The following link is to an article concerning the banning of church congregations using school buildings for meeting places, even when the buildings are not being used and when the church meeting there has been paying rent for using the building. Leaders of some of these churches have been arrested following protests over the move.
Maher El-Gohary and daughter apply for asylum in France.
ISTANBUL, April 21 (CDN) — A father and daughter who fled Egypt to Syria after spending two and a half years in hiding for becoming Christians have arrived in France and yesterday applied for asylum there, human rights advocates said.
Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, 58, had become the target of Islamic ill will in Egypt after he tried to change the religious affiliation on his national identification card from Muslim to Christian. He and his daughter, 17-year-old Dina Mo’otahssem, arrived in Paris from Syria on March 30 after having fled to Damascus on Feb. 22 in the wake of the revolution in Egypt that deposed then-President Hosni Mubarak.
The Jan. 25-Feb. 11 protests in Egypt also weakened the Ministry of the Interior, an agency that had harassed El-Gohary and prevented him from leaving the country.
El-Gohary had fled to Syria because it was both the fastest and the easiest way to get out of Egypt, but he said he also feared Islamic opposition to converts in Syria and growing political unrest in Damascus.
“When we got to the French embassy in Syria, we were so scared because of what was happening in Syria at the time,” he said.
It took him more than a month to secure a visa to leave Syria. Previously in Egypt, he had been able to leave because he had received a court decision ordering the Ministry of the Interior to allow him to leave the country; taking advantage of the confusion gripping Egyptian government agencies in the wake of the anti-Mubarak protests, he left with his daughter.
Eventually El-Gohary and his daughter hope to gain a visa to the United States and then immigrate.
Despite their newfound safety, El-Gohary and Dina are still shaken by their ordeal. They said they are afraid that a Muslim extremist in France could seek them out and attack them. They also have unresolved medical issues from the physical stress of two years of hiding and from not being able to receive proper medical care during that time.
On Monday (April 18), El-Gohary went to the Embassy of the United States in Paris to apply for U.S. asylum as well. According to a Coptic activist who requested anonymity, the embassy advised El-Gohary that his best option was for his wife, who lives in the United States, to apply for a visa to allow him to enter the country. El-Gohary is also applying for a tourist visa to the United States. Human rights activists have advised El-Gohary to stay in France while he applies for asylum rather than go to the United States on a tourist visa, which may leave him financially exposed and hinder his immigration efforts.
Meantime, El-Gohary’s application for asylum in France qualifies him for an automatic three-month extension on his visa to France, which was set to expire at the end of the month. The extension can be renewed as long as his case is unresolved. It also qualifies him for certain government benefits.
‘Miracle from God’
El-Gohary and his daughter were forced into hiding in August 2008 immediately after he filed his lawsuit to change his ID card’s religious designation. The suit caused uproar in a country where, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 84 percent of Muslims in Egypt believe those who leave Islam should be executed.
El-Gohary filed the suit, he said, because he wanted to spare his daughter the persecution he suffered when he became a Christian in his 20s. In theory, the religion listed on his ID card would be used to determine the religion listed on Dina’s.
In Egypt, it is illegal for adults not to have a national ID card, and it is nearly impossible to survive without one. It is necessary for opening a bank account, renting an apartment and obtaining medical care. Also, being identified as a Muslim in Egypt makes one subject to Islamic civil law, which would have prevented Dina from marrying someone identified as a Christian.
Freedom of religion, including the right to change one’s religion, is guaranteed in Egypt by law. But in practice, while it is easy for Christian converts to Islam to change the religion listed on their ID cards, it is impossible for a Muslim convert to Christianity to do the same.
For the time that El-Gohary and his daughter were on the run, they lived a marginal existence, moving from one safe house to another about once every month. On different occasions, he and Dina were attacked. On one occasion, El-Gohary said, Dina had acid thrown on her. On another, he said someone came at him with a knife.
El-Gohary called his escape from Egypt a “miracle from God,” but when he arrived in Syria he was quickly faced with the reality that he was alone in a country in which he had no support network and felt almost as unsafe as he did in Egypt. Also, his expectation that he would be able to quickly obtain a visa to the United States proved false. Frustrated by what he described as a cold reception at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, he began to look for any country in Europe that would give him an
On advice of the Vatican Embassy in Syria, El-Gohary went to the French Embassy in Damascus, which issued a short-term visa the same day.
“I really appreciate what the French ambassador did for us,” El-Gohary said. “The French saved us.”
El-Gohary was able to get to France with the support of Egyptian Christians and advocacy groups, most notably the United Copts of Great Britain. Dr. Ibrahim Habib, a Copt and the chairman of the group, said his organization arranged accommodation for El-Gohary and Dina with an Egyptian Christian in France. Habib said El-Gohary, motivated by fear, left for France unprepared.
“He was going to France without knowing anybody at all,” Habib said. “He was just going to land in the airport and start thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’”
Report from Compass Direct News
Christian falsely accused of ‘blasphemy’ taken into custody, released – and detained again.
LAHORE, Pakistan, April 18 (CDN) — A Christian illegally detained in Faisalabad on false blasphemy charges was freed last night, while two other Christians in Gujranwala arrested on similar charges on Friday (April 15) were also released – until pressure from irate mullahs led police to detain them anew, sources said.
Masih and his family have relocated to a safe area, but just 10 days after he was falsely accused of desecrating the Quran in Faisalabad district of Punjab Province on April 5, in Gujranwala Mushtaq Gill and his son Farrukh Mushtaq were taken into “protective custody” on charges that the younger man had desecrated Islam’s holy book and blasphemed the religion’s prophet, Muhammad. A police official told Compass the charges were false.
Gill, an administrative employee of the Christian Technical Training Centre (CTTC) in Gujranwala in his late 60s, was resting when a Muslim mob gathered outside his home in Aziz Colony, Jinnah Road, Gujranwala, and began shouting slogans against the family. They accused his son, a business graduate working in the National Bank of Pakistan as a welfare officer and father of a little girl, of desecrating the Quran and blaspheming Muhammad.
The purported evidence against Farrukh were some burnt pages of the Quran and a handwritten note, allegedly in Farrukh’s handwriting, claiming that he had desecrated Islam’s holy book and used derogatory language against Muhammad. A Muslim youth allegedly found the pages and note outside the Gills’ residence.
Inspector Muhammad Nadeem Maalik, station house officer of the Jinnah Road police station, admitted that the charges against the accused were baseless.
“The initial investigation of the incident shows Mr. Gill and his son Farrukh are innocent,” he told Compass.
The two were kept at a safe-house, instead of the police station, out of fear that Islamist extremists might attack them; their subsequent release led to Islamic protests that compelled police to detain them anew today, sources said.
Despite police admitting that the two Christians were not guilty, a First Information Report (No. 171/2011) was registered against them under Sections 295-B and C in Jinnah Road Police Station early on Saturday (April 16).
“Yes, we have registered an FIR of the incident, yet we have sealed it until the completion of the investigation,” Inspector Maalik said, adding that the police had yet to formally arrest Gill and his son. “We registered the FIR for their own safety, otherwise the mob would have become extremely violent and things could have gone out of control.”
The police official said that after the Muslim youth made the accusation, he gathered area Muslims together.
“It seems to be a well thought-out scheme, because the perpetrators chose the time of the Friday prayers for carrying out their plan,” Maalik said. “They were sure that this news would spread quickly, and within no time people would come out of the mosques and react to the situation.”
He added that police were now inquiring of the Gills why they might suspect anyone of wanting to harm them.
“We are also looking for any signs of jealousy or old enmity,” Maalik said.
Soon after the Muslim youth found the alleged pages, announcements blared from the area’s mosques informing Muslims about the incident and asking them to gather at the “crime scene,” sources said.
There are about 300 Christian families residing in Aziz Colony, and news of the alleged desecration spread like jungle fire. Announcements from mosques sparked fear in the already shaken Christian families, and they started packing their things to leave the area, fearing the kind of carnage that ravaged Gojra on Aug. 1, 2009, killing at least seven Christians.
“It’s true…the news of the accusations against Gill and his son and the announcements being made from the mosque calling on Muslims to avenge the desecration sent shivers down our spines,” said Pastor Philip Dutt, who has known the Gill family for several years and lives in the same neighborhood. “The charges are completely baseless. I’m sure no person in his right frame of mind would even think of committing such a vile act. Someone has clearly conspired against the Gill family.”
He added that most of the area’s Christians had left their homes overnight, fearing an attack by Muslims.
Dutt said that a large police contingent arrived in time and took Gill and his son into custody after assuring the enraged mob that a case under the blasphemy laws would be registered against the two men. Police remained stationed in the area to provide protection to area Christians, but the atmosphere was tense.
According to some reports, a group of angry Muslims wanted to torch Gill’s house, but timely police intervention thwarted their plan.
At the same time, a group of Muslim extremists stormed into the house of Anwar Masih, a Christian factory owner in Aziz Colony, and started beating him and his son, sources said. The family managed to save themselves by calling the police and now they too are in “protective custody.”
The Rev. Arif Siraj, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan, which also oversees the functioning of the Christian Technical Training Centre in Gujranwala, said the accusations against Farrukh were yet another example of how the country’s blasphemy laws are misused against innocent people.
“We have been engaged with the police and local Muslim leaders throughout the day to resolve this issue amicably,” Siraj said. “An eight-member committee comprising six Muslims and two Christian pastors has been formed to probe the incident, and they will make a report on Friday.”
The names of the Christians of the eight-member committee are Pastor Sharif Alam of Presbyterian Church Ghakarmandi and the Rev. Joseph Julius.
A large number of Muslims, including members of religious parties and banned outfits, came out to the roads of Gujranwala on Saturday (April 16) to protest the alleged desecration of the Quran and pressure police to take action against Gill and his son. The protestors reportedly gelled into one large demonstration on Church Road and headed towards the CTTC. Siraj said that some participants threw stones at a church on the road, but that Muslim elders immediately halted the stone-throwing.
“The district administration and Muslim leaders have now assured us that no one will target Christian churches and institutions,” he said, adding that both communities were now waiting for the committee’s report.
Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry expressed concern over the accusations.
“This case is a classic example of how Christians and Muslims continue to be charged with blasphemy on false accusations,” he said. “Isn’t it ridiculous that the accuser is claiming that Farrukh has confessed to burning the Quran in his note and thrown the burnt pages in front of his house – what sane person would even think of saying anything against prophet Muhammad in a country where passions run so deep?”
Arif Masih, the falsely accused Christian released last night, has reportedly been relocated along with this family to a safe location.
The original blasphemy law, introduced in British India in 1860, imposed a prison term of up to two years for any damage to a place of worship or sacred object carried out “with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion…”
The current provision in the Pakistan Penal Code, as amended in 1986, introduces both the death penalty for insulting Muhammad and drops the concept of intent. According to Section 295-C of the Penal Code, “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life and shall also
be liable to fine.”
The laws have drawn condemnation across the world, and two senior government officials – Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, a liberal Muslim, and Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, have been assassinated this year for demanding a review of the legislation.
Report from Compass Direct News
Imprisoned chief of Hindu militant group used Christianity to cover up extortion, terror.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, April 4 (CDN) — The chief of a militant Hindu extremist group sought to disguise his extortion and terror activities from behind bars by claiming he had repented of bombing a church in Nepal and showing interest in Christianity, according to investigators.
The revelation emerged when Nepal’s premier investigation agency foiled a plot to explode a series of bombs devised by Ram Prasad Mainali, former chief of the Hindu militant outfit Nepal Defence Army (NDA), in the capital city of Kathmandu. Police on March 4 arrested six cohorts of Mainali carrying powerful “socket bombs” – home-made, hand grenade-type weapons made from plumbing joints – and high-explosive powder, to be used as part of a plan to extort money from industrialists, The Himalayan Times reported.
In an interview last year, Mainali had told Compass that his interaction with Christians inside jail in Kathmandu’s Nakkhu area had led him to repent of his deeds and read the Bible (see “Bomber in Nepal Repents, Admits India Link,” Jan. 4, 2010). Mainali was arrested on Sept. 5, 2009 for exploding a bomb in a Catholic parish in Kathmandu, Our Lady of the Assumption, which killed a teenager and a newly married woman and injured more than a dozen others on May 23 of that year.
Prior to the Compass interview, Mainali had sent a handwritten letter from the prison to a monthly Christian newsmagazine in Nepal, Hamro Ashish (Our Blessing), saying he regretted having attacked Christians.
A local Christian worker who had known Mainali said the church bomber used Christianity to evade police surveillance.
“I was disheartened when I recently learned that Mainali had threatened some pastors with violent attacks, demanding protection money from them,” he told Compass on condition of anonymity.
The source said Mainali threatened him and pastors he knew by phone. He suspected that a fellow prisoner, Jeevan Rai Majhi, previously considered a convert to Christianity, had given the pastors’ phone numbers to Mainali. Majhi, formerly a notorious criminal, had allegedly accepted Christ inside the prison, and jail authorities made him the prison leader. He also led a Bible study group in the prison.
“Some prisoners who attend the Bible study in the Nakkhu Jail told me that Mainali shared the extortion money with Majhi, which aroused jealousy among other prisoners, who reported it to the jail authorities,” the source said.
Around 150 prisoners attend the Nakkhu Gospel Church inside the prison premises, though Majhi is no longer leading it. Both Mainali and Majhi were recently transferred, Mainali to the Dilli-Bazaar Jail and Majhi to the Mid-Nepal Central Jail.
Deputy Inspector General of Police and Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) Director Rajendra Singh Bhandari told The Kathmandu Post that the arrest of Mainali’s men was a “tremendous achievement” that averted “mass casualties” in the capital.
“It seems that Mainali had filled the arrestees’ minds with dreams of earning quick bucks through terror,” the daily quoted another investigation official as saying.
The Christian source said he still hoped for genuine repentance in Mainali and Majhi.
“Mainali and Majhi must have at least some knowledge of the Bible,” he said. “So I am still hopeful that they would reflect on who God is and truly repent of their ways as they spend their time in prison cells incommunicado [prohibited from speaking with any outsider].”
According to The Kathmandu Post, the CIB had been observing Mainali following complaints that he had demanded large sums of money from businessmen and others.
“He had been making phone calls and sending demand letters to them,” the daily reported on March 4.
Compass requested an interview with Mainali at the Dilli-Bazaar Jail, which officials refused.
“We have orders not to allow Mainali to meet anyone,” said one official.
Mainali had earlier told Compass that he formed the NDA with the support of Hindu nationalists in India in 2007 to re-establish the Hindu monarchy, which fell after a decade-long armed struggle by former Maoist guerrillas peaked in 2006, when all political parties joined protests against King Gyanendra.
The NDA is also believed to be responsible for bombing mosques and killing Muslims and Christians, including the Rev. John Prakash Moyalan, a Catholic priest who was principal of the Don Bosco educational institution in eastern Nepal, in June 2008. While Christians in Nepal faced persecution at the hands of the Hindu monarchy until 2006, non-state actors have been attacking them since the country began transitioning to a secular democracy.
“Several incidents of religiously incited violence directed at minority religions and their property have been recorded since the signing of the peace accord [between the interim government and the Maoists in 2006],” a local Non-Governmental Organization, Informal Sector Service Sector (INSEC), noted last year.
“Although moves have been made to promote religious tolerance and a climate of peace and cooperation, this area must continuously be monitored,” stated an INSEC report, “Commitment versus Reality,” which mentioned attacks on Christians by Mainali’s outfit.
Of the roughly 30 million people in Nepal, only .5 percent are Christian, and more than 80 percent are Hindu, according to the 2001 census. The actual number of Christians, however, is believed to be much higher.
Report from Compass Direct News
Bomb explodes as Christians leave New Year’s Eve Mass.
LOS ANGELES, January 3 (CDN) — At least 21 people were killed and scores were wounded on Saturday (Jan. 1) when a bomb outside a church in Alexandria, Egypt exploded as congregants were leaving a New Year’s Eve Mass celebration.
The explosion ripped through the crowd shortly after midnight, killing instantly most of those who died, and leaving the entrance-way to the Church of the Two Saints, a Coptic Orthodox congregation, covered with blood and severed body parts.
The blast overturned at least one car, set several others on fire and shattered windows throughout the block on which the church is located.
Egyptian authorities reportedly said 20 of the victims have been identified. At least 90 other people were injured in the blast, 10 seriously. Among the injured were eight Muslims. Many of the injured received treatment at St. Mark’s Hospital.
Burial services for some of the victims started Sunday (Jan. 2) in Alexandria, located in northern Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea.
Witnesses reportedly said a driver parked a car at the entrance of the church and then ran away seconds before it exploded. Government officials have claimed they found remnants of the bomb, filled with nails and other make-shift shrapnel, at the site; they suspect an unidentified suicide bomber, rather than a car bombing.
No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the attack comes two months after an Islamic group known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) issued a threat stating that, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [Muslim fighters] wherever they can reach them.”
Claiming they would open “rivers of blood” upon Christians, the group specifically threatened Egyptian Christians based an unsubstantiated rumor that two Coptic women, both wives of Orthodox clergy, were being held against their will after converting to Islam. The statement came after ISI claimed responsibility for an attack on a Baghdad church during mass in which 58 people were killed.
The Egyptian government continues to suspect foreign elements mounted the Alexandria attack, but an unconfirmed report by The Associated Press, citing anonymous government sources, said an Egyptian Islamic group is being investigated.
Bishop Mouneer Anis, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Egypt, said in a written statement that he thinks the attack was linked to the Iraqi threats. He added that his church has taken greater security measures at its downtown Cairo location.
“We pray with all the people of Egypt, Christians and Muslims, [that they] would unite against this new wave of religious fanaticism and terrorism,” he said.
For weeks before the ISI issued its threat, Alexandria was the site of massive protests against the Orthodox Church and its spiritual leader, Pope Shenouda III. Immediately after Friday prayers, Muslims would stream out into the streets surrounding mosques, chant slogans against the church and demand the “return” of the two women. Before that, as early as June, clerics from at least one central Alexandria mosque could be heard broadcasting anti-Christian vitriol from minaret loudspeakers during prayers, instructing Muslims to separate themselves entirely from their Christian countrymen.
The Alexandria bombing comes almost a year after a shooting in Nag Hammadi, Egypt left six Christians and one Muslim security guard dead. In the Jan. 6, 2010 attack, a group of men drove by St. John’s Church, 455 kilometers (282 miles) south of Cairo, and sprayed with gunfire a crowd leaving a Coptic Christmas Eve service.
Three men were eventually charged with the shootings, but the case has yet to be resolved.
Egypt wasn’t the only place in the Middle East plagued with anti-Christian violence over the holiday season.
The day before bombers struck the Alexandria church, an elderly Christian couple in Baghdad was killed when terrorists placed a bomb outside of their home, rang the doorbell and walked away, according to media and human rights reports. The bombing happened at the same time other Christian-owned homes and neighborhoods throughout Baghdad were being attacked.
Estimates of the number of people wounded in the attacks in Iraq range from nine to more than 13.
Report from Compass Direct News
Following attacks, Islamic Defenders Front’s Christmas gesture rings hollow.
DUBLIN, December 21 (CDN) — In the wake of several attacks on worship services by Indonesia’s notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), several Jakarta area church leaders rejected the FPI’s offer to help protect them over Christmas.
FPI leader Rizieq Shihab made the offer last week, saying he was working in cooperation with the Indonesian Communion of Churches and the Indonesian Bishops Conference. But several churches publicly rejected the offer, with online forums comparing FPI church protection to “foxes protecting a chicken coop.”
Jakarta’s police chief on Friday (Dec. 18) promised protection for every “registered” church in the area, The Jakarta Globe reported. Many Indonesian churches are unregistered, however, since they fail to meet the strict conditions of a Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) governing places of worship.
The Indonesian public has harshly criticized FPI members for their role in multiple church attacks over the past year and faulted police and politicians for failing to intervene.
The most recent attack occurred last Sunday (Dec. 19), when more than 100 Islamists gathered outside the sealed home of the Rev. Badia Hutagalung of Huria Kristan Batak Protestan (HKBP) church in Rancaekek to disrupt worship services, sources said.
Another attack on Sept. 12 led to the arrest and detention of 13 FPI members, including Murhali Barda, leader of the FPI’s Bekasi branch. During the attack, assailants stabbed and critically wounded church elder Hasian Sihombing and beat the Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak over the head with a wooden beam. (See, “Indonesian Church Leaders Wounded in Attack,” Sept. 15.)
‘Christians Should Not Provoke Us’
After making the offer of FPI assistance at the Jakarta police headquarters on Dec. 14, Shihab told The Jakarta Post that “Islam is not allowed to disrupt other religions worship,” but he added the warning that “Christians should not provoke us.”
His offer came just two days after some 300 Islamists from FPI, the Indonesian Ulama Forum and the Islamic Reformist Movement, together with civil service police officers, raided and forcibly closed seven churches in Rancaekek. (See "Islamists Raid House Churches in West Java," Dec. 17.)
Sub-district head Meman Nurjaman on Nov. 16 had sent out a decree ordering 11 churches in Rancaekek to close, citing protests from the local community. Nurjaman later admitted that he had acted under pressure from Muslim hardliners living outside the housing estate, according to a Compass source, who added that Nurjaman had no legal authority to issue the decree.
During the Dec. 12 raid, Islamists forcibly removed at least 100 worshipers from a residential building used by the HKBP Bethania church and several other churches, and they urged the local government to seal the building immediately because it was not a registered place of worship.
Hutagalung said the congregation only worshipped there because they could not meet the terms of the SKB, which requires proof of at least 90 church members, signatures of approval from at least 60 local residents, and approval from village officials and a local interfaith forum.
The mob also attacked six other house churches in Rancaekek on Dec. 12, forcing five of the seven to close.
A day after the raids, Adj. Sr. Comr. Hendro Pandowo, the Bandung police chief, said Christians in Bandung should refrain from putting themselves in harm’s way.
“If they pray in churches, I will protect them if anybody disturbs them,” he told the The Jakarta Globe. “If they pray in places they are not allowed to, they are breaking rules, so why would I protect them?”
Readers posting comments to the Globe article online said it was almost impossible for congregations to obtain a building permit under existing regulations, leaving them no option but to worship in private homes or empty building sites.
One reader, identified only by the log-in name of Aki-Amani, wrote, “Thank you Chief Hendro for your promise of protection – if we follow your dictates. However, don’t be surprised if we are found anywhere, everywhere … praying as we go about our daily activities at home and in the market place, whether you approve and will protect us or not.”
Jakarta police on Friday (Dec. 18) met with leaders representing 1,600 churches in greater Jakarta to discuss security measures for the Christmas season.
Jakarta Police Chief Insp. Gen. Sutarman, identified only by a single name, said at least 9,000 security personnel would be deployed in and around churches in greater Jakarta as part of a total 87,000 security personnel stationed at houses of worship throughout Indonesia over the Christmas and New Year season, the Globe reported.
Police began providing Christmas security for churches after a series of 38 coordinated church bombings on Dec. 24, 2000, left at least 18 people dead and dozens injured across the nation. The bombings were organized by Jemaah Islamiyah, a local Islamic terrorist group.
“The Jakarta police guarantee that celebrations will be conducted peacefully across all churches registered with us in the city,” Sutarman reportedly said.
What that implies for unregistered churches remains to be seen.
Spokesmen from two unregistered churches told the Globe they would meet this Christmas despite explicit threats from the FPI to ransack “controversial” Christmas celebrations.
The congregation of HKBP Filadelfia in Bekasi will meet in a tent on the street next to their sealed church, despite the risk of further aggression or physical harm from the FPI, sources said.
Members of Gereja Kristen Indonesia Yasmin in Bogor, however, reportedly said they will break open the seals on their partially-constructed church, closed in September due to pressure from the FPI and other hard-line groups despite having a legal permit.
“We want to celebrate religious freedom in our church,” spokesman Bona Sigalingging told reporters, adding that police would not be asked to provide security.
Report from Compass Direct News
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.
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.)
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