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

Religious Club Closures in Schools Touch Nerve in Malaysia


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, August 11 (CDN) — More closures of non-Muslim religious clubs in Malaysian schools, including Christian fellowships, have surfaced since the first incident was reported on July 12.

Loh Seng Kok, central committee member of the Malaysian Chinese Association, said at a July 23 press conference that the situation was “getting worse” and that the initial incident at Klang High School was not an “isolated issue.”

Loh based his assessment on complaints received by various religious society representatives. Present with Loh at the press conference were Vice-President of the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia Loh Yit Phing, President of the Subang Jaya Buddhist Association Chim Siew Choon and Executive Secretary of the Christian Federation of Malaysia Tan Kong Beng.

The Malaysian Insider online news agency reported that Chin Fook Khiang, a parent, disclosed that the Buddhist Society and Christian Fellowship in SMK SS17 in Subang Jaya, Selangor were ordered to stop activities in January 2009 – and that it was the second time the clubs were ordered to close by education authorities since 2005.

The religious clubs were closed even though they had been in operation since before 2000, excluding them from the need for official approval. According to Circular Bill 20/2000, non-Muslim religious clubs formed after education authorities issued the circular in 2000 must obtain their approval before they are allowed. Clubs that existed before the circular was issued do not require approval.

Malaysiakini news agency on July 23 cited an unnamed retired teacher who described the situation as “very serious,” to the extent that some teachers had been transferred because they were active in Christian fellowship activities in their schools.

Loh called for a fairer treatment of non-Muslim associations in the co-curricular activities listed in the co-curriculum management guidelines issued to schools. The guidelines only allow for Islamic religious societies to operate unconditionally without requiring prior approval from the education authorities.

Several political leaders, including veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, have called on authorities to revoke outdated directives and circulars that contravene the Federal Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

 

Public Outcry

Reports of non-Muslim religious club closures first surfaced when The Sun reported on July 12 that three non-Muslim religious student groups, including the Christian Union at Klang High School, were ordered closed by the Selangor education department last month.

Following the report, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Philips, president of the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), issued a strongly worded statement seeking “immediate confirmation” and “prompt explanation” from authorities.

“Needless to say,” Phillips added, “if indeed there had been such a directive to close non-Muslim religious societies in schools or to not permit the setting up of such societies in schools, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of National Unity should not be in doubt that MCCBCHST shall protest such a policy with the strongest possible vehemence.”

Following public outcry over the closure, Alimuddin Dom, director-general of education, reportedly said that the directive was a “misunderstanding” by the Selangor Education Department and ordered a reinstatement of the affected religious clubs.

Malaysia’s population is about 60 percent Muslim, 19 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. About 6 percent are Hindu, with 2.6 percent of the population adhering to Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions.

 

Church Attack Trial

Reports of the religious club closures came amid the trial of three men who have been charged with arson in the attack on Metro Tabernacle church’s building earlier this year.

Brothers Raja Muhammad Faizal Raja Ibrahim and Raja Muhammad Idzham Raja Ibrahim, along with their friend Azuwan Shah Ahmad, were charged with committing mischief by torching the church building at 11:50 p.m. on Jan. 7. Since the trial started on July 6, however, the court has acquitted Azuwan due to lack of evidence.

Both brothers deny burning the church building, though they admit to witnessing the incident. They claim they left the scene of the burning to attend a barbeque at a friend’s house. Raja Muhammad Faizal claims he sustained burns from starting a fire at the barbeque, while his brother Raja Muhammad Idzham says he was injured in the course of helping his brother take off his flaming shirt on the occasion.  

The trial is ongoing.

Metro Tabernacle Church was among several churches that came under attack in January following a controversial court ruling that allowed the Herald, a Catholic weekly, to use the word “Allah” in the multilingual publication. The Herald had challenged the ban imposed by the Home Ministry.

The court decision angered some Muslims in the country who claim the term is exclusive to Islam.

Following the high court decision, the Home Ministry filed an appeal in February and won a stay, preventing the weekly from using the word until the case was addressed in the court of appeal. To date there has been no indication when the case will be heard.

On Aug. 1, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was widely reported as saying his predecessor, Syed Hamid Albar, should not have banned the word “Allah” from being used by the Roman Catholic Church, and that the decision will continue to haunt his ministry for a very long time.

Report from Compass Direct News

Recent Incidents of Persecution


Karnataka, India, June 30 (CDN) — Hindu extremists on June 23 beat two pastors, seriously injuring them in Chandapura, Anekal. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that after pastors Shidu Kurialose and Nithya Vachanam of Bethel Assembly of God Church conducted a Christian meeting in a home, armed extremists attacked them at a tea stall. The extremists accused the pastors of forceful conversion and started beating them with iron rods. Both pastors sustained serious injuries and were admitted in a local hospital. No police complaint was filed.

Tamil Nadu – After opposing a Christian convention on June 17-20, Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal on June 22 burned at least seven vehicles belonging to Jesus With Us Pentecostal Church in Mathikere, Hosur. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the incident started when the extremists on June 18 called on local authorities to revoke the organizers’ permit and convinced local Hindu shop owners to close their stores. Police arrested five Hindu extremists in connection with anti-Christian violence. Subsequently, under police protection, Christians moved their meeting to another area eight kilometers (five miles) from the original site.

Uttar Pradesh – Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh disrupted the prayer meeting of the Jesus Church (Isha Garh) on June 21 in Firozabad and accused the pastor of forceful conversion. A source said the extremists forced their way into the church building and manhandled Pastor Breymond Shastri. The next day the extremists went to newspaper Amar Ujala with the accusation, and the local periodical published a false report that Pastor Shatri was taking part in forceful conversion activities. Area Christian leaders said no forceful conversion was taking place. The extremists warned the pastor he would be harmed if he continued to conduct worship services.

Uttar Pradesh – About eight Hindu extremists on June 20 disrupted the Sunday worship service of Apostolic Christian Assembly Church in Gorakpur. After shouting anti-Christian slogans outside the church building, the extremists stormed in and ranted against Christianity, putting a halt to the meeting as they accused the pastor of forceful conversion. Police arrived and chased the extremists away. At press time the extremists were still issuing threats to the pastor, warning him of harm if he continued conducting worship meetings, the Evangelical Fellowship of India reported. Police have provided protection to the pastor.

Karnataka – Based on a complaint by Hindu extremists against Christians of forceful conversion, Karnataka officials closed down a Christian orphanage on June 16 in Karwar. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that state officials visited a school at the orphanage and issued a closure order to Spring of Hope Orphanage and Vocational Arts Training Centre, which has 61 tribal students. The home has been functioning for four years in an area long occupied by Siddi tribal Christians. At press time area Christian leaders were taking steps to resolve the conflict.

New Delhi – Suspected Islamic extremists beat an Afghani Christian, seriously injuring him, on June 14 in Malviya Nagar. A Christian source said two Islamic extremists on a motorbike beat Hamid Ullah on his head as he was walking home. The Christian fell on his stomach and the extremists continued to beat him, denigrating his faith, calling him “pagan” and warning him to convert to Islam or face harm. Afghani Christians have been facing warnings, threats and attacks in different areas of New Delhi, the source said, and the advocacy department of the Evangelical Fellowship of India has taken steps to help them.

Karnataka – After Hindu extremists from the Sri Ram Sena (Lord Ram Army) on June 9 attacked Pastor Vasanthe Kathedar of New India Church (NIC), police arrested him for allegedly creating communal disharmony and disrupting the peace – that is, practicing his Christian faith among Hindus – in Okkere, Belgaum. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the incident took place at the house of a NIC member where the Christians were meeting. The assault on the pastor lasted for about an hour and, as is customary in India, when police arrived they arrested and charged the victim of the crime.

Orissa – Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal on June 9 accused three Christians of forceful conversion and attacked them in Deogarh, Sambalpur. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that the incident took place when Hindu Biranchi Kistotta invited Pastor Lamuel Panaik, Pastor N. Philemon and Sudhir Kumar to celebrate the healing of his son, for whom Pastor Panaik had prayed. People of various faiths attended the celebration, including Hindu members of Kistotta’s family. At about 12:30 p.m., seven Hindu extremists accompanied by media personnel suddenly arrived and called Pastor Patnaik to come out of his house. When the pastor refused, the extremists rushed in and forcefully pulled out the three Christians. The extremists accused them of forceful conversion and beat Sudhir Kumar while manhandling the two pastors. Police arrived and questioned those present about whether forceful conversion was taking place, and people came forward to say that the Christians were innocent. Police took the three Christians to the police station as a safety measure, however, and arranged for their return home at 10:30 p.m. No police complaint was filed as the Christians chose to forgive the attackers.

Orissa – Hindu extremists on June 8 brutally attacked a Christian and threatened to kill him in Nuapada. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that six Hindu extremists armed with daggers and sticks broke into the house of Bhakta Bivar, 19, while his parents were at a prayer meeting. The extremists verbally abused Bivar for his faith and started beating him. They dragged him to a Hindu temple, where they told him to deny Jesus as they continued to beat him, forced on him food offered to idols and threatened to kill him and his parents if they did not convert to Hinduism. The extremists burned four Bibles they had taken from his home and, forcing him to wear a saffron garment symbolic of the Hindu religion, dragged him out to the street, falsely announcing that he had returned to Hinduism. The extremists left after threatening to kill him if he continued to believe in Christ, as they have forbidden the existence of Christianity in the area. Following the filing of a complaint with police, five Hindu extremists were arrested the next day.

Karnataka – Police on June 7 arrested two Christian women after Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh disrupted Sunday worship in Bovi Colony, Chickmagalur. According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India, the extremists barged into a church’s worship service and accused Kadaur Devaki and a pastor identified only as Lalathamma of creating communal disharmony and disrupting the peace. Police soon arrived and arrested the two women for “deliberate and malicious acts to outrage religious feelings” and sent them to Hassan Jail.

Tamil Nadu – Hindu extremists from a religious and cultural organization formed to defend the Hindu religion, the Hindu Munnani, demolished a church building under construction on May 28 near Rameshwaram. Catholic sources said the demolition came after a local Hindu Munnani leader identified only as Ramamurthy filed a complaint against construction of the building. Government officials sided with the Hindu extremists, claiming that the one church building, St. Anthony church, already existed and that a new one would create tensions. The structure was demolished, leaving area Christians shocked and shaken.

Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal attacked a Christian school program from May 20 to May 29 in Jagbalput, beating a pastor and two teachers on May 27. Beaten were Pastor Rahul Pant and two teachers from Mission India. A source told Compass the extremists accused the Christians of forceful conversion and of using a government school for the Christian program, called Children Development Program (CDP), without permission. They also accused the Christians of distributing books containing conversion activities (biblical narratives). The extremists took the Christians to a police station, where officers questioned them. The Christians said they had permission from the village head, but the assailants said they need permission from the local collector. The parties reached an agreement wherein the Christians were forced to stop the CDP in the government school until they obtain the collector’s permission. The Christians were released without charges.

Karnataka – Opposing a church leader for conducting prayer meetings in his house, Karnataka police on May 26 verbally abused pastor Shiva Kumar and warned him not to conduct further Christian meetings in Mysore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that at about 7 p.m. police summoned Pastor Kumar and detained him until 10:30 p.m. Police forcefully obtained a written statement from the pastor, took his photograph and warned him not to conduct any Christian activities in the area.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists accused Pastor T. Paul of forceful conversion and beat him on May 24 in Narayanpet, Mahabubnagar, seriously injuring him. The All India Christian Council reported the Hindu extremists stopped Pastor Paul as he returned home in a Jeep after conducting a worship meeting. The extremists stopped his vehicle and dragged him out before beating him and accusing him of forceful conversion. The pastor received hospital treatment for internal injuries. Area Christian leaders have asked police to arrest the assailants.

Report from Compass Direct News

KENYA: ISLAMISTS ATTACK CHURCH IN NORTHERN TOWN


Effort to replace building with mosque injures 10 Christians, ruins structure.

GARISSA, Kenya, September 29 (Compass Direct News) – A longstanding effort to replace a church with a mosque in Kenya’s northern town of Garissa culminated in an attack by 50 Muslim youths this month that left the worship building in ruins.

The gang stormed the building of Redeemed Gospel Church on Sept. 14 and pelted the congregation with stones, sending many Christians fleeing while others became embroiled in fistfights. Ten Christians received hospital treatment for minor injuries and were released.

Church leaders said the Muslim mob also destroyed pews, damaged the church building’s walls of corrugated iron, smashed the glass-mounted pulpit and burned the church banner with its stand.

“We had just started the Sunday service when, without warning, a rowdy group of about 50 Muslim youths invaded the church, pelting stones at us and destroying our structures,” said the church youth chairman, identified only as Suma.

Local media reported that the 10 church members were hospitalized, but a district nurse at the hospital told Compass that no one was admitted due to the violence. A church elder at East Africa Pentecostal Church in Garissa, about 400 kilometers (249 miles) from Nairobi, confirmed that the church members were treated at the hospital and allowed to go home.

Tensions between Christians and the Muslim-majority population in the semi-desert town of 20,000 people began simmering after Muslims built a mosque next to the church plot at No. 21 Windsor in June 2007. Purchasing its land on Nov. 1, 1999, the church had begun worshipping there by early 2001, eventually growing to 400 members.

Church leaders complained to the district commissioner in June 2007 that the new mosque was built too close to the church – only three meters separate the two structures – and that it was blocking the church entryway.

“Prior to that, the owner of that land had promised to use half of it and sell the other half to the church,” the church leaders reported to the district commissioner in June 2007. “But in 2007, she changed her mind and gave it to the sheikhs to build the mosque. We reported the matter to the DC’s office that it would not go well with the church.”

Officials had ruled that no further permanent structures were to be set up on the land by either party until a later date to be determined by the district commissioner.

“The church faithfully obeyed, but the Muslims defied the orders and began immediately to put up a permanent structure,” according to the letter church leaders wrote to the district commissioner. The building of the mosque was allegedly sponsored by M.K. Roble, a wealthy Muslim in Garissa, according to the letter.

“The problems between the church and the Muslims began and have escalated since then,” it states.

Government security intelligence had reported that Muslims planned to destroy the church if it continued to operate within the residential area, District Commissioner (DC) Alois Okango told Compass. The administration had proposed a new site for the church to worship, Jamhuri Club, but two days before the attack church leaders wrote two letters to Okango saying they would remain worshipping in their building.

“We would like to notify you that our church members have decided to have our Sunday service at our usual place on September 14 and not at the new site of Jamhuri Club,” they wrote in one of the letters, “because we have come to realize that the new site is only temporary, and we will only move out of our premise if we are guaranteed a permanent place of worship.”

Okango told Compass that to avert a crisis, the administration has decided that the church should relocate temporarily to a site near an agricultural showground. The government also advised the church to sell its property near the mosque and buy another piece of land, preferably outside Garissa town center.

This suggestion, Okango told Compass, did not augur well with church members, who felt they had already established the church at the site and that it was the mosque that should be moving.

“The Christians threatened to go and worship in the ruined premises if no action was taken,” Okango said. “They said they were ready to die for the sake of their faith.”

The government is striving to avert further incidents by preventing the Christians from returning to the ruined structure, according to a Provincial Police official identified only as Chelimo. With tensions expected to rise during the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he said police were taking precautionary measures to ensure that the congregation never returned to their property.

“To allow this would be suicidal,” Chelimo told Compass. “We have deployed five security guards every day to make sure that the members of the church will not enter its structure.”

 

Elusive Justice

Wondering why those who attacked the church had not been arrested and charged in court, Redeemed Gospel Church pastor David Matolo said the government should punish the assailants.

“The church has the right to be protected by the government – allowing the minority Christians to suffer is quite wrong,” Pastor Matolo told Compass. “Why should the Muslims interfere with the church’s worship? I as their pastor cannot shy away when my members are ill-treated. We are ready to pay the price, but we want justice to be done.”

He said church leaders had agreed on an alternative site only to have the district commissioner suddenly revoke it.

“The DC had promised to locate us to the provincial residential area, and we had cleared the said site, only to be stopped without prior notice,” Pastor Matolo said. “Now we have no place to worship.”

A missionary from Tanzania who works in the area informed Compass that Muslims have distributed leaflets threatening to destroy all churches in Garissa. They have also threatened to burn Garissa’s open-air market operated by Christians from “down Kenya,” that is, non-Muslims, he said.

The missionary said the safety of the more than 2,000 Christians in Garissa is in jeopardy, and he appealed to the government to protect the right of worship of all people.

“It is quite unfair that the Redeemed Gospel Church has been displaced and is now praying under a tree in an open space with no amenities,” he said.

District Commissioner Okango said that the administration must protect Muslims from the noise of worship emanating from church at night that has disturbed residents, as well as prevent clashes. In both the mosque and church, loud speakers had been set up facing each other with confrontational messages blaring from each.

“The government is sensitive to the feelings of the people,” Okango said. “We cannot allow disorder to reign in North Eastern Province in the name of religious patriotism.”

Land issues alone have not been responsible for tensions in the area. The Rev. Ibrahim Kamwaro, chairman of the Pastors’ Fellowship in Garissa, said Pastor Matolo had offended Muslims when he preached to a lame Muslim man.

Muslims were said to be upset that the pastor persuaded the disabled man to stop going to the mosque and instead join his church. Pastor Matolo’s alleged promise to the disabled man of a better life offended area Muslims, Rev. Kamwaro said.

Muslims restrict churches in Garissa in various ways: Christians are not allowed conduct prayers, sing or use musical instruments in rented homes owned by Muslims. No teaching of Christian Religious Education in schools is allowed; only Islamic Religious Knowledge is taught.

Garissa has more than 15 Christian denominations, the main ones being the East Africa Pentecostal Church, the Redeemed Gospel Church, the Anglican Church, Deliverance Church, the Full Gospel Churches of Kenya, the Africa Inland Church and African Christian Churches and schools.

Report from Compass Direct News