Christians Fear Civilian Casualties in Burma


Junta targets ethnic minority states as civil war looms.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, December 8 (CDN) — Civilians in two ethnic minority states with large Christian populations fear their lives will be in danger as skirmishes between rebels and a Burmese junta bent on instilling Buddhist nationalism threaten to escalate into war.

“It is likely that the military junta will carry out a military offensive against ethnic armed groups now that the elections are over,” Nang Mya Naddy, ethnic program coordinator of the Democratic Voice of Burma radio program, told Compass.

Christians fear that full-scale civil war in Burma (also known as Myanmar) could result in either ethnic cleansing or total subjugation of minorities. Persecution of Christians in Burma is part of a wider campaign against ethnic minority tribes to create a uniform society in which the only accepted religion is Buddhism, according to the British daily Telegraph, citing a 2007 government memo circulated in Karen state giving instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state.

Independent media reports suggest that the possibility of a major clash between ethnic armies and government troops is highest in Kachin and Karen states. Burma’s ethnic minorities, who inhabit states along Burma’s border with Thailand, China and India, have been demanding independence or autonomy for decades.

There are an estimated 1.2 million people in Kachin state, of which around 1 million are Christian. About 40 percent of the 3.5 million people in Karen state are estimated to be Christian. The Burmese junta, dominated by an ethnic Burman Buddhist majority, also seems to be preparing for war in the predominantly Buddhist state of Shan.

The junta has blocked trade links and deployed troops in Karen state, where the Karen National Liberation Army has not been offered a truce.

“The refugees from Burma continue to flow into neighboring Thailand as fighting fails to die down in Karen state between Burmese government troops and breakaway forces of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army [DKBA],” reported The Irrawaddy, a Chiang Mai, Thailand-based publication covering Burma and Southeast Asia. “The latest military action was reported early on Monday [Dec. 6] from Myawaddy Township, where the Metta Linn Myaing village was shelled by junta troops. More than a dozen artillery shells hit the area of the village, according to local sources.”

Around 1,200 refugees are living at a border patrol police base in Mahawan area in Tak Province’s Mae Sot district in Thailand, a Thai official told The Irrawaddy.

“Sadly, so far neither side in the recent fighting has shown much regard for the civilians caught in the crossfire,” Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told The Irrawaddy. “The situation in Karen state was further complicated when the Karen National Union (KNU) entered into the conflict in support of the DKBA breakaway forces.”

David Takapaw, vice chairman of the KNU, told The Irrawaddy, “We will not stop fighting if they [the Burmese army] insist on trying to deploy in our area.”

The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers (FBR) relief aid group. The Burmese Army attacked a Christian village in Karen state four months ago, according to the FBR, and on July 23 burned all houses and the state’s largest church in Tha Dah Der village.

 

Saber-Rattling

To intensify its battle for control in ethnic minority states after its Nov. 7 election victory, the Burmese army has blocked sea and land routes to Karen and Kachin states, increased deployment of troops in areas controlled by rebel groups and transported ammunition in large quantities.

In 2008, Burma’s government ordered all armed groups under ceasefires to meld into the Border Guard Forces. Many rebel groups have refused to comply.

Although the election – the first in the last two decades – was held last month and the government released pro-democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, it is becoming clearer daily that the junta is in no mood to address grievances of the country’s ethnic minorities.

While rights groups around the world are calling for national reconciliation, the Burmese junta, whose proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, is likely to have a majority in parliament, is preparing for a military fight with ethnic minority rebels.

“The recent purchase by the State Peace and Development Council [SPDC] of 24 Russian military helicopters, as well as the establishment of new helicopter bases near the Salween River, suggests that the Tatmadaw, the name for the Burmese military, is gearing up for a ‘military solution’ to the ethnic issue,” noted an opinion piece in The Irrawaddy on Nov. 29.

One of the military’s main targets is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

The KIA has had a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government since 1994, but “it has recently been broken, and we are waiting to see what will happen next – if we can reconcile or not,” a leader of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand identified only as Shirley told Compass. “The KIA wants reconciliation with the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council, Burma’s junta-controlled regime], but the government hasn’t allowed Kachin political groups to participate in politics or in the recent election.”

Indirect negotiations for peace are underway now, she said, adding that she was unsure if the Kachin will be attacked or not. “The KIA is ready to fight back,” she said.

Media reports indicate that the likelihood of the Burmese regime attacking is greater than chances of it seeking reconciliation.

 

Kachin State

“The threat to the Kachin Independence Organization [KIO, armed wing of the KIA] has increased manifold with the Burmese military junta dispatching significant quantity of arms to Kachin state, northern Burma,” reported the independent online Kachin News Group (KNG).

The military has also ordered the KIO to close down all its branch liaison offices in northern Burma. Only the main liaison office in Kachin’s capital, Myitkyina, has been allowed to function, KNG added.

In addition, the junta has provided arms training to workers of an agriculture company it supports, Yuzana Co., “in preparation for civil war with the Kachin Independence Organization,” the news group reported. In October, the military provided “60 Chinese-made M-22 assault rifles, copies of the Russian AK-47” to Yuzana workers in the Hugawng Valley, according to KNG.

The Rangoon-based Yuzana Co. came to the Hugawng Valley in 2006 and “grabbed up about 400,000 acres from the ethnic Kachin people with assistance from the local Burmese military and administrative authorities,” KNG reported. “Since 2006, the company has transported thousands of Burman ethnics from southern Burma to the Hugawng Valley every year.”

Mizzima, a New-Delhi based news organization, reported that the KIO has urged businessmen in the northern Burma stronghold of Laiza to leave, given the high probability of military conflict. A KIO spokesperson told Mizzima that “fighting was likely to break out soon.”

KNG also reported on Dec. 2 that Burma’s military junta “has a secret mission” to spread HIV in Kachin state as part of an ethnic cleansing effort. “Beginning 1990, the junta has systematically dispatched HIV-infected sex workers from the Thai-Burma border to Kachin state, especially to the Hpakant jade mining city,” it reported.

Shirley of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand said she was not sure if “ethnic cleansing” was the goal of the Burmese army, but that the junta did want to spread AIDS as well as sell drugs to the Kachin people.

“The SPDC does not allow the expansion of churches and took over church land in certain areas,” she said. “The construction of new churches is not allowed, and the Kachin people have to ask permission to organize religious meetings, which is a detriment to community-building activities since the church is the foundation for the community, with 85 percent of the population being Christians.”

 

Emulate Sri Lanka?

Christians also fear that the Burmese regime may emulate the Sri Lankan government’s recent war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Rights groups say thousands of civilians were killed in Sri Lanka before its government claimed victory over the areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers.

But Htet Aung, election specialist for The Irrawaddy, told Compass that while the Burmese regime may use Sri Lanka’s military strategy, “the nature of armed conflicts and their historical contexts are different.”

“While Sri Lankan’s government faced LTTE alone, the junta is now facing several armed ethnic groups,” Aung said. “The junta, unlike Sri Lanka’s present government, is facing a strong democratic leadership by Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Tensions in ethnic states are far greater than has been reported, sources said. Shirley added that there are only a few channels of communication in Kachin state, and the suffering of civilians there often goes unreported.

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, 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.

Report from Compass Direct News

Unnamed Christians Accused after Muslim Attack in Pakistan


Armed Islamic assault following fruit stand scuffle leads to police round-up of Christians.

KARACHI, Pakistan, February 26 (CDN) — In the wake of an attack this week by 150 armed Muslims on a Christian colony in this city in Sindh Province, police have filed a false First Information Report (FIR) against 40 unnamed Christians and arrested five, Christian leaders said.

They said the 40 unnamed Christians in the FIR are accused without basis with beating Muslim men, abusing Muslim women and girls, ransacking Muslim homes and looting expensive items from Muslim homes. The false FIR is designed only to harass the Christian community, they said, adding that the five arrested Christians were visitors to the area – the only ones on the street available for police to summarily round up, as they were unaware of the FIR.

Some 150 armed Muslims assaulted the Christian colony of Pahar Ganj in North Nazimabad, Karachi, on Sunday (Feb. 21), damaging two churches, shooting at houses, beating Christians and burning shops and vehicles after a fruit stand vendor attacked a Christian boy for touching his merchandise.

Christian leaders said Muslim extremists helped gather and inflame the assailants, but they said the fruit stand vendor upset with the 14-year-old Christian boy for touching plums on his hand-pulled cart initially instigated the attack. The unnamed vendor reportedly had a previous conflict with the boy, whose name was also withheld, and in objecting to the teenager’s actions he slashed his hand with a fruit knife and threw an iron weight at him, Christian leaders said.

A Muslim eyewitness who spoke on condition of anonymity said the fruit stand was located at the entrance of the colony of more than 1,000 Christian homes. Eyewitnesses said that Christians struck the fruit vendor in the course of rescuing the boy from him.

Touching and even tasting fruit before buying is a common practice in Pakistan, according to Pakistan Christian TV, and the vendor called his fruit “defiled” not because the boy was a Christian – nearly all customers in that area were Christians – but because the vendor had a previous conflict with him and did not want to sell to him.

Social class evidently also played a role. Eyewitnesses said the Muslim fruit vendor yelled, “This Christian Bhangi untouchable has defiled my fruit.” The derogatory “Bhangi,” literally “sewer man,” is commonly used to denigrate Christians in Sindh Province. In the Sindhi language it signifies “unholy” or “untouchable,” with its Punjabi equivalent being “Choohra.”

The conflict quickly took on a religious tint. Bystanders tried to help resolve the conflict between the vendor and the boy, according to eyewitnesses, but the street seller riled up Muslims, mainly those of the Pathan clan, by saying, “My Muslim brethren, pay heed to me – that Christian Bhangi has defiled my fruit and made blasphemous remarks about the Quran.” Later that day, the Christian leaders said, the 150 armed Pathan men attacked the area Christians, who responded by pelting them with stones.

The Rev. Edward Joseph of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi said the furious Muslim mob of armed, mainly Pathan men, gathered at the entrance of the Christian slum and charged in, attacking homes and desecrating and vandalizing St. Mary’s Church of Pakistan and the Interdenominational Calvary Church. Noor Sahotra, a Christian in Pahar Ganj, said he sustained minor injuries in an effort protect St. Mary’s Church of Pakistan.

Anwer Masih, a Christian who witnessed the attack, told Compass that several shops owned and run by Christians were looted and then set on fire, reducing them to ashes and depriving Christians of their livelihood. The rampaging mob also burned vehicles and tires at the main entrance of colony, he said.    

Previously the Rev. Aashiq Pervaiz, head of Interdenominational Calvary Church, reportedly had said Christian leaders had decided not to file charges against the Muslim assailants – presumably to forestall the counter-charges that Muslims typically file as a defensive measure in such conflicts.

More than 200 Christians and Muslims reportedly gathered to resolve tensions on Monday (Feb. 22), with Pervaiz telling the throng that the Christians forgave the attackers and had not filed any charges against assailants.

Shahid Kamal, national director of the Pakistan Campus Crusade for Christ, told Compass that the FIR that Muslims filed against Christians was registered at Noor-e-Jehan road, North Nazimabad Pahar Ganj police station. He said Pahar Gangj police had arrested five Christian visitors to Christian families of the colony.

The Rev. Razzaq Mathews said Muslims have frequently leveled baseless charges of blasphemy against area Christians.

“In the sad Pahar Ganj episode, Christians were attacked for nothing,” he said. “A handful of Muslim extremists persuaded Muslims to assail the Christian residential area as well as to desecrate the holy churches and holy Christian books, including Bible.”

He said the attack lasted for almost two hours.   

Sources told Compass that local politicians and clergymen from both sides were trying to broker a truce. They said Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani has taken notice of the incident and directed the deputy inspector general of Central Karachi district to investigate and submit a report.

Report from Compass Direct News 

KENYA: CHURCH STRUGGLING AFTER ISLAMISTS DESTROY BUILDING


Six months after attack, Muslim assailants still at large; weary congregation faces heat, rain.

GARISSA, Kenya, March 5 (Compass Direct News) – Six months after a gang of Muslim youths ruined a church building in this town in northern Kenya, Christians still worshipping in the sweltering heat of the open air say they feel disillusioned that officials have done nothing to punish the culprits or restore their structure.

On a sunny afternoon last Sept. 14, when angry Muslim youths threw more than 400 members of the Redeemed Gospel Church out of their church building, the Christians hoped they would be able to return to the ruins of their former structure. That hope is quickly giving way to anger, hopelessness and despair.

“After six months in the open, the church feels tired and cheated,” said pastor David Matolo. “We are fed up with the empty promises from the government administration.”

He said the church, which began worshipping in Garissa in early 2001 with only a dozen members, is fast shrinking.

“Our church membership has decreased, which is of great concern to me,” he told Compass. “The church thinks that the government has decided to buy time – almost every month I do book appointments with the relevant authorities, who on several occasions have given us a deaf ear.”

Since the attack, church members have been meeting at the town show grounds. Just a few miles from the Somali border, the site has few trees to protect the congregation from the scorching sun, with temperatures ranging from 92 to 104 degrees F (30 to 40 degrees C).

Asked why he thought government officials were reluctant to grant the church a permanent place of worship as promised, an irritated Matolo did not hesitate to reply.

“The administration has decided, ‘kutesa [inflict pain on us],’ always making promises that never come to pass,” he said. “At times the provincial commissioner deliberately decides not to take my phone calls. I have had a painful experience.”

Matolo said he has asked the administration either to allow the church to build a new structure on land lying idle near a police training college or to let them return to their original site. “We are ready for any eventuality,” he said. “We feel that the administration is not concerned about our spiritual welfare.”

Asked about the pastor’s complaints, provincial police officer Stephen Chelimo told Compass, “The issue at the moment is not within my docket, but wholly rests upon the provincial commissioner.”

But Provincial Commissioner Stephen Maingi said the onus rested on the district commissioner. “Let the district commissioner sort this issue with the pastor,” Maingi said.

District Commissioner Onyango Ogango, in turn, indicated the church itself was the source of problems.

“If the church is allowed to return to their original site, we will expect a fight to erupt with the Muslims,” Ogango said. “Earlier on, the church began very well during its initial stage of inception with controlled worship, but later it turned out to hold noisy prayers and loud songs.”

Further questioned about these allegations, however, Ogango said he would call the pastor to discuss a resolution. Even so, Matolo said previous contact with the district commissioner did not leave him with high expectations.

“Our district commissioner seemed to have no feelings for our predicament,” he said. “The faces of the congregation members speak a lot.”

A glance at the worshippers confirmed his appraisal. They looked weary and anxious, with impending April rains expected to add to the indignity of their situation. Matolo said his congregation feels that soon it will be difficult to worship at all.

Even a temporary home did not appear to be forthcoming. The pastor said their request for a site near the provincial commissioner’s residence was dismissed on the grounds that it would create a security concern.

 

Radical Islamic Influence

Tensions between Christians and the Muslim-majority population in the semi-desert town of 20,000 people began in June 2007, when Muslims built a mosque too close to the church building – only three meters separated the two structures.

Matolo said pleas to District Commissioner Ogango did nothing to reverse the encroachment of Muslim worshippers.

Land issues alone have not been responsible for tensions in the area. The Rev. Ibrahim Kamwaro, chairman of the Pastors’ Fellowship in Garissa, said 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.

Matolo’s alleged promise to the disabled man of a better life offended area Muslims, Rev. Kamwaro said.

Christians feel increasingly hunted and haunted as the spread of Islamic extremism is fast gaining ground in this town, located about 400 kilometers (249 miles) from Nairobi, the capital. In neighboring Somalia, newly elected President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed on Feb. 28 offered the introduction of sharia (Islamic law) in exchange for a truce with a rebel extremist group said to have ties to al Qaeda, al Shabaab; the rebels said they would keep fighting. Many fear that Muslim youths in this lawless part of Kenya will be tempted to adopt the radical, uncompromising posture of the fighters.

To date, the gang of more than 50 Muslim youths who attacked worshippers and brought their church to ruins have not been apprehended. Members of the congregation feel justice is increasingly elusive.

In Garissa, Muslims restrict churches in other ways. Christians are not allowed to pray, 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, including the East Africa Pentecostal Church, the Redeemed Gospel Church, the Anglican Church, Deliverance Church, Full Gospel Churches of Kenya and the African Inland Church.

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN CHRISTIANS JITTERY AS ISLAMIC LAW ENFORCED IN SWAT VALLEY


Churches have joined rights groups in expressing anxiety over Pakistan’s federal government agreeing to enforce Islamic law in the troubled Malakand Division of the country in order to broker a truce with pro-Taliban groups there, reports Ecumenical News International.

In the region that includes the Swat Valley, which is about 160 kilometres from Islamabad, the Pakistan government agreed on 17 February to introduce the Islamic legal system called Sharia, thereby making constitutional and the juridical law redundant.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

CONGO: CIVIL WAR COMES TO GOMA


The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is fast approaching the same level of crisis as the Rwanda genocide. Rwandan-backed Tutsi rebels have now closed on the Congo city of Goma. There are reports that there are now some 250 000 displaced persons in the Congo.

Once again it is the civilian population that is bearing the brunt of the civil war with tens of thousands fleeing the fighting, looting and raping that is being conducted on a widespread scale.

Tutsi rebels have now forced some 50 000 refugees from their refugee camps and burnt the camps to the ground.

United Nations peacekeepers have increasingly become irrelevant as the conflagration grows.

The civil war has come about because of the Congolese government’s inability/failure to disarm Hutu militants who fled Rwanda and took refuge in the forests of eastern Congo following the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The Tutsi rebel leader is Laurent Nkunda, a former Congolese general who is fighting for Tutsi rights. The Rwandan government is backing the rebels.

The rebel leader is said to be an Evangelical Christian, yet he is a brutal warlord responsible for the same manner of atrocities as those of the government troops in Goma.

A truce had been reached in 2003 after some 5 million deaths and a war involving some 8 African countries, but this has now been destroyed with the latest round of fighting which began in August 2008. There has been a ceasefire in force since last Wednesday, but it is unsure if this will hold for much longer with government troops going on a rampage through Goma, raping, looting, burning and killing civilians. There is no reason to expect it will be any different should the rebel army move on Goma as well.