BURMA: AUTHORITIES CLAMP DOWN ON CHRISTIANS


Churches ordered to cease services, stop meeting in ‘unauthorized’ venues.

DUBLIN, January 21 (Compass Direct News) – Burmese authorities last week increased restrictions on Christian activity in the capital city of Rangoon and surrounding areas, including the closure of several churches, Compass sources confirmed yesterday.

Orders issued on Jan. 5 had already forced many Christians meeting in residential homes or apartments to cease gathering for worship. Officials last week ordered several major Rangoon churches, including Wather Hope Church, Emmanuel Church and the Assemblies of God Church, to cease holding services and continued enforcing the Jan. 5 ban on meetings held in unauthorized facilities.

In the late 1990s authorities stopped issuing permits for land purchase or the construction of new churches, leading many Burmese Christians to conduct services in rented apartments or office buildings, according to the Burmese news agency Mizzima.

The Kyauktada Township Peace and Development Council on Jan. 5 invited pastors from more than 100 Rangoon churches to a meeting where they were told to sign documents pledging to cease operation of their churches. About 50 pastors attended, according to Mizzima.

The documents threatened punishment, including potential jail terms and the sealing of church facilities, for pastors who refused to obey the closure orders.

Another local online news source, the Democratic Voice of Burma, claimed officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs had summoned the owners of buildings where churches met and ordered them not to rent their properties to religious groups.

Mizzima quoted an unnamed Burmese Christian who claimed that 80 percent of churches in Rangoon were affected by the order.

 

History of Religious Repression

Some local Christians and international observers say the crackdown is related to Christian involvement in relief efforts for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma in May 2008.

Despite widespread devastation and loss of life, Burma’s reclusive government initially banned foreign aid but finally accepted it on condition that Burmese officials would distribute it. Christians, however, had responded immediately to the crisis, gathering relief supplies and transporting them to the Irrawaddy Delta region. Police or army officials stopped some groups, but many were allowed to proceed. At least one such group told Compass that officials likely feared the conversion of Buddhists who accepted aid from Christians.

The military junta ruling Burma promotes Buddhism at the expense of other minority religions, according to Paul A. Marshall’s 2008 Religious Freedom in the World. The country’s population is 82 percent Buddhist, 9 percent Christian and 4 percent Muslim, with traditional ethnic, Chinese and Hindu religions accounting for the rest.

The church closure orders may simply be an extension of Burma’s existing religious policies, which elevate Buddhism in an effort to solidify national identity. Burma ranks high on lists of religious and human rights violators at several watch organizations, including the U.S. State Department, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Open Doors.

Documents declaring the government’s intention to “stamp out” Christianity have circulated for some time. Rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide drew attention to one such document in a 2007 report entitled, “Carrying the Cross: The military regime’s campaign of restriction, discrimination and persecution against Christians in Burma.” The report summarized a 17-point document allegedly produced by an organization affiliated with the Ministry of Religious Affairs entitled, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma.”

The first point in this document declared that, “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced.”

A military dictatorship has ruled Burma since 1962. Following the takeover, the government renamed Burma as the Union of Myanmar and the capital city as Yangon, but many news agencies and government bodies continue to use the original names. When elections were held in 1988, with the opposing National League for Democracy clearly in the majority, the generals rejected the popular vote and used brute military force to cement their power throughout Burma. A similar show of force met hundreds of Buddhist monks who initiated mass anti-government protest rallies on the streets of Rangoon in September 2007.

While almost all Burmese citizens suffer under the regime, Christians are often singled out for specific attack or repression because of their perceived connections with the West.

Reports from various mission groups suggest Christianity is flourishing under the regime, but believers must be creative with their worship – particularly in rural areas. In reports confirmed by Compass, Christians in one state began photocopying Bibles to overcome restrictions on religious publications. Others baptized new Christians during the annual water festival, where citizens douse each other with buckets of water, ceremonially washing away the “sins” of the past year.

 

Heightened Security, Control

Rangoon residents say a much heavier security presence has been evident in the city since early January, when political activists began distributing anti-government leaflets, The Irrawaddy newspaper reported on Jan. 13. The leaflet drops may have contributed to the current crackdown on church gatherings, as generals suspect all organized groups of having a political agenda.

At a graduation of military students in Rangoon on Jan. 9, Vice-Senior Gen. Maung Aye, who is commander-in-chief of the army and deputy commander-in-chief of Defense Services, warned students to steadfastly uphold the country’s “Three Main National Causes” to prevent “recurrences of past bitter experiences.” The causes were listed as non-disintegration of the Union of Myanmar, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty.

The New Light of Myanmar, a government newspaper, reported the general as saying that, “You will have learned bitter lessons from a number of world events, in which certain States have become weaker … owing to external intervention in their conflicts.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: SISTERS ABDUCTED, FORCED TO CONVERT TO ISLAM


Repeatedly raped, minor and 18-year-old now face societal rejection.

ISTANBUL, January 19 (Compass Direct News) – The ordeal of two teenage Christian sisters in Pakistan is over after Muslims allegedly abducted and raped them and forced them to convert to Islam, but they fear a future of societal rejection.

Parvisha Masih, 18, and Sanam Masih, 14, said three Muslim men kidnapped them last November, raping them several times during two weeks of captivity.

“We are happy to return to the family, but we are feeling ashamed because there is no respect for us in society now,” Parvisha Masih said. “We don’t want to go back to school and have to face our friends.”

They face a long legal battle that will inevitably bring them into contact with their captors – who have already assaulted their family in court.

“We feel very afraid, and we are still receiving threats,” Parvisha Masih told Compass. “We are worried about our family and about ourselves. I don’t ever want to see those men again.”

On Jan. 2 the sisters recorded statements concerning their alleged abduction, rape and forced conversion to Islam before a local magistrate in Gujranwala. Earlier, they gave statements in Karachi, where they had been taken by their captors some 840 miles to the south. Two First Incident Reports (FIRs) have been filed.

In Gujranwala, Muhammad Irfan, Muhammed Mehboob and Muhammed Rafique, Mehboob’s brother-in-law, are charged with kidnapping.

 

Kidnapped

Irfan and Mehboob, suspected of involvement in a human trafficking ring, at first made contact with Parvisha Masih accidentally.

“Parvisha received a wrong number call and talked to Muhammad Irfan,” said Katherine Karamat, an investigative officer for the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). “Some days later, Irfan called again and told her that he had a beauty salon, and if she wanted training he could arrange that for her.”

Eager to earn extra money for the family, Masih convinced her younger sister Sanam to join her in accepting the offer, according to CLAAS.

Irfan arranged to drive them to their first day of work in his car. At 10 a.m. on Nov. 12, Irfan and Mehboob picked the sisters up from their home.

“This is a common practice now,” said Michael Javaid, a Pakistani member of parliament based in Karachi. “They offer poor people from the villages a good job, and the parents are poor so they trust them, but then they bring these girls and sell them to other people.”

According to the sisters’ testimony, Irfan stopped the car after roughly half an hour to buy beverages. He offered them both a bottle of fruit juice that they drank, unaware that he had drugged it.

En route to Karachi, Irfan and Mehboob then drove the sisters to a motel in Mianwali, threatening them at gunpoint and telling them they would be killed if they tried to escape. The sisters reported that the men then raped them.

In the morning they were ushered back into the car and driven to the coastal city of Karachi, where they were held captive at Rafique’s house. Over the next five days, they said, the men raped them repeatedly.

Masih and Sanam then were taken to a madrassa (Islamic school), where a mufti issued certificates stating that the two had become Muslims. Parvisha Masih was renamed Sana, and her sister received the name Tayyaba.

Javaid and lawyers from CLAAS challenged these certificates, asserting that the sisters did not sign them.

“Anyone can get these papers by giving some kind of a bribe; [clerics] feel it is a service to Islam,” said Javaid. “They will issue a certificate without knowing the will of the person, whether this is a forcible conversion or not.”

Following their forced conversion at the madrassa, the Muslims took the sisters to the office of lawyers Nayer Zia-Ul-Din and Kokab Sahab-Ul-Din. Irfan explained to the lawyers that the sisters had converted to Islam and did not wish to return home to their Christian family, but instead wanted to stay at the government-run Dar-Ul-Aman shelter for women. Before leaving, Irfan told Masih and Sanam that they would be freed after the lawyers brought them to court the following day.

The lawyers told the sisters to sign blank sheets of paper, forging testimony from the pair that they planned to use to support their case, according to CLAAS. The attorneys told the sisters that they could stay with their family that night and took Masih and Sanam to their home, but no other family members were present.

After the sisters had fallen asleep, according to CLAAS, Sahab-Ul-Din took Parvisha Masih into a separate room and sexually abused her. Police found medication in Sahab-Ul-Din’s apartment indicating that the sisters were again drugged. Sanam said she woke up when she heard her older sister crying for help.

“I took the mobile of the lawyer and called 15 [the emergency police number in Pakistan],” she told Compass. “One lawyer had left; the other was with Parvisha.” She was able to escape the house and describe her location to authorities.

Police arrived at the scene shortly afterward, immediately referring Parvisha Masih to a hospital and arresting Sahab-Ul-Din, whom they took to the Ferozabad police station. The other lawyer, Zia-Ul-Din, had left but was later arrested at his home.

At the police station, Sanam called her father, Arif Masih, who rushed to Karachi to bring his daughters back home.

 

Assaulted in Court

The following day (Nov. 22), the sisters appeared before a magistrate to give testimony, accompanied by their father and other relatives. Defendants Zia-Ul-Din and Sahab-Ul-Din, both charged with rape, were also present. Upon learning that the sisters’ father was in the room, they located him and began to attack him.

“The magistrate was in his chambers, and so the lawyers attacked the father and relatives, beating them, even the women, there in the courtroom, which never happened before!” said Javaid. “All the police were called, the FHO [court police], the superintendant and deputy superintendant, and they took them to the lock-up for safety.”

Javaid said he plans to take a strong contingent of associates when they next appear in court to protect the sisters and deter another attack.

This is the second known case of its kind in recent months. Saba and Aneela Masih underwent a similar ordeal last July, and although 10-year-old Aneela has been returned to her family, her 13-year-old sister, forced to marry one of the men who kidnapped her, remains with her captors.

Christian girls from poor families make easy targets, and many cases go undocumented, Javaid told Compass. High legal fees often make it impossible for poor families to bring a case to court. Corrupt lawyers, easily swayed by bribes, often create further expense.

On top of this, a biased legal system that favors Muslims over Christians is particularly reluctant to pass judgments that would undermine conversion to Islam.

“Because both [Parvisha and Sanam Masih] are Christian and the accused were Muslim, to save their skin they made [the sisters] embrace Islam forcefully so they can marry them maybe or whatever they want,” said CLAAS lawyer Samson Joseph.

Report from Compass Direct News