims by Meammon that she jumped out the window.

“If I had jumped myself, my legs would have been fractured, and I would not have had injuries to my head, brain and shoulders,” she said.

Khalid Gill, head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance in Punjab Province, told Compass that Meammon had a history of sexually harassing female Christian students at the teaching hospital.

Gill and the Rev. Azher Kaleem, general secretary of the Christian Lawyers’ Foundation (CLF), said that after Ashraf was thrown out the window, Meammon also jumped down in order to portray himself as innocent, claiming people trying to harm him were pursuing him as well. His hip injury from the jump was treated at the better-equipped Agha Khan Hospital, where he was hand-cuffed and his feet shackled before being transferred to a holding cell to face charges.

The Rev. Khadim Bhutto of advocacy organization Gawahi Mission Trust told Compass that he had the opportunity to speak with Meammon. According to Bhutto, Meammon said that he was relaxing in his room when Magdalene ran in followed by five unidentified men, from whom both of them eventually fled.

Bhutto said that Meammon was grinning about the incident as he told his version, seemingly pleased with what he had done.

The pastor said police have only charged Meammon and his accomplices with attempted murder, but that Christian organizations are urging police to file gang-rape charges. He added that police have also arrested Dr. Ferhat Abbas and another doctor identified only as Tayyab and are holding them at an undisclosed location.

A preliminary medical examination indicated that Ashraf was raped and tortured, said Natasha Riaz, a fourth-year nursing student.

“The swabs taken from her have confirmed that she was raped, and apart from Dr. Meammon, five other men were also involved,” Riaz said.

One of Ashraf’s family members told Compass that they have continued to receive threats from Meammon; the relative also said that Ashraf had complained of being harassed by him.

Dr. Donald Mall, an administrator with Seventh Day Adventist Hospital, told Compass after visiting the victim that there “are hundreds of rape cases of Christian nurses by doctors which go unreported in Pakistan,” and that the Sindh Province Health Department has ignored them.

Police sources told Compass that they are searching for Fatima, the nurse who is an alleged accomplice of the alleged rapists, and Meammon’s driver, identified only as Arshad, both still at large. Police said that when they arrived at the hospital, administrators stalled them long enough for Fatima to escape.

Since the assault, Christians have staged several demonstrations against religiously motivated violence such as the alleged assault on Ashraf and the July 19 murder of the Rev. Rashid Emmanuel and his brother Sajid Emmanuel, who were accused under Pakistan’s “blasphemy” laws. The latest demonstrations took place in Karachi on Saturday (July 24), and in Sargodha and Lahore the next day.

Report from Compass Direct News

Vietnam’s Temporary Release of Priest Goes against Trend


Government granting leave to Father Ly is said to be tightening control overall.

DUBLIN, March 30 (CDN) — Vietnamese officials have in recent months tightened control over those they regard as dissidents, and the temporary release of Catholic priest Thadeus Nguyen van Ly on March 15 was a rare exception, according to Amnesty International (AI).

Officials on March 15 released Ly, now 63, from prison for one year so that he could receive medical treatment.

An outspoken advocate for religious freedom, Ly was sentenced to eight years in prison in March 2007 for “spreading propaganda” against the state. He had previously received 10- and 15-year sentences on similar charges.

“The release of Father Ly appears to be a one-off, related to his health,” Brittis Edman, Asia researcher for AI, told Compass by phone.

Human rights lawyer Le Thi Cong Nhan was released on March 6 after serving a three years in prison.  Officials have sentenced 16 other “perceived dissidents” since last September.

“Those 16 are people whose names are in the public domain,” Edman added. “There are probably others we’re not aware of.”

Edman confirmed that Ly was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, although few details are available on the prognosis or the availability of treatment. Fellow priests told the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) that Ly had suffered three strokes in May, September and November of last year, partially paralyzing his right arm and leg and making it difficult for him to walk, write or feed himself.

Following urgent requests from diocesan priests and family members, officials on March 14 granted Ly one year’s reprieve from his jail sentence. On March 15 they transported him by ambulance from Ba Sao prison camp in northern Ha Nam province to a home for retired priests in Hue, central Vietnam.

Under pressure from international advocacy groups including AI, the government may have granted Ly’s release to ward off potential embarrassment should he die in prison, Edman said.

“He’s a very public figure, and the Vietnamese government is not comfortable with being criticized.”

Religious Rights Campaigner

Ly was first jailed for one year in 1977 when he distributed a Church statement decrying the arrest of Buddhist monks and the treatment of Catholics in Vietnam, according to an AI report.

This was followed in December 1983 by a 10-year sentence served from the time of his arrest in May 1983 until his early release in July 1992. Prior to his arrest, Ly wrote a seven-point document urging officials to cease harassing Christians and announced that he was willing to be martyred for his faith.

In November 1994 Ly issued a “Ten Point Statement on the State of the Catholic Church in the Hue Diocese,” criticizing the lack of adequate training for would-be priests, the state’s interference in church teachings and its appropriation of church property.

He also became an advisory board member of the U.S.-based Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam (CRFV), according to AI.

In 1999, authorities objected when Ly coordinated relief projects for flood victims in partnership with CRFV. In November 2000, while U.S. President Bill Clinton and a CRFV delegation were in Vietnam, Ly reissued his ten-point statement and later made further appeals for religious freedom.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in February 2001 invited Ly to address a hearing on Vietnam. Though unable to attend, Ly submitted written testimony stating that the Vietnamese government had “stripped all churches of their independence and freedom” and urging that the U.S. Congress not ratify a long-negotiated U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement.

State-owned media then accused Ly of inviting “foreign hostile forces to intervene in Vietnam’s internal affairs” and inciting Catholic followers against the state.

Officials in May 2001 seized Ly during a church service and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for allegedly spreading anti-government propaganda. He was released under house arrest in February 2005 but arrested again in February 2007 and sentenced to eight years for organizing a pro-democracy event.

When the government released over 5,000 prisoners to mark Vietnam’s National Day last Sept. 2, Ly was omitted from the list despite vigorous international campaigns for his release. In a state media report quoted by UCAN, Vice Minister of Public Security Le The Tiem declared that the priest was “still in good enough health to serve his sentence.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christians Face 1,000 Attacks in 500 Days in Karnataka, India


Investigation concludes Hindu nationalist state government is responsible.

NEW DELHI, March 22 (CDN) — Christians in Karnataka state are under an unprecedented wave of Christian persecution, having faced more than 1,000 attacks in 500 days, according to an independent investigation by a former judge of the Karnataka High Court.

The spate began on Sept. 14, 2008, when at least 12 churches were attacked in one day in Karnataka’s Mangalore city, in Dakshina Kannada district, said Justice Michael Saldanha, former judge of the Karnataka High Court.

“On Jan. 26 – the day we celebrated India’s Republic Day – Karnataka’s 1,000th attack took place in Mysore city,” Saldanha told Compass, saying the figure was based on reports from faith-based organizations.

Saldanha conducted the People’s Tribunal Enquiry into the attacks on Christians in Karnataka on behalf of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties’ Dakshina Kannada district chapter, the Catholic Association of South Kanara (another name for Dakshina Kannada) and the Karnataka Chapter of Transparency International.

“Attacks are taking place every day,” said Saldanha, chairperson of the Karnataka Chapter of Transparency International.

The latest attack took place on Wednesday (March 17), when a mob of around 150 people led by the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal, stormed the funeral of a 50-year-old Christian identified only as Isaac, reported the Karnataka-based Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).

As Pastor Sunder Raj of St. Thomas Church in Gijahalli, near Arsikere in Hassan district, was about to begin the funeral service, the mob pulled the coffin apart and desecrated the cross the relatives of the deceased were carrying. They threw the body into a tractor and dumped it outside, saying his burial would have contaminated Indian soil and his body should be buried in Rome or the United States, added the GCIC.

With police intervention, the funeral took place later the same day.

Blaming the state government for the attacks, Saldanha said the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had “outdone Orissa.”

Karnataka Home Minister V.S. Acharya denied the results of the inquiry.

“The allegation of Karnataka having faced 1,000 attacks is absolutely false,” Acharya told Compass. “There is liberty in the state. Sections of the media are trying to hype it, and such claims are politically motivated. Karnataka is the most peaceful state in India, and the people are law-abiding.”

The wave of persecution in Karnataka began as fallout of the anti-Christian mayhem in eastern Orissa state, where Maoists killed a VHP leader on Aug. 23, 2008, with Hindu extremists wrongly accusing Christians. The attacks in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, the epicenter of the bloodbath, killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

Violent attacks have stopped in Orissa, but Karnataka continues to burn.

In addition to the attacks, numerous Christians also have faced false charges of fraudulent or forced conversions throughout Karnataka.

“I have been to many police stations where complaints of [forced] conversions have been lodged against Christians, and when I asked the police why they were acting on frivolous complaints, most of them told me that they had orders from above,” he said.

In his report, he notes that Christians “are dragged to the police station under false allegations, immediately locked up, beaten up and denied bail by the lower judiciary, which functions as the loyal partner of the police department and refuses bail on the grounds that ‘the police have objected.’”

The report says 468 Christian workers in rural areas had been targeted with such actions since September 2008.

“Numerous others have been threatened and beaten up,” the report states. “The police are totally out of control, with the lower judiciary having abdicated its constitutional obligation of safeguarding the citizens’ rights particularly from a tyrannical state machinery, while the state government proclaims that everything is peaceful.”

Chief Minister Bookanakere Siddalingappa Yeddyurappa and Home Minister Acharya are from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (Hindu nationalist conglomerate or the RSS), believed to be the parent organization of the BJP, Saldanha pointed out.

He also said that although the attacks on Christians had turned public sentiment against the BJP in Karnataka, the party seemed to care little as both opposition parties, the Congress Party and the regional Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) party, were “in shambles” in the state.

In May 2009 the BJP lost general (national) elections, and since then sections of the party are in desperation, he said, adding, “Perhaps this is one of the reasons why attacks continue to happen in Karnataka.”

Saldanha said the state government was controlling media coverage of the attacks by “monetary appeasement.”

“The citizens are told that the situation is happy and under control, principally because the greater part of the media is being fed or appeased with massive publicity advertisements which have cost the state exchequer over 400 million rupees [US$8.8 million], most of the money clandestinely billed to the various Government Corporations and Public bodies,” Saldanha states in the introduction to his yet unpublished report.

The BJP came to sole power in Karnataka in May 2008. Prior to that, it ruled in alliance with the JD-S party for 20 months.

There are a little more than 1 million Christians in Karnataka, where the total population is over 52 million.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Anti-Christian Sentiment Marks Journey for Bhutan’s Exiles


Forced from Buddhist homeland, dangers arise in Hindu-majority Nepal.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, February 23 (CDN) — Thrust from their homes in Bhutan after Buddhist rulers embarked on an ethnic and religious purge, Christian refugees in Nepal face hostilities from Hindus and others.

In Sunsari district in southeastern Nepal, a country that is more than 80 percent Hindu, residents from the uneducated segments of society are especially apt to attack Christians, said Purna Kumal, district coordinator for Awana Clubs International, which runs 41 clubs in refugee camps to educate girls about the Bible.

“In Itahari, Christians face serious trouble during burials,” Kumal told Compass. “Last month, a burial party was attacked by locals who dug up the grave and desecrated it.”

Earlier this month, he added, a family in the area expelled one of its members from their home because he became a Christian.

Bhutan began expelling almost one-eighth of its citizens for being of Nepali origin or practicing faiths other than Buddhism in the 1980s. The purge lasted into the 1990s.

“Christians, like Hindus and others, were told to leave either their faith or the country,” said Gopi Chandra Silwal, who pastors a tiny church for Bhutanese refugees in a refugee camp in Sanischare, a small village in eastern Nepal’s Morang district. “Many chose to leave their homeland.”

Persecution in Bhutan led to the spread of Christianity in refugee camps in Nepal. Though exact figures are not available, refugee Simon Gazmer estimates there are about 7,000-8,000 Christians in the camps – out of a total refugee population of about 85,000 – with many others having left for other countries. There are 18 churches of various faiths in the camps, he said.

“Faith-healing was an important factor in the spread of Christianity in the camps,” said Gazmer, who belongs to Believers’ Church and is awaiting his turn to follow five members of his family to Queensland, Australia. “A second reason is the high density in the camps.”

Each refugee family lives in a single-room hut, with one outdoor toilet for every two families. The Nepalese government forbids them to work for fear it will create unemployment for local residents.

Life was even harder for them before 2006, when Nepal was a Hindu kingdom where conversions were a punishable offence.

“When I began preaching in 2000, I had to do it secretly,” said Pastor Silwal of Morang district. “We could meet only surreptitiously in small groups. I used my hut as a make-shift church while many other groups were forced to rent out rooms outside the camp.”

A fact-finding mission in 2004 by Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers found that police pulled down a church structure built by Pentecostal Christians in the Beldangi camp by orders of Nepal’s home ministry. The rights group also reported that Hindu refugees ostracized the Christians, who had proceeded to rent a room outside the camp to meet three times a week for worship services and Bible study.

When the Jesus Loves Gospel Ministries (JLGM) organization sent officials from India to the Pathri camp in Morang in 2006, they found that local residents resentful of the refugees had taken note of a baptism service at a pond in a nearby jungle.

“In August, we were planning another baptism program,” JLGM director Robert Singh reported. “But the villagers put deadly poisonous chemicals in the water … Some of the young people went to take a bath ahead of our next baptism program. They found some fish floating on the water and, being very hungry – the refugees only get a very small ration, barely enough to survive on – they took some of the fish and ate them. Three of them died instantly.”

Singh also stated that poisoned sweets were left on the premises of the refugee school in the camp. They were discovered in time to avert another tragedy.

Life for Christian refugees improved after Nepal saw a pro-democracy movement in 2006 that caused the army-backed government of Hindu king Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah to collapse. The king was forced to reinstate parliament, and lawmakers sought to curb his powers by declaring Nepal a secular state.

Though Christian refugees are now allowed to run churches openly in the camps, ill will toward them has yet to end. When Pastor Silwal asked camp authorities to allow him to open a church in 2006, Hindu neighbors protested, saying it would cause disturbances. Camp authorities allowed him to open a tiny church in a separate room on the condition that its activities would not disturb neighbors.

Earlier in his life in Bhutan, said the 40-year-old Pastor Silwal, he had been a stern Hindu who rebuked his two sisters mercilessly for becoming Christians. He forbade them to visit their church, which gathered in secret due to the ban on non-Buddhist religions in place at the time. They were also forbidden to bring the Bible inside their house in Geylegphug, a district in southern Bhutan close to the Indian border.

“I became a believer in 1988 after a near-death experience,” Pastor Silwal told Compass. “I contracted malaria and was on the verge of death since no one could diagnose it. All the priests and shamans consulted by my Hindu family failed to cure me. One day, when I thought I was going to die I had a vision.”

The pastor said he saw a white-robed figure holding a Bible in one hand and beckoning to him with the other. “Have faith in me,” the figure told him. “I will cure you.”

When he woke from his trance, Silwal asked his sisters to fetch him a copy of the Bible. They were alarmed at first, thinking he was going to beat them. But at his insistence, they nervously fetched the book from the thatched roof of the cow shed where they had kept it hidden. Pastor Silwal said he tried to read the Bible but was blinded by his fever and lost consciousness.

When he awoke, to his amazement and joy, the fever that had racked him for nearly five months was gone.

Pastor Silwal lost his home in 1990 to the ethnic and religious purge that forced him to flee along with thousands of others. It wasn’t until 1998, he said, that he and his family formally converted to Christianity after seven years of grueling hardship in the refugee camp, where he saw “people dying like flies due to illness, lack of food and the cold.”

“My little son too fell ill and I thought he would die,” Silwal said. “But he was cured; we decided to embrace Christianity formally.”

Homeless

In 2001, Bhutan4Christ reported the number of Bhutanese Christians to be around 19,000, with the bulk of them – more than 10,500 – living in Nepal.

When persecution by the Bhutanese government began, frightened families raced towards towns in India across the border. Alarmed by the influx of Bhutanese refugees, Indian security forces packed them into trucks and dumped them in southern Nepal.

Later, when the homesick refugees tried to return home, Indian security forces blocked the way. There were several rounds of scuffles, resulting in police killing at least three refugees.

Simon Gazmer was seven when his family landed at the bank of the Mai river in Jhapa district in southeastern Nepal. Now 24, he still remembers the desolation that reigned in the barren land, where mists and chilly winds rose from the river, affecting the morale and health of the refugees. They lived in bamboo shacks with thin plastic sheets serving as roofs; they had little food or medicine.

“My uncle Padam Bahadur had tuberculosis, and we thought he would die,” said Gazmer, who lives in Beldangi II, the largest of seven refugee camps. “His recovery made us realize the grace of God, and our family became Christians.”

The plight of the refugees improved after the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stepped in, receiving permission from the government of Nepal to run the refugee camps. According to the UNHCR, there were 111,631 registered refugees in seven camps run in the two districts of Jhapa and Morang.

Though Nepal held 15 rounds of bilateral talks with Bhutan for the repatriation of the refugees, the Buddhist government dragged its feet, eventually breaking off talks. Meantime, international donors assisting the refugee camps began to grow weary, resulting in the slashing of aid and food. Finally, seven western governments – Canada, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the Netherlands – persuaded Nepal to allow the refugees to resettle in third countries.

The exodus of the refugees started in 2007. Today, according to the UNHCR, more than 26,000 have left for other countries, mostly the United States. A substantial number of the nearly 85,000 people left in the camps are ready to follow suit.

Although they now have a new life to look forward to, many of Bhutan’s Christian refugees are saddened by the knowledge that their homeland still remains barred to them. So some are looking at the next best thing: a return to Nepal, now that it is secular, where they will feel more at home than in the West.

“I don’t have grand dreams,” said Pastor Silwal. “In Australia I want to enroll in a Bible college and become a qualified preacher. Then I want to return to Nepal to spread the word of God.”  

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christians Most Hit by Religious Freedom Violations


Mob succeeds in getting local official to shut down HKBP church in West Java.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, January 21 (CDN) — A moderate Muslim research institute focusing on interfaith issues in Indonesia reported 35 cases of government violations of religious freedom – including 28 against Christians – and 93 instances of community intolerance of churches in 2009.

The Wahid Institute issued a year-end report of violations that included the revocation of the building permit for the HKBP Cinere Church – later overturned in court – opposition to a Catholic Church in Purwakarta and an order forbidding worship by the Filadelfia Huria Kristen Batak Protestan Church (HKBP) in Bekasi, West Java.

The highest number of violations occurred in West Java, with 10 cases, including seven against Christians; next was East Java with eight, including four against Christians, followed by Jakarta Province with four (three against Christians). In Central Java, two of three religious violation cases were against Christians, and in West Nusa Tenggara, one of the three violations violated Christians’ rights.

Government infractions included closing churches and failing to intervene in mob actions. Police were cited in 18 cases, provincial governments in eight, village and sub-district governments in six cases each and courts in two incidents.

Just as government violations were highest in West Java, community intolerance there was also highest with 32 cases, of which 14 were against Christians. Next was Jakarta, where eight of 15 cases of community intolerance were against Christians, then East Java where six of 14 cases hurt Christians. In Central Java, Christians were the victims in five of the 13 cases of community intolerance.

In West Java, the root problem is the spread of hatred against religious groups, including Christians and Jews, according to the report.

While the reported violations of religious freedom were lower than in 2008, the issue of religious intolerance continued to grow during 2009, aided by legislative and presidential elections as religion is often used to gain votes in Indonesian elections, according to the study. The overall figure of 128 cases of violations of religious freedom by government or society in 2009 represents a drop from the 2008 figure of 234 cases, according to the Wahid Institute.

Yenny Zanuba Wahid, director of the institute, told Compass that the government has not considered freedom of religion an important issue that needed attention. As a result, the government has not addressed reports of intolerance even in the face of international pressure.

“The government has been timid to acknowledge violations of religious freedom, but these are real and are carried out directly by government bodies or indirectly as a result [of government] policies,” Wahid said.

Muslims make up 88.2 percent of Indonesia’s population of about 240 million people, with Protestant Christians making up 5.9 percent, Catholics 3.1 percent, Hindus 0.8 percent, Buddhists 0.2 percent, and other religions 0.2 percent.

Church Closure

In West Java, mob efforts to shut down the Filadelfia Huria Kristen Batak Protestan Church (HKBP) in Bekasi succeeded on Dec. 31 when the district officer issued a decree ordering a stop to all worship activities at the site of the church building under construction.

The decree ordered that the construction of the building stop, and that the structure not be used for worship until the building permit process was final. The district officer based his recommendation upon a 1990 rule regarding building permits in Bekasi.

Tigor Tambubolon, head of the church building committee, acknowledged that the building permit had not been formally granted even though the process had been under way since 2000.

“We already have the permission of the Jejalen citizens,” Tambubolon told Compass. “That’s why we were brave enough to hold Christmas Eve services.”

Last Christmas Eve hundreds of protestors demanding a halt to worship demonstrated against services at the site, where 279 Christians had gathered.

A New Year’s service scheduled to take place at the site moved to the office of the village head due to fears that protestors would become unruly. Police Chief Herry Wibowo said his officers guarded the church site at that time.

The Rev. Palti Panjaitan of Filadelfia HKBP told Compass that the church had been worshipping in the area since 2000 by meeting at various members’ homes. As the congregation grew, they rented a building combining a home and store in Vila Bekasi 2 Tambun.

“The local citizens demonstrated against our worship services,” said Panjaitan. “From there we moved to a member’s home in Jejalan village. We profited because the Jejalan citizens were very good.”

Eventually the church bought a piece of land there. A number of the community leaders and the village head gave their agreement to build the Filadelfia HKBP church there.

The Interfaith Harmony Forum of Bekasi district gave approval for the building with the stipulation that the church obey a joint ministerial decree revised in 2006 regarding construction of houses of worship. The building committee obtained signatures of 259 non-Christians endorsing the project, though the joint decree required only 60 signatures. Then the building committee wrote a formal request for a building permit.

Church elder Tambubolon, however, added that a sub-district officer collected signatures from citizens opposed to the construction of a house of worship in Jejalan. The total number of signatures is unknown, but the sub-district office sent a letter to the district officer rejecting the building permit.

Nevertheless, Tambubolon said, the church is not considering a lawsuit over the district officer’s decree.

“We are going to continue worshipping, because it is the right of every citizen,” he said. “If we are forbidden to worship even in the village office, we will continue to do so.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Geneva celebrates John Calvin’s 500th birthday


About 500 worshipers yesterday attended the opening convocations for Calvin 500, the international Quincentenary celebration of the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth (July 10, 1509), at St. Pierre Cathedral in the old town of Geneva, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

Beginning with a welcome by Mr. Guillaume Taylor from the St. Pierre Parish Council, the opening convocations, featured morning worship from Calvin’s time and a sermon on Philippians 3:8-12 by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

The evening services featured Ugandan Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi, much psalm singing, and a sermon by Dr. Bryan Chapell, President of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.

“Calvin is one of the most important thinkers in history,” said Calvin500 Executive Director Rev. David Hall, who also is pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church in America located in Powder Springs, GA, according to a media release.

“His ministry and writings left an indelible impression on the modern world, and especially Western culture. It would be hard to find a figure from history more worthy of remembering, if lasting impact for good is the standard,” said Hall.

“St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Geneva as unusually full for a morning worship service on July 5th, but admittedly a congregation that includes at least one archbishop, six seminary professors, twenty-four seminary professors, approximately 100 Reformed pastors from around the world and the author of over 300 books on Calvinist themes do not make up an ordinary congregation,’” said one attendee on a blog at the celebration website.

The writer stated: “As Dr. Ferguson noted, ‘Calvin would be surprised to see us here, and I am not sure he would have approved,’ however hopefully he would approved of the text.”

Another writer commented: “The evening was brought to a close with a truly wonderful exposition of Ephesians 1:3-6 by Bryan Chapell, a sermon which he called ‘In praise of predestination.’ With some memorable illustrations from Calvin and elsewhere, he carefully took us through the text urging us to see Paul’s commitment in showing us more of God’s Fatherhood than his sovereignty. God, he told us, is shouting: ‘I’ve been in love with you longer than the stars have been in sky or the fish have been in the sea.’”

Throughout the coming week, scholars and ministers will present lectures and sermons in these historic environs to celebrate the contributions of the Genevan reformer. The public is invited.

Report from the Christian Telegraph