South-Eastern Australia is in the grip of a heatwave with temperatures threatening the record books. Temperatures across the country are reaching between 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), with the hottest recorded temperatures in many centres threatened, as well as the highest temperature every recorded in Australia.
For more on the fires visit:
Battlefront NSW: State on bushfire red alert | News.com.au.
The Group Formerly Known as the Children of God Cleaning Up Their Act
The following article reports on reforms taking place within the former Children of God sect, now known as The Family International (TFI).
Madhya Pradesh, India, December 31 (CDN) — Hindu nationalists on Dec. 26 beat a Christian distributing gospel tracts in Damoh Naka at Jabalpur. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at about 3 p.m. Devanand Dandale was distributing literature when Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal and Dharam Sena grabbed him, seized his mobile phone and money and phoned other extremists to come. A GCIC coordinator told Compass that for nearly two hours the extremists repeatedly slapped and kicked Dandale, pulled his hair and mocked him, finally forcing him to the Kotwali police station. En route, they falsely told news reporters that Dandale was a convert who was forcing others to convert. On advice of police, Dandale filed a complaint against Amit Tiwari, Sunil Sonkar, Ambasingh Thakur, Surendra Jain and Babu Tiwari, after which he was sent home at 9 p.m. At press time Dandale was receiving medical treatment for swollen legs and severe pain.
Andhra Pradesh – On Dec. 20 in Hi- City, Hyderabad, about 100 Hindu extremists attacked Pastor T.R. Raju, warning him to vacate the area. The previous day Pastor Raju had led a Christmas celebration with a convert from Hinduism, an actor identified only as Surya, as a quest speaker, reported the All India Christian Council (AICC). Surya had mentioned the blessing of having Christ as God and did not criticize other faiths, according to the AICC. Afterward, however, four people came and argued with the pastor and verbally abused him. The next day, about 100 Hindu hardliners gathered at the pastor’s house, verbally abused him and beat him, according to the AICC. Surya also showed up and pleaded with the furious mob to stop, and police arrived as the attackers scattered. The extremists continued to threaten the pastor to leave the area or face harm. They also threatened the pastor’s landlord, who subsequently gave notice to the pastor to vacate the house in 10 days.
Maharashtra – Carol singers on Dec. 18 were beaten at 10:15 p.m. in Worli Koliwada, Mumbai, reported national daily the Times of India (TOI). Joseph Dias of the Catholic Secular Forum reportedly said 25 members of the New Life Church youth group were singing carols when Dhananjay Desai of the Hindu extremist Hindu Rashtra Sena began mocking them, saying they were paid to sing. Desai then phoned other Hindu extremists, who rushed to the spot in three cars and charged into the youth group, beating two of them, Ganesh Gadam and Joel Metrin. The TOI reported that the extremists forced the victims into their cars and took them to a police station. Dias told Compass that police issued a warning to the assailants, who threatened the Christians with harm if they persisted in holding public Christian activities.
Karnataka – Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Sawaymsevak Sangh on Dec. 17 attacked a Christian and accused him of “large-scale conversion” in Shimoga. The All India Christian Council (AICC) reported that about 15 Hindu extremists gathered at the house of S. Prakash, manager of the Dalit Education Centre, and accused him of using the school as a cover for the alleged conversions. The extremists beat Prakash, leaving him with several internal injuries, and threatened further harm if he did not close down the school. They also cut down trees at the school and destroyed its signboard. Prakash filed a complaint with local police. Village officials are supportive of the work by the school, reported the AICC. A police investigation was ongoing at press time.
Madhya Pradesh – On Dec. 9 in Satna, police arrested Pastor V.A. Anthony and booked him under the state anti-conversion act. The arrests was made in connection with an incident that took place earlier this year when the pastor conducted a Christian funeral at the request of the parents of the diseased, reported the All India Christian Council (AICC). An activist with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Lakshimi Yadav, learned of the funeral and filed a case against Antony. Police investigated the case but found no wrongdoing by the pastor. In early September, Hindu extremists from the Sangh Parivar forced local newspapers to publish biased reports about the funeral and complained to the inspector general of police that the pastor had forcibly converted the parents of the deceased, identified only as Rajesh. The Hindu extremists threatened the pastor on Sept. 12.
Karnataka – Hindu nationalists from the Bajrang Dal on Dec. 8 disrupted a prayer meeting, falsely accused Christians of forcible conversion and seriously injured two of them in Gonilkoppa. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at about 8 p.m. the Shakina Full Gospel Church was worshiping when 10 extremists led by Hindus identified only as Manu, Devaraj and Manju stormed in. A GCIC coordinator told Compass that Christians identified only as Raju, Kaliamma, Rajukamma, Belli, Lovaliamma and Viji were verbally abused and dragged to the Gonilkoppa police station, where the extremists pressured police to arrest them. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that officers released the Christians without charges but strictly warned them, for security purposes, not to conduct future worship meetings at their homes. Belli and Viji, who bled profusely from the attack, received medical treatment at the Gonilkoppa Government Hospital. “Police, however, did not take action against the extremists for attacking the Christians,” a GCIC coordinator noted.
Madhya Pradesh – Armed men on Dec. 6 attacked the Rev. Thomas Chirattavalli in Satna. The suspected Hindu extremists hit the priest’s head when he opened the door of the parish house, then they chased and beat him. The parish driver, cook and another staff member heard the disturbance and tried to come out, but the assailants had locked the doors from outside. The priest sustained two deep wounds on the head, as well as injuries on other parts of his body. He filed a First Information Report at Burgama in Singrauli district.
Karnataka – Shimoga police on Dec. 5 forced the closure of a house church at Rippon Pete, Shimoga district. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that on Dec. 3 Pastor Sebastian Babu was falsely accused of forced conversion by area Hindu extremists who threatened to harm him if he continued church services. On Dec. 5, as Sunday worship was going on in Rippon Pete, police arrived after the extremists complained of “conversion activities.” Officers took Pastor Babu into custody and warned him against conducting worship, adding that he had to report to the police station the next day with the landlord of this rented house. A GCIC coordinator told Compass that Pastor Babu and his landlord went to the police station on Dec. 6, where officers learned that the landlord had no objection to the house church. Nevertheless, they advised him against conducting Christian worship “as a security measure.”
Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Dec. 5 pressured the Slum Board administrative committee in Kengeri, Bangalore to demolish the Gypsy Prayer Church building. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the extremists barged into the prayer hall and disrupted a service led by a pastor identified only as Rajesh. They filed a complaint with the Slum Board committee against the Christians and persuaded it to order that the church building be demolished.
Karnataka – Police on Dec. 2 arrested a pastor on charges of attempted forcible conversion in Udayanagar, near Mahadevapura. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that a pastor identified only as Johnson and a senior church member identified only as George were invited for a prayer service at the home of a Christian. Johnson, 26, of Kerala, was staying at the Evergreen School at Udayanagar near Mahadevapura. While they were praying at about 11 a.m., nearly 25 Hindu nationalists from the Bajrang Dal stormed the house, dragged Johnson outside and continued hitting and kicking him while falsely accusing him of forced conversion. A GCIC coordinator told Compass that the extremists forcibly took them to the Mahadevapura police station, where officers filed charges. At press time, the pastor was still in jail.
Kerala – Hindu extremists on Dec. 2 attacked a nun who is a college student in Ernakulam. The All India Christian Council reported that Sister Ann Matthews was attacked by a group of men inside Ernakulam South Railway Station and had to be treated for her injuries at Medical Trust Hospital. Matthews said she was targeted because she was a nun. Police have registered a complaint, but no arrests had been made at press time.
Karnataka – Police arrested a pastor on Dec. 2 after Hindu extremists beat him and accused him of forceful conversion in Udayanagar, near Bangalore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Hindu extremists stopped the pastor, identified only as Johnson, as he was returning home after a prayer meeting. They accused him of forcefully converting Hindus to Christianity, beat him and dragged him to Mahadevapura police. The assault continued in front of police. Later Pastor Johnson was arrested under Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code for damaging a place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class. A judge sent the pastor to Bangalore Central Jail, but he was released on bail the next day.
West Bengal – Radical Muslims in Natungram, Murshidabad have forbidden a woman who converted to Christianity from Islam to buy or sell if continues in her new faith, a source told Compass. The past few months the Muslims had ordered Chanda Babi and her family, who became Christians in February, not to attend church services and told them not associate with any neighbors. As Babi and her family continued to follow Christ, the Muslim radicals on Nov. 28 ordered villagers not to buy from her family’s milk business, and they ordered shopkeepers not to sell to her, the source said. They further warned that they would impose a large fine if her family continues to believe in Christ.
Uttarakhand – Police on Nov. 9 detained three Christians from the Indian Pentecostal Assemblies on false charges of forceful conversion in Ravli Mehdud, Haridwar. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that police officers stormed into the prayer meeting and took Pastor Manoj Kumar and two church members into custody. Officers verbally abused the Christians, uttered derogatory remarks against Jesus Christ and the Christian community and threatened to harm Pastor Kumar. The Christians were released without charges after the intervention of area Christian leaders.
Report from Compass Direct News
Country’s religious regulatory authority expected to consider recognition before year’s end.
NEW DELHI, November 4 (CDN) — For the first time in Bhutan’s history, the Buddhist nation’s government seems ready to grant much-awaited official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.
The authority that regulates religious organizations will discuss in its next meeting – to be held by the end of December – how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, agency secretary Dorji Tshering told Compass by phone.
Thus far only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered by the authority, locally known as Chhoedey Lhentshog. As a result, only these two communities have the right to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.
Asked if Christians were likely to get the same rights soon, Tshering replied, “Absolutely” – an apparent paradigm shift in policy given that Bhutan’s National Assembly had banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions by passing resolutions in 1969 and in 1979.
“The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions,” he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one of the faiths of its citizens.
The former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned democracy in the country in 2006 – after the rule of an absolute monarchy for over a century. The first elections were held in 2008, and since then the government has gradually given rights that accompany democracy to its people.
The government’s move to legalize Christianity seems to have the consent of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is respected by almost all people and communities in the country. In his early thirties, the king studied in universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley is also believed to have agreed in principle to recognition of other faiths.
According to source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan – which would call for Christian unity in the country.
All Hindus, who constitute around 22 percent of Bhutan’s less than 700,000 people, are also represented by one legal entity, the Hindu Dharma Samudaya (Hindu Religion Community) of Bhutan, which was registered with the Chhoedey Lhentshog authority along with Buddhist organizations a year ago.
Tshering said the planned discussion at the December meeting is meant to look at technicalities in the Religious Organizations Act of 2007, which provides for registration and regulation of religious groups with intent to protect and promote the country’s spiritual heritage. The government began to enforce the Act only in November 2009, a year after the advent of democracy.
Asked what some of the government’s concerns are over allowing Christianity in the country, Tshering said “conversion must not be forced, because it causes social tensions which Bhutan cannot afford to have. However, the constitution says that no one should be forced to believe in a religion, and that aspect will be taken care of. We will ensure that no one is forced to convert.”
The government’s willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. This is why it is evoking mixed response among the country’s Christians, who number around 6,000 according to rough estimates.
Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years of prison for screening films on Christianity – which was criticized by Christian organizations around the world. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ,” Oct. 18.)
The government is in the process of introducing a clause banning conversions by force or allurement in the country’s penal code.
Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between two Asian giants, India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by not allowing social tensions or unrest.
In the 1980s, when the king sought to strengthen the nation’s cultural unity, ethnic Nepalese citizens, who are mainly Hindu and from south Bhutan, rebelled against it. But a military crackdown forced over 100,000 of them – some of them secret Christians – to either flee to or voluntarily leave the country for neighboring Nepal.
Tshering said that while some individual Christians had approached the authority with queries, no organization had formally filed papers for registration.
After the December meeting, if members of the regulatory authority feel that Chhoedey Lhentshog’s mandate does not include registering a Christian organization, Christians will then be registered by another authority, the source said.
After official recognition, Christians would require permission from local authorities to hold public meetings. Receiving foreign aid or inviting foreign speakers would be subject to special permission from the home ministry, added the source.
Bhutan’s first contact with Christians came in the 17th century when Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist leader and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state, hosted the first two foreigners, who were Jesuits. Much later, Catholics were invited to provide education in Bhutan; the Jesuits came to Bhutan in 1963 and the Salesians in 1982 to run schools. The Salesians, however, were expelled in 1982 on accusations of proselytizing, and the Jesuits left the country in 1988.
“As Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government,” writes David M. Malone, Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, in the March 2008 edition of Literary Review of Canada.
After a Christian organization is registered, Christian institutions may also be allowed once again in the country, given the government’s stress on educating young Bhutanese.
A local Christian requesting anonymity said the community respects Bhutan’s political and religious leaders, especially the king and the prime minister, will help preserve the country’s unique culture and seeks to contribute to the building of the nation.
Report from Compass Direct News
Islamic extremist assault, security force operation leave at least 58 dead.
ISTANBUL, November 2 (CDN) — Amid questions about lax security, mourners gathered in Iraq today to bury the victims of Sunday’s (Oct. 31) Islamic extremist assault on a Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad, one of the bloodiest attacks on the country’s dwindling Christian community.
Seven or eight Islamic militants stormed into Our Lady of Salvation church during evening mass after detonating bombs in the neighborhood, gunning down two policemen at the stock exchange across the street, and blowing up their own car, according to The Associated Press (AP). More than 100 people were reportedly attending mass.
A militant organization called the Islamic State of Iraq, which has links to al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, claimed responsibility for the attack. The militants sprayed the sanctuary with bullets and ordered a priest to call the Vatican to demand the release of Muslim women whom they claimed were held hostage by the Coptic Church in Egypt, according to the AP. The militants also reportedly demanded the release of al Qaeda prisoners.
“It appears to be a well-planned and strategic attack aiming at the church,” said a local source for ministry organization Open Doors.
About four hours after the siege, Iraqi security forces launched an assault on the church building, and the Islamic assailants blew themselves up. It was unclear how many of the 58 people dead had been killed by Iraqi security personnel, but the militants reportedly began killing hostages when the security force assault began. All who did not die from gunshots and blasts were wounded.
The dead included 12 policemen, three priests and five bystanders from the car bombing and other blasts outside the church. The Open Doors source reported that the priests killed were the Rev. Saad Abdal Tha’ir, the Rev. Waseem Tabeeh and the Rev. Raphael Qatin, with the latter not succumbing until he had been taken to a hospital.
Bishop Georges Casmoussa told Compass that today Iraqi Christians not only mourned lost brothers and sisters but were tempted to lose hope.
“It’s a personal loss and a Christian loss,” said Casmoussa. “It’s not just people they kill. They also kill hope. We want to look at the future. They want to kill the Christian presence here, where we have so much history.”
Casmoussa, who knew the priests who died, said that this attack will surely drive more Christians away from the country or to Kurdish administrated northern Iraq.
“Those who are wounded know that it is by the grace of God they are alive, but some of them don’t know exactly what happened,” said Casmoussa. “There is one hurt man who doesn’t know if his son is still alive. This is the drama. There are families that lost two and three members. Do I have the right to tell them to not leave?”
The attack was the deadliest one against the country’s Christians since Islamic extremists began targeting them in 2003.
“It was the hardest hit against the Christians in Iraq,” said Casmoussa, noting that no single act of violence had led to more casualties among Christians. “We never had such an attack against a church or Christian community.”
Memorials were held today in Baghdad, Mosul and surrounding towns, said Casmoussa, who attended the funeral of 13 deceased Christians including the dead priests.
“At the funeral there was the Shiite leader, the official spokesperson of the government ministers,” Casmoussa said. “All the discussion was flippant – ‘We are with you, we are all suffering,’ etcetera, but we have demanded a serious investigation. We can’t count on good words anymore. It’s all air. We’ve heard enough.”
The Rev. Emanuel Youkhana of the Church of the East told Compass that Iraqi Christians have been systematically driven out over the last five years. He said this attack came as no surprise to him.
“I’m not surprised, in that this is not the first time,” said Youkhana. “In the last five years, there has been a systematic terrorist campaign to kick out the Christians from the country. [They are saying] you are not accepted in this country. Christians should leave this country.”
Youkhana said that in the same way that the Jewish community has disappeared from Iraq, the Iraqi Christians, or Medians as they are called, “are in their last stage of existence” in Iraq.
The Iraqi government is to blame due to its lax security measures, Youkhana said.
“I’m ashamed of the minister of defense, who came on TV and said it was a successful and professional operation – 50 percent of the [congregation] was massacred,” said Youkhana of the assault on the Islamic terrorists by Iraqi security forces.
He said that in order for Christians to have any hope of staying in Iraq, the government must come up with a political solution and set up an independent administrative area, like that of the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq.
“Just now I was watching on TV the coverage of the funeral,” Youkhana said. “All the politicians are there to condemn the act. So what? Is the condemnation enough to give confidence to the people? No!”
It is estimated that more than 50 percent of Iraq’s Christian community has fled the country since 2003. There are nearly 600,000 Christians left in Iraq.
“More people will leave, and this is the intention of the terrorists: to claim Iraq as a pure Islamic state,” said Youkhana. “Our people are so peaceful and weak; they cannot confront the terrorists. So they are fleeing out of the country and to the north. This is why we say there should be political recognition.”
Five suspects were arrested in connection with the attack – some of them were not Iraqi, and today an Iraqi police commander was detained for questioning in connection to the attack, according to the AP.
“We can’t make political demands,” said Casmoussa. “We are making a civic and humanitarian demand: That we can live in peace.”
Following the funerals today, a series of at least 13 bombings and mortar strikes in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad reportedly killed 76 people and wounded nearly 200.
Report from Compass Direct News
Land owner falsely charges young man with illicit sex, calls villagers to beat, burn him.
SARGODHA, Pakistan, October 29 (CDN) — A Muslim land owner in Pakistan this month subjected a 25-year-old Christian to burns and a series of humiliations, including falsely charging him with having sex with his own niece, because the Christian refused to work for him without pay.
Fayaz Masih is in jail with burns on his body after No. 115 Chitraan Wala village head Zafar Iqbal Ghuman and other villagers punished Masih for refusing to work as a slave in his fields, said the Rev. Yaqub Masih, a Pentecostal evangelist. The village is located in Nankana Sahib district, Punjab Province.
Sources said neither Fayaz Masih nor his family had taken any loans from Ghuman, and that they had no obligations to work off any debt for Ghuman as bonded laborers.
Yaqub Masih said the young man’s refusal to work in Ghuman’s fields infuriated the Muslim, who was accustomed to forcing Christians into slavery. He said Ghuman considered Masih’s refusal an act of disobedience by a “choohra,” the pejorative word for Christians in Pakistan.
On Oct. 3 Ghuman and 11 of his men abducted Masih from his home at gun-point and brought him to Ghuman’s farmhouse, according to Yaqub Masih and Yousaf Gill, both of nearby village No. 118 Chour Muslim. Gill is a former councilor of Union Council No. 30, and Yaqub Masih is an ordained pastor waiting for his denomination to assign him a church.
Fayaz Masih’s family members told Yaqub Masih that Ghuman was carrying a pistol, and that the 11 other men were brandishing rifles or carrying clubs, axes and bamboo sticks. They began beating Masih as they carried him away, calling him a choohra, Yaqub Masih said.
Gill said that Ghuman’s farmhands tied Fayaz Masih’s hands and legs and asked him once more if he would work in Ghuman’s fields. When he again refused, Gill said, Ghuman summoned four barbers; three ran away, but he forced one, Muhammad Pervaiz, to shave Masih’s head, eyebrows, half of his mustache and half of his beard.
After they had rubbed charcoal on Masih’s face, Ghuman then announced that Masih had had relations with Masih’s 18-year-old niece, Sumeera, and called for everyone in the village to punish him. He and his men placed Masih on a frail, one-eyed donkey, Yaqub Masih and Gill said, and a mob of Muslim men and children surrounded him – beating tins, dancing and singing door-to-door while shouting anti-Christian slogans, yelling obscenities at him and other Christians, and encouraging villagers to beat him with their shoes and fill his mouth with human waste, Yaqub Masih said.
Some threw kerosene on Masih and alternately set him on fire and extinguished the flames, Gill said. He added that Muslims made a garland of old shoes from a pile of garbage and put it around Masih’s neck.
Yaqub Masih said the abuse became unbearable for the young man, and he collapsed and fell off the donkey.
Police Ignore Court
Masih’s sister, Seema Bibi, told Compass that the accusation that Masih had had sex with her daughter Sumeera was utterly false. She said Ghuman made the allegation only to vent his fury at Masih for refusing to work for him.
Seema Bibi said that Ghuman told her daughter at gun-point to testify against Masih in court on Oct. 4. Sumeera surprised the Muslim land owner, however, saying under oath that Masih was innocent and that Ghuman had tried to force her to testify against her uncle. A judge ruled that Sumeera had not had illicit relations with Masih, and that therefore she was free to go home.
Her mother told Compass, however, that since then Ghuman has been issuing daily death threats to her family.
After Masih collapsed from the abuse, Yaqub Masih and Gill called local police. Police did not arrive until three hours later, at 3:30 p.m., they said, led by Deputy Superintendent of Police Shoiab Ahmed Kamboh and Inspector Muhammad Yaqub.
“They rebuked the Muslim villagers that they could have killed this Christian youth, and they told them to give him a bath at once and change his clothes, in order to reduce the evidence against them,” Gill said.
Family members of Masih said Kamboh and Inspector Yaqub arrested some of the leading figures within the mob, but soon thereafter they received a call to release every Muslim.
“Instead of taking the Muslim men into custody, they detained my brother, and he was taken to the police station,” Seema Bibi said.
On Oct. 4 police sent Masih to District Headquarters Hospital Nankana Sahib for examination, where Dr. Naseer Ahmed directed Dr. Muhammad Shakeel to mention in the medical report how severely Ghuman and his farmhands had beaten him, Gill said. He said the medical report also stated that Masih had sustained burns and that his head, mustache, eyebrows and beard were shaved.
In spite of the court ruling that Masih had not had sex with his niece, police were coerced into registering a false charge of adultery under Article 376 of the Islamic statutes of the Pakistan Penal Code, First Information Report No. 361/10, at the Sangla Hill police station.
At press time Masih remained in Shiekhupura District Jail, said Gill. Gill also has received death threats from Ghuman, he said.
The 11 men who along with Ghuman abducted Masih and brought him to Ghuman’s farmhouse, according to Masih’s family, were Mehdi Hussain Shah and Maqsood Shah, armed with rifles; Muhammad Amin, Rana Saeed, Muhammad Osama and four others unidentified, all of them brandishing clubs; Muhammad Waqas, with an axe; and Ali Raza, bearing a bamboo stick and a club.
Report from Compass Direct News
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