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

INDIA: POLICE DO LITTLE TO PROTECT CHRISTIANS IN ORISSA


Survivors fleeing to state capital continue to receive accounts of violence.

BHUBANESWAR, India, September 4 (Compass Direct News) – Christian victims of Hindu extremist violence who have fled to the capital of the eastern state of Orissa said state police have been mere spectators as mayhem continued a 12th consecutive day.

Attacks on Christians and their property and institutions began in Orissa’s Kandhamal district following the killing of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples on August 23. Maoists claimed responsibility for the murders on Monday (Sept. 1), though the statement did nothing to slow Hindu extremist violence that Christian leaders say has claimed more than 100 lives.

Among those who have fled to Bhubaneswar was Father Prabodha Kumar, a Catholic priest who reached the Catholic Archbishop’s House in the capital after a seven-day journey from Onjamundi village in Kandhamal. He was among other fearful sojourners at the house whose mobile phones constantly rang with news of more attacks from their relatives, friends and church members in interior villages of Kandhamal.

Fr. Kumar looked deeply troubled after one such phone call yesterday.

“My brother has been forced to ‘reconvert’ to Hinduism, as he was told that if he did not do so, his house would be destroyed,” he said.

Asked why he did not report the abuse to the police, the priest told Compass that if police officers could “witness Christians being brutally attacked,” why would they do anything to save his brother?

A few minutes later, Fr. Kumar’s phone rang once again. This time, it was about Christians in Kanpada village in Balliguda Block (Kandhamal district) being told to “reconvert” if they did not want their houses to be burned.

Shortly thereafter, another victim at the Archbishop’s House received a phone call reporting that at least 19 houses and churches were burned down that morning in Lujurmunda village, under Tikabali police station jurisdiction in Kandhamal.

 

State Inaction

That police did nothing to protect Christians is the assertion of most of the victims of Orissa violence.

Ravindranath Pradhan, a 45-year-old former soldier for the Indian Army, told Compass that two policemen came to him in his village, Gadragaon – also under the jurisdiction of Tikabali police station in Kandhamal – on August 24 and asked if he had heard the news about Saraswati’s killing. The officers told him to be “cautious,” but when he said police should protect him and his family, they said they didn’t have enough force to do so and left the village.

A little while later, he said, a mob of around 50 Hindu extremists stormed into the village and burned 31 houses belonging to Christians. The mob burned and killed his brother, Rasanand Pradhan, who suffers from paralysis, as he lay on his bed in a room that was set on fire.

“There is a police post in Pasora village, around five kilometers [three miles] from Gadragaon, but there was not even a single policeman in the village at the time of the attack,” the former soldier told Compass.

Ravindranath Pradhan, along with more than 100 Christians – including women, children and babies from his village, walked to reach Bhubaneswar, covering more than 300 kilometers (186 miles). He walked and used various means of transport, halting in numerous forests, before he was able to reach the state capital on Tuesday (Sept. 2).

“It took us four long days to reach Bhubaneswar,” Pradhan said. “We did not eat anything. We survived on water from rivers along the route. We also encountered wild animals in some forests.”

Pradhan had severe swelling of his left foot. One of his brothers was recovering in a hospital.

Many Christians from Gadragaon village reached Bhubaneswar on August 28. They were taken by local Christians to a YMCA center, where several other victims also are temporarily residing.

Christian leaders estimate at least 40,000 people have taken refuge in forests, and some 20,000 persons have fled to 10 government relief camps.

 

Police Afraid of VHP

Father Mathew Puthyadam of Christ the King Catholic Church in Phulbani town in Kandhamal also blames police for inaction.

At around 8:30 p.m. on August 24, he heard a mob shouting anti-Christian slogans, he said.

“I knew the church was going to be attacked,” Fr. Puthyadam said, his voice still trembling with fear. “I escaped to a nearby house when I saw a crowd of around 4,000 people carrying the body of Saraswati coming towards the church. The district collector [administrative head], the Deputy Inspector General [DIG] of Police, and several police personnel were also there.”

The Saraswati funeral procession stopped outside the church building, with the Hindu extremists carrying the body of Saraswati before its gate. The mob then broke the boundary wall and damaged statues and a cross.

“The collector, the DIG and other policemen witnessed it without doing anything,” Puthyadam recalled. “The DIG merely told the crowd, ‘Enough, enough, now move on.’ It is only when the crowd pelted stones on the police, and some of them got hurt, that the DIG asked his force to use batons to disperse the crowd.”

A federal security force also blamed Orissa state police for failing to prevent attacks on Christians.

On Friday (Aug. 29), the commandant of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Darshan Lal Gola, told The Indian Express newspaper that there was “complete breakdown of the state’s law and order machinery.” He pointed out that the CRPF rounded up 75 rioters in Deegei village under the Raikia police station, but local police refused to put them behind the bars.

A local human rights activist, Dhirendra Panda, said the state administration and police were afraid of VHP extremists.

“The state government did not conduct an autopsy on Saraswati’s body,” Panda said. “The body was not even taken to a hospital. Why didn’t the government follow the required procedure of law?”

Panda also pointed out that while the Orissa government put a restriction on all political party members and rights activists to visit Kandhamal, it gave police protection to VHP General Secretary Praveen Togadia to visit Saraswati’s Ashram (religious center) on August 25.

“Togadia was escorted by the police,” he said.

India’s Supreme Court reacted angrily to the Orissa administration’s denials yesterday of ongoing attacks, as justices ordered a commitment under oath for Orissa to provide protection to its people and their property.

Acting on Christian leaders’ charges that police were colluding with perpetrators and that the state government was a mute spectator, the court asked the Orissa chief secretary to file an affidavit today stating that the administration “will take all steps to protect life and property.”

Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan and Justices P. Sathasivam and J.M. Panchal had been enraged by a denial from state counsel Jana Ranjan Das that “allegations about continuing communal violence are false.”

Thus the Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered Orissa state to report on steps taken to stop the wave of anti-Christian violence. The court order came after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ordered the state to punish those responsible for murder and arson.

In calling for the resignation of the entire state government of Orissa, on Monday (Sept. 1), Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said that the death toll from the violence had reached 100 “and more butchered bodies and burnt corpses are being found.”

“In Bakingia, two families of seven Christians – Daniel Naik and Michael Naik and their families – were tortured and killed,” George said. “Their bodies were found with their heads pulped and smashed, they were recognized by their clothes. Bakingia is about eight kilometers [five miles] from Raikia police station.”

 

Another Inflammatory Procession

The Orissa government today put a ban on another rally planned by the VHP to take the ashes of Saraswati in public procession from one village to another in Orissa beginning on Sunday (September 7), reported the Press Trust of India news agency.

The ban was announced by the state government in hearing of a petition filed by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath from Orissa in the Supreme Court of India.

The VHP and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a partner of the ruling government led by the Biju Janata Dal party, continue to blame Christians for the killing of Saraswati and four others in spite of the Maoist claim of responsibility for the assassination.

When Compass spoke to VHP Orissa State President Gauri Prasad Rath, he said the state government was wrongly linking Saraswati’s killing to Maoists.

“We know and believe that Christians killed him,” he said.

When Compass asked how he could say Christians killed him, he replied, “Christians attacked him on December 24, 2007.”

Saraswati allegedly incited the attacks on Christians and their property in Kandhamal during last Christmas season. The violence lasted for more than a week beginning December 24, and killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches.

The 2007 attacks were allegedly carried out mainly by VHP extremists under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on Saraswati by local Christians. Hundreds of Christians were displaced by the violence in Kandhamal, and many are still in various relief camps set up by the state government.

Christians make up 2.4 percent of Orissa’s population, or 897,861 of the total 3.7 million people.  

Report from Compass Direct News