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

EGYPT: CHRISTIAN IN MUSLIM ID CASE WINS RIGHT TO APPEAL


Arrest warrant rescinded for woman imprisoned because her father briefly converted to Islam.

ISTANBUL, December 2 (Compass Direct News) – A Supreme Court judge in Egypt on Nov. 22 granted Christian Bahia El-Sisi the right to appeal her conviction for falsification of documents – a charge stemming from her official papers not identifying her as a Muslim.

In addition, Judge Abdel Meged Mahmood on Nov. 25 rescinded a Sept. 23 warrant for El-Sisi’s arrest, declaring that she should be free pending a final decision. Mahmood is the same judge who in January freed El-Sisi’s sister, who had been convicted on the same charges of “forgery.”

The charges against El-Sisi and her sister, Shadia El-Sisi, claimed that their marriage certificates contained false information that they were Christians. Unknown to them, their religious identity officially changed 46 years ago due to their father’s brief conversion to Islam. Both are illiterate.

In the Nov. 22 hearing granting Bahia El-Sisi the right to appeal, Mahmood noted that her marriage certificate made no mention of her religion, according to her lawyer.

Investigation into the sisters’ religious status began following a visit made to their father, Nagy El-Sisi, himself in prison for forgery. Nagy El-Sisi, who had briefly converted to Islam in 1962 before reconverting three years later, obtained a forged Christian ID because there is no official means for converting from Islam in Egypt.

Under sharia (Islamic law), which heavily influences Egyptian law, the sisters are considered Muslims due to their father’s conversion. They learned that their father had briefly converted to Islam only recently, long after getting married, and had no idea they could officially be considered Muslims.

Both sisters were originally charged with forging official documents and sentenced in absentia in 2000; each was given a three-year jail sentence.

Shadia El-Sisi was not arrested until August 2007, and her first hearing was on Nov. 21, 2007 at the Shobra El-Khema criminal court. Judge Hadar Tobla Hossan sentenced her to three years in prison.

She was in prison until Jan. 13, when Mahmood retracted the sentence because she was unaware of her conversion by proxy and due to legal technicalities that voided incriminating evidence.

Bahia El-Sisi was held for over two months between May and July of this year. She was then released pending a final court decision. She told Compass about her recent experiences.

“There is no rest in prison, and I was tired and unable to get enough rest or enough food,” she said. “Everybody was [left to fend] for themselves.”

For more than four months she was in hiding, moving from place to place to avoid another arrest.

“I can’t go near the house, I move from one place to another,” she said before the arrest warrant was rescinded. “I rarely see my children, I am worried about them.”

On Sept. 23, Hossan ruled that El-Sisi had forged documents and that the three-year prison sentence would stand. In the Nov. 22 hearing, Mahmood ruled that there was no evidence El-Sisi had forged documents, as no such documents could be produced as proof; the marriage certificate in question did not state her religion, said her lawyer, Peter Ramses.

Mahmood ruled that Hossan’s decision was “so bad and so wrong,” said Ramses. “Then Mahmood gave a decision saying to the police, ‘Don’t arrest her.’”

Bahia El-Sisi’s six children anxiously awaited the outcome of the appeal, fearing that, in a domino effect, their religious status may also have to change following a negative outcome.

El-Sisi remained defiant.

“I am a Christian, I will remain Christian,” she told Compass. “Christ in front of me will guide my steps.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: FATHER’S BRIEF CONVERSION TRAPS DAUGHTERS IN ISLAM


Two Christian sisters battle to regain religious identity following forgery charges.

ISTANBUL, October 10 (Compass Direct News) – An Egyptian Coptic Christian woman has been sentenced to three years in prison for failing to uphold her Islamic identity – an identity she didn’t know she had for over four decades.

Sisters Shadia and Bahia Nagy El-Sisi, both in their late 40s and residents of the small east Delta town Mit-Ghamr, were arrested and tried for claiming their official religious identity as Christian. Unknown to them, their religious identity officially changed 46 years ago due to their father’s brief conversion to Islam. Both are illiterate.

Shadia El-Sisi was tried for stating her religion as Christian on her marriage certificate and sentenced to three years in prison on Nov. 21, 2007. She was released two months later. Last Sept. 23 a judge also sentenced Bahia El-Sisi to three years in prison for “forging” her marriage certificate by stating her religion as Christian.

Their father, Nagy El-Sisi, converted to Islam in 1962 during a brief marital dispute in order to divorce his wife and potentially gain custody of his daughters, the sisters’ lawyer Peter Ramses told Compass.

Egyptian law is influenced by Islamic jurisprudence (sharia), which automatically awards child custody to whichever parent has the “superior” religion and dictates “no jurisdiction of a non-Muslim over a Muslim.”

If Bahia El-Sisi’s identity as a Muslim stands, then her religious status could potentially create a domino effect that would require her husband to convert to Islam or have their marriage nullified. Her children, too, would be registered as Muslims. Both women are married to Christians.

“All of their children and grandchildren would be registered as Muslims,” Ramses said. “[The ruling] would affect many people.”

Other sources said it is too soon to determine the fate of the sisters’ marriages and families, as neither of their cases have been finalized.

 

‘But I Am a Christian’

A few years after his conversion, Nagy El-Sisi returned to his family and Christianity. He sought the help of a Muslim employee in the Civil Registration Office, Ramadan Muhammad Hussein, who agreed to forge his Christian identification documents. Reversion back to Christianity for converts to Islam has been nearly impossible in Egyptian courts.

The daughters discovered they were still registered as Muslims when Hussein was arrested for forgery in 1996 and confessed he had helped El-Sisi obtain fake documents three decades earlier. El-Sisi was later arrested.

When the two daughters visited him in prison, they were detained and accused of forging their Christian identification documents, according to national weekly Watani. A criminal court gave them each a three-year prison sentence in absentia in 2000.

Shadia El-Sisi was arrested in August 2007, three days before her son’s wedding. Her first hearing was on Nov. 21, 2007 at the Shobra El-Khema criminal court; she asserted that she had no idea of her so-called conversion to Islam. Judge Hadar Tobla Hossan sentenced her to three years in prison.

Confronted with the sentence, Shadia El-Sisi kept repeating, “But I am a Christian. I am a Christian,” according to Watani.

She was in prison until Jan. 13, when Prosecutor-General Abdel Meged Mahmood retracted the sentence because she was unaware of her conversion by proxy and due to legal technicalities that voided incriminating evidence.

The advocacy group Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination also pressured the judiciary through a signature drive to release her from prison.

Bahia El-Sisi went into hiding following her sister’s imprisonment, but came out after news of her release. Legal experts believe that when Bahia El-Sisi’s case comes before the Supreme Court, her sentence will be retracted as her sister’s was, as their cases have no legal foundation.

Early in the morning of May 5, however, police arrested Bahia El-Sisi and held her in jail until her hearing on July 20, after which she was released pending the verdict.

On Sept. 23 she was sentenced to three years in prison for “forgery of an official document,” as her marriage license states her religion as “Christian.” Bahia El-Sisi was married years before learning of her father’s brief conversion.

Ramses will appeal to Egypt’s Supreme Court in next week. He said he worries the case could further erode the precarious situation of religious minorities in the Muslim-majority country of 79 million.

“How can the government say to [someone] who has lived 50 years in a Christian way that they must become a Muslim and their children must be Muslim and their whole family must all be Muslims?” he said. “This is very important for the freedom of religion.”

Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of belief and practice for the country’s Christian minority, which makes up 10 percent of the population. Islam, however, is the official state religion and heavily influences the government and court system.

The case is an example of the social pressure put on Egyptian non-Muslims to convert when one of their parents embraces Islam, despite the constitution guaranteeing equality, said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Watani.

“This is a sick environment that we struggle to change,” Sidhom stated. “According to what is taking place here freedom is protected and provided for Christians to convert to Islam while the opposite is not provided.”

Egyptian courts have continued to discriminate against Christians who have one Muslim parent, according to human rights reports, as the judiciary gives them no choice but to convert to Islam.

On Sept. 24 an Alexandria court awarded custody of 14-year-old Christian twins to their Muslim father even though the twins said they were Christians who wanted to stay with their mother. Egyptian civil law grants child custody to their mothers until the age of 15.  

Report from Compass Direct News