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

Anglican leaders around globe decry ordination of lesbian bishop


In response to an openly gay woman being ordained a bishop in the Episcopal Church on Saturday, Anglican leaders from around the world decried the action as “gravely concerning and wrong,” with some adding that the move has “hurt and alienated” many within the Episcopal community, reports Catholic News Agency.

Fifty-five year-old Mary Glasspool, an openly parterned lesbian, was ordained a bishop at Long Beach arena on May 15. Some 3,000 people attended the ceremony which featured a procession with liturgical dancers in bright colored outfits, costumed dragons and drums, according to Virtue Online.

This recent move by the Episcopal church in the U.S. has caused tremendous controversy within the global Anglican church, prompting Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to issue a statement of caution when the announcement of Glasspool’s ordination was first made last year. He urged church leaders at the time to consider the “implications and consequences of this decision.” Archbishop Williams wrote in March that the Episcopal leaders’ later confirmation of Glasspool’s election as bishop-suffragen was “regrettable.”

Several world leaders within the Anglican community denounced Saturday’s ordination.

“The decision of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America to consecrate as a bishop a woman in a sexually active lesbian relationship is gravely concerning and wrong,” said Rev. Dr. H. William Godfrey, bishop of the the Anglican Church of Peru on May 15.

“It is impossible,” he added, “to know by what authority the Episcopal Church is taking this action. It is disobedient to the Word of God, to the teaching of the Church, and deeply hurtful and damaging to their Christian brothers and sisters.”

“It appears,” the bishop observed, “that their decision is being taken in accord with their instincts and feelings, and the ways of the liberal society in which they live, and that they have forgotten the moral values and teachings of the Holy Scriptures and their Church.”

A coalition of Evangelical Anglicans in Ireland issued a joint statement expressing support for those within the Episcopal community who feel “hurt and alienated” by Glasspool’s ordination.

“Many Christians of all traditions and denominations will share our sorrow and see Mary Glasspool’s consecration as a defiant rejection of pleas for restraint and, even more importantly, as a rejection of the pattern of holiness of life called for in Scripture and endorsed by believers over the centuries,” they wrote on Sunday.

Rev. Robinson Cavalcanti, Bishop of the Diocese of Recife in Brazil, said in a statement on May 15 that the ordination was “lamentable” and that it has caused “a de facto rupture” within the Anglican community.

The bishop of the Diocese of Caledonia, Rev. William Anderson, added that he “can only hope that the Archbishop of Canterbury will finally accept that bishops and national churches who choose to willfully ignore the teaching of the Anglican Communion and Holy Scripture, ought to suffer the natural consequence of choosing to go their own way – which is to say, that they ought to be considered to have left the Anglican Communion.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

INDIA: VIOLENCE SPREADS TO FIVE MORE STATES


Another man killed, more houses and churches attacked in Orissa’s Kandhamal district.

NEW DELHI, September 16 (Compass Direct News) – A policeman was killed today, the body of another victim of Hindu extremist violence was discovered and more houses and churches burned in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district even as anti-Christian violence spread to at least five more states across India over the weekend.

Christians and churches were targeted in Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand as fallout from violence in Orissa that began following the assassination of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples in Kandhamal district on August 23.

A mob of around 500 rioters today killed a policeman and burned down a police station in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, where Hindu extremists launched a spate of attacks three weeks ago blaming local Christians of killing Saraswati and his disciples. Maoists have claimed responsibility for the murders of the Hindu leaders.

“A large number of attackers armed with country-made guns and crude weapons gunned down a constable and set ablaze the police station at Gochapada early this morning,” Director General of Police Gopal Nanda told The Indian Express. Gochapada is 36 kilometers (22 miles) from Phulbani, the district headquarters of Kandhamal.

Police sources told the daily that the mob was demanding release of a man held by security personnel, but local residents felt the attack came in retaliation for police firing into a crowd in Kurtamgarh in Tumudibandh area, killing at least one person, on Saturday (Sept. 13).

 

Murder in Orissa

While the body of another person was found and at least 14 houses were burned on Sunday night (Sept. 14), a church and several houses were set ablaze on the previous day.

The Statesman newspaper reported that at least nine houses of Makabali village and five in Sanakbali village were torched in the Gunjibadi area. Authorities found the body of Purander Naik, who had fled to a relief camp where mainly Christians had taken refuge, in his village of Nilungia.

“The decomposed body of Naik was found by police near the Ratingia dam yesterday,” the newspaper reported yesterday. “Naik was at the G. Udayagiri relief camp for over 10 days but had left for his village to see the condition of his house and poultry. His family was at the relief camp. Apparently he was killed during his visit to the village.”

The Press Trust of India reported that while nine houses were torched in Toposi village, another house was burned in Dibadi village under the Raikia police station in Kandhamal.

The Rev. Ashis Parida of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that more than 2,000 Hindu extremists set fire to a church belonging to the Church of North India (CNI) denomination and several houses of Christians in Kurtamgarh village on Saturday afternoon (Sept. 13). Kurtamgarh is about seven kilometers (four miles) from the ashram (religious center) of Hindu leader Saraswati.

Compass received reports that a Hindu extremist mob on Friday (Sept. 12) burned one church and a mission hostel in Mangapanga, Tumulibandh; three churches in Mundabali, Badipankha; and one church in Baringia in Phulbani. An estimated 40 houses were also destroyed on the same day by the intolerant Hindus.

The next afternoon a large Hindu extremist mob descended on Kurtamgarh, burning several houses and the CNI Church. Sources said the extremists were targeting the village headman of the area, a Christian whose house they destroyed.

A local source said that “while the mob was attacking the Christian homes and churches, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) forces took notice of it and fired in the air to disperse the crowd. To their surprise the mob retaliated with gunfire aimed at the CRPF, which wounded two soldiers of the CRPF, one of whom was reported to be quite serious and had to be taken to Behrampur for his medical treatment.”

The CRPF forces retaliated with gunfire of their own, killing one person and injuring about 12. Early reports suggested that two people had died in the CRPF firing, but only one body was said to be recovered by the CRPF after the incident.

Krishan Kumar, district collector of Kandhamal, told media that on that day, “At least 400-500 people, some of them carrying firearms, attacked a man’s home and set it on fire at Kurtamgarh village.”

While the state government says 24 people, mainly Christian, have died in the Orissa violence, the All India Christian Council (AICC) maintained that 45 Christians were confirmed dead and five more were still missing.

According to the AICC, 14 districts of Orissa witnessed violence with Kandhamal as the epicenter. It reported at least 50,000 people from 300 villages have been affected by the violence, with hundreds still hiding in forests, and 4,000 houses and 115 churches burned or destroyed.

 

Death in Relief Camps

At least 20,000 people are in the 14 relief camps set up by the state government in Kandhamal. Two elderly persons and two children are known to have died in three of the relief camps.

The Statesman reported that while two ailing men, 75-year-old Sua Naik from Budrungia village and 66-year-old Kasipatra Naik from Tatamaha village, died at the Raikia relief camp, two children, one from the Phulbani camp and the other from G. Udayagiri camp, died during the week.

One of the children was reportedly a 10-year-old girl who had been hiding in the forest since the violence began who died from disease attained by being constantly on the run. The name of the girl was not known, but she was said to be from Kotgarh.

The Statesman also reported that the chief secretary of Orissa state, Ajit Tripathy, held a review meeting yesterday to discuss health and sanitation measures at the relief camps.

Orissa is ruled by a coalition of a regional party, Biju Janata Dal, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

 

Attacks in Karnataka

Attacks were reported also from the southern state of Karnataka, where Hindu extremists ratcheted up hostilities after the state education ministry served show-cause notices to over 2,000 Christian schools in the state for staying shut on Aug. 29 to protest the violence against Christians in Orissa.

On Sunday (Sept. 14), Hindu extremists attacked several churches in Karnataka’s district of Dakshina Kannada, in Udupi and Chikmagalur, on the pretext that Christians were engaging in “forcible” conversions of Hindus to Christianity.

In Dakshina Kannada district, suspected extremists from the Bajrang Dal, VHP’s youth wing, attacked the Adoration Monastery near the Milagres Church on Falnir Road in Mangalore region.

“The 10-member group barged into the prayer hall and damaged the tabernacle, where the holy Eucharist is kept,” reported the Times of India. “They damaged windowpanes, furniture as well as the crucifix. Police said the same group attempted to vandalize another prayer hall in Kankanady, but were driven back.”

The daily added that Christians later gathered in large numbers in front of the Milagres Hall to protest the attacks, which resulted in a day-long stand off between the protestors, who reportedly hurled stones at the police, with officers using batons in return. Several vehicles were damaged in the tussle.

In Udupi district, three churches of the New Life Fellowship were attacked by suspected Bajrang Dal extremists while Sunday prayers were in progress, reported the daily. At least 15 Hindu extremists entered its prayer hall, attacking worshippers and ransacking the hall during the worship service. A music system and projector were damaged.

In Shiroor area, Hindu extremists attacked another prayer hall of the New Life Fellowship, burning a vehicle and striking some members of the congregation, including the pastor.

The daily reported another attack on a church in Mudur, near Kollur, resulted in damaged materials. It added that police prevented yet another such attack in prayer halls of the New Life Fellowship in Kaup and Karkala areas.

In Chikmagalur district, extremists attacked three churches and the house of a new convert. “In one incident, 15 activists came in a vehicle and barged into Harvest India church in Makkikoppa near Jayapura in Koppa Taluka [Block] in the morning and assaulted a parishioner and the Protestant pastor,” the daily reported. “They broke the window panes and the plastic chairs.”

On Sunday night (Sept. 14), a mob attacked a prayer hall in the Padavu Pre-University College on the Mangalore-Udupi Road.

Yesterday morning, Hindu extremists attacked a shop in Kalladka village and the St. Ann’s Friary Grotto near Canara College, about 25 kilometers (almost 16 miles) from Mangalore, in two separate incidents. A Christian prayer hall in Chickballapur district, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Bangalore, also was attacked.

Some Christians reportedly retaliated by targeting policemen in different parts of Dakshina Kannada district. At least four policemen were injured, with one reportedly stabbed yesterday.

According to Indo-Asian News Service (IANS), police arrested about 100 people, almost all Christians, for staging allegedly violent protests.

Hindu extremists also attacked churches in Belthangady, Moodabidri, Koloor, Kodaikal, Hemanagatta, Kadur and Puttur, Kundapur and Balehanoor. All together 18 churches and prayer halls in and around Mangalore and in Udipi and Chikmaglur districts were attacked on Sunday (Sept. 14).

Police reportedly had arrested seven Bajrang Dal members by Sunday night. Schools and shops remained shut in Mangalore yesterday in protest, and vehicles were kept off the roads. Christians continued to protest, and in some places police had to fire tear gas shells to maintain order. A curfew was imposed in Mangalore as well.

But that did not stop Hindu extremists from throwing stones at a church in Mangalore yesterday morning, in spite of an order the previous day banning assembly of more than five people for three days. Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa stoked fires by stating, “There is no room for forcible conversion in democracy. No one should indulge in it.”

Asked what action he was going to take against the Bajrang Dal during a press conference yesterday evening, the chief minister said only, “Whoever was involved in this act will be arrested very soon.”

But he was quick to blame church groups, saying “No one has the right to insult any other religion. As we know some community called ‘New Life’ is converting people, we have asked the bishop to support us in this regard. But as per the bishop, New Life is not under his control and the bishop is not the in charge of this community.”

There was little to suggest the involvement of New Life Fellowship churches in forced conversion. NDTV 24X7, a national television news channel reported that “so far there seems to be little evidence that New Life is carrying out forcible conversions.”

A team from the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) will reportedly make an on-the-spot assessment of attacks on churches and prayer halls in different parts of Karnataka and submit its report to the federal government. Members will visit churches damaged in attacks in Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Chikmagalur districts, as well as Mangalore.

Bajrang Dal representatives unabashedly admitted to the violence that was carried out on Sunday (Sept. 14), telling NDTV 24X7 that they are targeting evangelical groups in and around Mangalore.

 

Violence in Other States

In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Bajrang Dal extremists on Sunday (Sept. 14) attacked two pastors in Kanpur district, accusing them of beating their supporters, reported IANS.

Govindnagar police station inspector N.K. Singh told IANS that the pastor of the New India Church of God, Jitendra Singh, approached officers late Sunday night and submitted a written complaint against Ram Babu Bajpai, a local leader of the Bajrang Dal.

Pastor Singh said Bajpai, along with a large number of his supporters, attacked him in the church compound in the presence of his wife, Helena Singh, and fellow pastor Anil Gilbert.

 

Both sides filed complaints

According to the complaint by the Hindu extremists, “The Bajrang Dal has alleged that the church was involved in converting Hindus to Christianity by offering them money, and the pastors attacked them when its activists opposed the practice,” IANS added.

In the north-central state of Madhya Pradesh, at 1:30 p.m. today five unidentified people carrying air guns shot a guard of the Caramel Convent in Banduha village (under the Ghatia police station) in Ujjain district, Madhya Pradesh state. Father Anand Muttungal of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh state reported that Amar Singh’s injuries were not fatal.

Fr. Muttungal said that the culprits asked Singh to call the nuns, and when he told them they were away the assailants beat and shot him.

Hindu extremists in Madhya Pradesh also burned the 80-year-old Masihi Mandir church of the CNI denomination in Chhawni (Cantonment) area of Indore city at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday (Sept. 13), reported EFI.

“The fire was spotted by a few onlookers, who managed to extinguish it quickly,” EFI reported. “The doors, windows and other wooden material were burned.”

In the southern state of Kerala, on Sunday night (Sept. 14) Hindu extremists attacked the Jaya Mata Convent School, a Christian kindergarten that doubled as a church in Kottakkani area in Kasargode district under the Catholic diocese of Teleicherry, reported the Times of India.

 

The Hindu extremists launched the attack to protest conversions

“On Monday morning, we saw the glass panes of a box containing the figure of Mother Mary, as well as window panes of the school, smashed,” Vicar Antony Punnoor told the daily. “It seemed someone had hurled stones.”

The Kerala state interior minister, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, told the daily that the incident would be investigated.

“Cops would also examine if the attack had any link with such incidents in Karnataka,” he reportedly said. “No one will be allowed to create communal riots in the state.”

In the western state of Jharkhand, Hindu villagers attacked Christians of a Believers’ Church and pressured them to “reconvert” to Hinduism in Talatad village (under Patratu police station) in Hazaribagh district on Sunday (Sept. 14), reported the Christian Legal Association.

Pastor Cyril Tamgaria and 18 others were worshiping in the house of Badhi Oraon when Hindu extremists surrounded the house. They beat them, took them forcibly to a temple in a nearby jungle and asked them to “return” to their old faith. Local Christians reported the incident to police, however, and officers freed the Christians.

The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Church in India, said in a statement that the Christian community in India has been conducting itself in a peaceful manner throughout the ordeals, and “even under extreme provocation it has exercised restraint.”

“It is not to be construed as weakness,” he said, “but a preferred option based on sound principles of civilized living.”

Joseph added that the community continued to render its services to all sectors of society without discrimination.

“Nevertheless, baseless allegations of fraudulent conversion have long been hurled at it by certain vested interests whose chief agenda seems to be social polarization on the lines of religious beliefs,” he said. “We, as responsible citizens of India, will not succumb to their divisive tactics, but continue to work, in the spirit of Christ our master, for the unity, integrity and progress of the nation.”

 

Women’s Group Pans Official Assessment of Orissa

Dismissing claims by government officials, the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) reported that their findings from a visit to Orissa’s Kandhamal district last week did match statements made by the central and state governments before the Supreme Court.

Annie Raja, general secretary of the NFIW, told media that the team she led to the riot-torn district Sept. 9-12 concluded that a judicial inquiry was inadequate to uncover abuses.

The NFIW demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the killing of Laxmanananda Saraswati and subsequent riots in Kandhamal district. The organization’s report notes that the situation in the district was tense and a sense of security was absent among the Christian minority community.

Calling conditions in the relief camps “pathetic,” with about 20,000 people living with inadequate medical facilities, Raja reportedly said that camps with more than 700 children and around 30 pregnant women did not have a pediatrician or a gynecologist.

The NFIW demanded that civil society organizations and women’s organizations be allowed to participate in relief and rehabilitation operations.

Orissa officials have asked the central government to allow the state to retain central and paramilitary forces until the end of October in light of approaching festivals.

Home Secretary T.K. Mishra has described the situation in Kandhamal as “satisfactory” and requested the recall of the Border Security Force, as “they did not fit into the situation” in Orissa. He added, however, that the state needed Central Reserve Police Force and Rapid Action Force personnel to deal with any rioting. He also acknowledged that sporadic violence was taking place in some villages of the Kandhamal district.

Report from Compass Direct News