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

Muslims in Bangladesh Beat, Deprive Christians of Work


Refusing to recant Christianity, victims are attacked on rumors of disrespecting Islam.

LOS ANGELES, November 2 (CDN) — Muslim villagers last month beat a 63-year-old Christian convert and his youngest son because they refused to return to Islam, the father told Compass.

The next day, another Christian in a nearby village was beaten and robbed in related violence in southwestern Bangladesh.

Aynal Haque, 63, a volunteer for Christian organization Way of Life Trust, told Compass that his brothers and relatives along with Muslim villagers beat him and his son, 22-year-old Lal Miah, on Oct. 9 when they refused to recant Christianity. The family lives at Sadhu Hati Panta Para village in Jhenaidah district, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) southwest of the capital city, Dhaka. It is in the jurisdiction of Sadar police station.

Haque’s relatives and villagers said that he had become Christian by eating pork and by disrespecting the Quran, he said.

“I embraced Christianity by my own will and understanding, but I have due respect for other religions,” Haque said. “How can I be a righteous man by disrespecting other religions? Whatever rumors the villagers are spreading are false.”

At a meeting to which Haque was summoned on Oct. 9, about 500 men and women from several villages gathered, including local and Maoist party leaders.

“They tried to force me and my son to admit that we had eaten pork and trampled on the Quran to become Christian,” Haque said. “They tried to force us to be apologetic for our blunder of accepting Christianity and also tried to compel us to go back to Islam. I told them, ‘While there is breath left in our bodies, we will not reject Christianity.’

“When we denied their allegation and demand, they beat us severely. They ordered us not to mix with other Muslim villagers. They confined us in our house for five days.”

Haque has worked on his neighbors’ land for survival to supplement the meager income he earns selling seeds in local markets, but the villagers have now refused to give him work, he said.

“Every day I earn around 50 taka to 100 taka [70 cents to US$1.40] from the seed business,” he said. “Some days I cannot earn any money. So, I need to work villagers’ land for extra money to maintain my family.”

His youngest son also worked in neighbors’ fields as a day-laborer, besides attending school.

“We cannot live if we do not get farming work on other people’s land,” Haque said.

Haque, his wife and youngest son received Christ three years ago, and since then they have faced harassment and threats from Muslim neighbors. His other grown son and two daughters, as well as a son-in-law, also follow Christ but have yet to be baptized. There are around 25 people in his village who came to Christ under Haque’s influence; most of them remain low-profile to avoid harassment from the villagers, he said.

The weekly worship service in Haque’s shanty house has been hampered as some have been too fearful to attend, and the 25 members of the church fear the consequences of continuing to meet, Haque said.

Officials of Way of Life Trust tried to visit the area to investigate the beating of Haque and his son but were unable due to security risks, said Jatish Biswas, the organization’s executive director. They informed the district police chief, who instantly sent forces to provide safety for the Christians, Biswas said.

Villagers thought that if they were able to get Haque to renounce Christianity, then the other Christians would quickly return to Islam, according to Biswas.

 

Reverberation

Hearing of the incident in Sadhu Hati Panta Para the next day (Oct. 10), Muslims in Kola village about five kilometers (nearly three miles) away beat a Christian friend of Haque’s and robbed his seed shop.

Tokkel Ali, 40, an evangelist in one of the house churches that Way of Life Trust has established, told Compass that around 20 people arrived at his shop at about 11 a.m. and told him to go with them to Haque’s house.

“The presence of so many people, most of whom I did not know, and the way they were talking, seemed ominous to me, and I refused to go with them,” Ali said. “I said, ‘If he wants me to go to his house, he could call me on my mobile.’”

One person in the crowd pointed toward Ali, saying that he was a Christian and had made otherwise innocent people Christians by them feeding pork and letting them disrespect the Quran, said Ali. Islam strictly prohibits eating pork.

“That rumor spread like wildfire among other Muslims,” Ali said. “All of a sudden, a huge crowd overran me and started beating me, throwing my seeds here and there.”

Ali said he lost consciousness, and someone took him to a nearby three-storey house. When he came to, he scrambled back to his shop to find his seeds scattered, and 24,580 taka (US$342) for buying seed had been stolen, along with his bicycle.

Accustomed to earning just enough each day to survive, Ali said it would be impossible for him to recover and rebuild his business. He had received loans of 20,000 taka (US$278) from Grameen Bank (Nobel Peach Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus’ micro-finance entity), 15,000 taka (US$209) from the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee and 11,000 taka (US$153) from Way of Life Trust to establish the business. Ali ran a similar seed business in Dakbangla market in Kola village.

“How can I pay back a weekly installment of 1,150 taka [US$160] to the micro-credit lending NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations]?” he said. “I have already become delinquent in paying back some installments after the looting of my money and shop. I’ve ended up in deep debt, which has become a noose around my neck.”

Ali said he has not dared filed any charges.

“If I file any case or complain against them, they will kill me, as this area is very dangerous because of the Maoists,” he said, referring to a banned group of armed rebels with whom the villagers have links. “Even the local administration and the law enforcement agencies are afraid of them.”

Ali has planted 25 house churches under Way of Life Trust serving 144 people in weekly worship. Baptized in 2007, he has been following Christ for more than 10 years.

“Whenever I go to bazaar, people fling insults at me about that beating,” he said. “Everyone says that nothing would have happened if I had not accepted Christianity, an abhorrent religion to them. People also say that I should hang myself with a rope for renouncing Islam.”

Since the beating, he has become an alien in his own village, he said.

“Whatever insinuation and rumors they spout against me and other believers, there is no language to squash it,” he said. “I have to remain tight-lipped, otherwise they will kill me.”

He can no longer cross the land of one of his neighbors in order to bathe in a nearby river, he said.

“After that incident, my neighbor warned me not to go through his land,” he said. “Now I take a bath in my home from an old and dysfunctional tube-well. My neighbors say, ‘Christians are the enemy of Muslims, so don’t go through my land.’ It seems that I am nobody in this village.”

Biswas of Way of Life Trust told Compass that Christians in remote villages lack the freedoms guaranteed in the Bangladeshi constitution to practice their faith without any interference.

“Where is religious liberty for Haque and Ali?” Biswas said. “Like them, many Christians in remote villages are in the throes of persecution, though our constitution enshrined full liberty for religious minorities.”

Way of Life Trust has aided in the establishment of some 500 house churches in Bangladesh, which is nearly 90 percent Muslim. Hinduism is the second largest religion at 9.2 percent of the 153.5 million people, and Buddhists and Christians make up less than 1 percent of the population.

Report from Compass Direct News

Blind Chinese human rights defender still under house arrest


ChinaAid (www.chinaaid.org ) reports that after blind human rights defender Chen Guangcheng was recently interviewed by a Chinese radio reporter, media lost direct contact with him and his wife, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

However, says ChinaAid, one of their friends, Zeng Jinyan, mentioned in her blog that she had contacted Chen and his wife on September 23. Since that date, there has been no word from them.

Radio Free Asia reporter Zhang Min interviewed Chen on September 13 and provided the information to ChinaAid.

Since then, ChinaAid reports, family friend Zeng Jinyan wrote in her blog, “Chen Guangcheng’s mother-in-law recently visited Chen in his home. When she arrived, she was physically searched by government-paid guards keeping Chen’s family under house arrest. A few days before, on the September 20, the local communist leader of the town invaded Chen’s home with at least 4 policemen and over 20 guards. They stayed there for six hours.”

ChinaAid says the guards on watch currently have free rein of Chen’s house, intruding any time they wish. Not only have they invaded the family’s privacy — they also threatened them, saying, “Don’t you really know who holds your little life in their hands?”

ChinaAid went on to add that the local government forced Chen to cut off all external communications. The guards do not allow Chen or his wife out of their house. The family relies on Chen’s 78-year-old mother, the only one who is allowed to go out, to buy their food. The guards have even forbidden Chen’s 5-year-old daughter from going to school.

ChianAid explained that Chen Guangcheng and Gao Zhisheng, both Christian human rights defenders who continue to suffer for their work, were nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

The award was made on October 8, 2010, to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was honored for "Struggle for Fundamental Human Rights." He was given the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for "his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights" — a prize that enraged the Chinese government, which had warned the Nobel committee not to honor him. China officially denounced the award as "Blasphemy."

In a year with a record 237 nominations for the peace prize, Liu had been considered a favorite, with open support from winners Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and others.

In the case of Guangcheng, ChinaAid "insists that the local authorities cease their invasive control of Chen and his family," and asks concerned Christians to join them in praying for their freedom and safety.

ChinaAid had also prayed the Nobel Peace Prize would be awarded to Chen Guangcheng or Gao Zhisheng, who have both suffered under the hands of Chinese authorities.

ChianAid had earlier said: "Such an award would be an incredible encouragement and source of hope to every human rights lawyer in China."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Chinese religious freedom activist awarded Nobel Peace Prize


A Chinese human rights dissident and democracy advocate was awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, reports Peter J. Smith, LifeSiteNews.com.

Liu Xiaobo is the architect of a pro-democracy and human rights manifesto called Charter 08, which called for basic freedoms such as freedom of religion, assembly, protection of private property, and the guarantee of rights outlined under the U.N.’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights.

Authorities arrested Liu two days before the Charter’s December 8, 2008 release and charged him with "inciting the subversion of state power." After declaring him guilty, a Chinese court sentenced Liu on Christmas Day 2009 to 11 years in prison.

The Nobel committee in particular cited Liu’s pacifism in challenging communist China’s human rights abuses and calling for democratic reforms.

Liu was nominated in part by eight U.S. lawmakers who praised his work and suffering for human rights in China.

On behalf of himself and seven other U.S. Congressman, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) recommended that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee recognize not only Liu, but jointly award the prize to two other human rights activists, Chen Guangcheng and Gao Zhisheng, who have been persecuted specifically for fighting China’s brutal policy of forced abortion and sterilizations under the “one-child” policy.

Chen is a blind self-taught lawyer, who took the burden upon himself to defend local Chinese peasant women from forced sterilization and their children from forced abortion by local government authorities.

Gao, a Beijing attorney committed to defending human rights in China, was one of Chen’s lawyers. On February 4, 2009, Gao went missing under suspicious circumstances.

Geng He, Gao’s wife, told the Associated Press that she has not spoken to her husband since April and fears for his safety.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has blasted the Nobel committee’s selection of Liu, calling the award a “blasphemy” and Liu a “criminal.”

"The Nobel Peace Prize is meant to award individuals who promote international harmony and friendship, peace and disarmament. Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law,” the ministry said on its website. “Awarding the peace to Liu runs completely counter to the principle of the award and is also a blasphemy to the Peace Prize."

The AP reports that news of Liu’s Nobel award has been blacked out in China. It added that Liu Xia, his wife, is guarded in her Beijing apartment by police, who have forbidden her from meeting with reporters.

Liu’s wife, who is able to communicate by telephone and electronic media, told CNN that she intends to visit him in prison soon to inform him of the prize, and encourage him. She hopes to be able to visit Norway to collect the award on his behalf.

Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient was President Barack Obama, who was nominated shortly after his presidential inauguration. Obama praised Liu for his sacrifice in a statement and called upon Chinese authorities to release him from prison.

“By granting the prize to Mr. Liu, the Nobel Committee has chosen someone who has been an eloquent and courageous spokesman for the advance of universal values through peaceful and non-violent means, including his support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law,” said Obama.

Report from the Christian Telegraph