Manus detention centre closure sparks safety fears for refugees



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AAP

Amy Maguire, University of Newcastle and Georgia Monaghan, University of Newcastle

On Tuesday, the Australian government will close the Manus Island regional processing centre in Papua New Guinea. Arguing that they have no safe place to go, nearly all 742 remaining residents are refusing to leave.

The closure is likely to generate resistance and potentially violence. Tensions continue to build between refugees, local residents and PNG authorities.

Manus – the story so far

The Howard government established the Manus Island and Nauru centres in 2001 as part of the Pacific Solution. Originally, offshore processing was characterised as a short-term response to an influx of asylum seeker boat arrivals.

However, over time, offshore processing has become cemented as a central strategy to prevent asylum seekers reaching Australian territory by boat. The government has argued that offshore processing is necessary to disincentivise dangerous and exploitative people smuggling.

In practice, by preventing the access of asylum seekers to territory under Australian jurisdiction, the government has severely curtailed the rights of vulnerable people. Asylum seekers detained offshore lack access to proper refugee protection and judicial review mechanisms, and are denied basic rights guaranteed under international law.

Australia’s treatment of refugees has been condemned by the international community. Mandatory and indefinite offshore detention contravenes Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This provision protects people from arbitrary detention and upholds their right to liberty and security.

Human rights abuses have been documented in the Manus and Nauru centres. They are overcrowded and provide insufficient medical and psychiatric support.

There have also been documented cases of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of centre security. The poor mental health of many detainees, evidenced by attempts at self-harm and suicide, exposes the mental toll of inhumane living conditions and uncertainty about the future.

In April 2016, the PNG Supreme Court found that the arrangement between PNG and Australia to establish and maintain the Manus centre was unconstitutional. Under PNG law, the government had no power to infringe the right to liberty of the detainees.

As a result, in August 2016, the Australian and PNG governments announced that the Manus centre would close.

Over the past 14 months, Australia has attempted to move detainees from Manus through a range of means. The most prominent strategy has been an agreement with the US to take up to 2,000 people currently in detention on Manus or Nauru and ineligible for transfer to Australia.

This deal became infamous through a controversial leaked phone conversation between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and US President Donald Trump. To date, a reported 20 people have been resettled in the US via this process.

The closure, and what’s next for the Manus detainees

On October 19, Australian immigration authorities warned detainees that the Manus centre would be closed on October 31. Those remaining were advised to leave before essential services were withdrawn.

The centre is now without electricity and water supplies are soon to be cut. Protective fences are being removed. Broadspectrum, the private company contracted to manage the centre, will hand control to the PNG Navy.

Over the past month, the centre has been progressively dismantled and detainees have been forced into overcrowded conditions. The minimal medical and psychiatric support has been removed and detainees are forced to share scarce amounts of food and sanitary resources.

Those remaining on Manus have been given three options by the Australian government.

  • Those who have been assessed as refugees may move to a temporary settlement in Lorengau town or transfer to the Nauru centre. The longer-term resettlement path for these people is unclear.

  • Detainees have the option of returning to their country of origin.

  • The third option is to seek more permanent settlement in PNG or a third country.

The response from refugees, Manus Islanders, and human rights advocates

Each of these options has been condemned as potentially harmful or dangerous.

Refugees cannot be legally returned to their country of origin, where they may face a risk of persecution. To return a refugee to a place where their life or freedom is threatened is to violate the obligation of non-refoulement.

Further, people can be rendered stateless by efforts to return them to their country of origin, even in the case where they have not gained protection as refugees. For example, Iran will not accept the return of nationals who have sought asylum elsewhere.

The proposal to relocate detainees to Nauru does nothing to resolve their precarious situations. It is unsurprising that this option has not been embraced by detainees.

The most immediately pressing risks, however, arise with the local movements of detainees on Manus Island. Iranian journalist and asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani reports that those remaining in the centre are determined not to move to Lorengau town.

The fear is that their arrival will be met with violence from the local community. An aggressive response would not be unprecedented given the history of interactions between refugee and local populations.

In 2014, Lorengau locals attacked the Manus centre, killing one refugee and injuring 77. In recent months, local people have warned detainees:

If you come to Lorengau we will be forced to attack you.

The governor of Manus Island, Charlie Benjamin, has threatened to block the resettlement. Benjamin says the Australian government never consulted the community as to the resettlement and have started construction of the new accommodation facility without prior approval.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ regional representative, Thomas Albrecht, condemns Australia for abdicating its responsibility and putting the onus on the refugees to improve their situation:

Having created the present crisis, to now abandon the same acutely vulnerable human beings would be unconscionable.

With the Manus centre closed, those remaining lack security wherever they are. Considering that PNG sailors attacked the camp in April this year, firing at detainees and buildings, the PNG Navy can hardly be considered an alternative source of protection.

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Closure sparks human rights crisis

Extra PNG police are stationed on Manus in anticipation of the closure.

The UNHCR has warned of a “humanitarian emergency”. Human Rights Watch has urged Australia to send the Australian Federal Police to Manus in order to protect refugees and mitigate conflict.

At the 11th hour, the Australian government remains immovable. Recently elected to its first term on the UN Human Rights Council, Australia’s practice in relation to asylum seekers who travel by boat remains an unaddressed blight on its human rights record.

The ConversationAustralia also wears massive economic costs to maintain the policy of mandatory offshore detention for boat arrivals. An estimated A$150-$250 million will be committed to housing those remaining on Manus for 12 months following the closure, with no clarity about what happens next. And another $70 million in damages were recently awarded to Manus detainees against the government.

Amy Maguire, Senior Lecturer in International Law and Human Rights, University of Newcastle and Georgia Monaghan, Research Assistant, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Latest Persecution News – 13 June 2012


Christians in Pakistan Allege Seizure of Graveyard

The following article reports on the latest news of persecution in Pakistan’s Punjab Province, where a Christian graveyard is being lost to corruption.

http://www.compassdirect.org/english/country/pakistan/article_1592468.html

 

Injuries Severe after Bauchi, Nigeria Suicide Bomb Attack

The following article reports on the bombings of Christian churches by Boko Haram and alleged military involvement.

http://www.compassdirect.org/english/country/nigeria/article_1594492.html

 

Iranian Authorities Shut Church in Tehran

The following article reports on the continuing persecution of believers in Iran and the closure of a church in Tehran.

http://www.compassdirect.org/english/country/iran/article_1595449.html

 

The articles linked to above are by Compass Direct News and  relate to persecution of Christians around the world. Please keep in mind that the definition of ‘Christian’ used by Compass Direct News is inclusive of some that would not be included in a definition of Christian that I would use or would be used by other Reformed Christians. The articles do however present an indication of persecution being faced by Christians around the world.

Recent Incidents of Persecution


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

Algerian Christians to Appeal Conviction for Worshipping


Church leaders fear verdict could mean the end of the country’s Protestant churches.

ISTANBUL, December 15 (CDN) — Four Christian men in Algeria will appeal a court decision to hand them suspended prison sentences for worshiping without a permit, saying the verdict could have repercussions for all the country’s churches.

The correctional court of Larbaa Nath Irathen, about 27 kilometers (17 miles) from the capital of Tizi Ouzou Province, gave two-month suspended prison sentences to four Christian leaders of a small Protestant church on Sunday (Dec. 12).

The pastor of the church, Mahmoud Yahou, was also charged with hosting a foreigner without official permission. The court gave him a three-month suspended sentence and a fine of 10,000 Algerian dinars (US$130), reported French TV station France 24 on its Web site. The prosecutor had asked for one-year prison sentences for each defendant.

Although the suspended sentences mean the four Christians will not serve prison time, Yahou told Compass that he and the three other men plan to appeal the verdict because the outcome of their case could affect all Protestant churches of the country, none of which have official permission to operate.

“If they close us, they can close all the gatherings and churches that exist in Algeria,” Yahou said. “They could all be closed.”

In February 2008 the government applied measures to better control non-Muslim groups through Ordinance 06-03, which was established in 2006. Authorities ordered the closure of 26 churches in the Kabylie region, both buildings and house churches, maintaining that they were not registered under the ordinance. No churches have been closed down since then.

Despite efforts to comply with the ordinance, no churches or Christian groups have received governmental approval to operate, and the government has not established administrative means to implement the ordinance, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom.

Though none of the churches have closed since 2008, their status continues to remain questionable and only valid through registration with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). The EPA, however, is also trying to gain official recognition.  

“Actually, this law of 2006 has come to light: people are condemned as criminals for the simple act of thinking and believing different,” the president of the EPA, Mustapha Krim, told Compass. “If we accept this [verdict], it means we are condemned to close our churches one after the other.”

Krim confirmed that based on Ordinance 06-03, none of the churches have actual authorization to operate, nor can Christians speak about their faith to other Algerians.

“If they condemn our four brothers, they need to condemn the others,” he said.

In a sign of solidarity towards the men and to demand the abolition of Ordinance 06-03, dozens of demonstrators gathered outside the courthouse on the first hearing of the case on Sept. 26. Demonstrators carried banners that read: “Places of worship for everyone,” “Freedom of religion = freedom of conscience,” and “Abolition of the Law of 06-03-2006.”

Attending the re-opening of a Catholic church in Algeria’s capital on Monday (Dec. 13), Religious Affairs Minister Bouabdellah Ghlamallah told reporters, “Religious freedom in Algeria is a reality,” reported Reuters.

The Algerian Constitution gives the right to all citizens to practice their faith, although it declares Islam the state religion and prohibits institutions from behavior incompatible with Islamic morality.

Yahou said the judge did not pass a rightful judgment and thus had no real sense of justice.

“I think he has no conscience,” Yahou said. “We can’t be persecuted for nothing. He didn’t judge on the law and constitution, he judged on Islam. If he had read what is in the constitution, he wouldn’t have made this decision.”

The small church of Larbaa Nath Irathen, consisting only of a few families, had problems as early as 2008, when a group of Islamic radicals launched a petition against the church without success.  

Yahou told Compass that he knew very well the people in the village who brought charges against them, saying that they have tried to intimidate the church for the past few months in an effort to close it down.

“These are Islamists, and I know them in this village,” Yahou said.

Tizi Ouzou is part of Kabylie region, an area of Algeria where the country’s Protestant church has grown with relative freedom in recent years.

There are around 64 Protestant churches in the Kabylie region, where most Algerian Christians live, as well as numerous house groups, according to church leaders. The Kabylie region is populated by Berbers, an indigenous people of North Africa.

In October a court in the region acquitted two Christian men of eating during Ramadan in spite of a prosecutor’s demand that they be punished for “insulting Islam.”

In January Muslim neighbors ransacked and set on fire a church in Tizi Ouzou. In September a court in Tizi Ouzou ordered a local church to stop construction on an extension to its building and to tear it down.

Unofficial estimates of the number of Christian and Jewish citizens vary between 12,000 and 50,000, according to the state department’s report.

Report from Compass Direct News

Burmese Officials Order Closure of Chin Church


Government punishes pastor for refusing to wear campaign T-shirt, amid other election abuses.

DUBLIN, November 18 (CDN) — Officials in Mergui Region, Burma, ordered a Baptist church to cease holding worship services after the pastor refused to wear an election campaign T-shirt supporting the military government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The election commission summoned 47-year-old Pastor Mang Tling of Dawdin village, Gangaw township, Mergui Region on Nov. 9, two days after the election and ordered him to stop holding services and discontinue the church nursery program, the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported yesterday.

The CHRO works against human rights abuses, including religious discrimination, for the Chin people, a minority group in Burma’s northwest estimated to be 90 percent Christian.

Village headman U Than Chaung had given the pastor a campaign T-shirt to wear in support of the USDP, and when he refused to wear it, the headman filed a report with local authorities accusing him of persuading Christian voters to vote in favor of an opposing party.

Under Burmese law, religious leaders can be penalized for “engaging in politics,” giving the pastor a solid legal reason to decline the T-shirt. The law also bans leaders of religious groups from voting in national elections, according to the CHRO, although lay members of those groups are able to vote.

“The election law is quite vague,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass today. “One of the things we were watching out for during the election was to see if church elders or council members might be excluded from voting. But these people were able to vote. The law seems to apply only to pastors, monks and imams.”

Officials interrogated Mang Tling in Gangaw until Sunday (Nov. 14), when he was allowed to return home.

Meantime, the USDP won the election amid widespread evidence of “advance” voting and other forms of voter manipulation throughout Burma.

Previously known as the Union Solidarity and Development Association, and before that the State Peace and Development Council, the USDP was formed by a ruling junta composed largely of army generals. The junta has ruled Burma without a constitution or parliament since 1998, although in 2008 they pushed through support for a new constitution that will take effect following this month’s elections, according to the 2010 International Religious Freedom report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

The new constitution forbids “abuse of religion for political purposes,” the report stated. Election laws published in March also banned members of religious orders from voting for or joining political parties and reserved 25 percent of seats in the new parliament for members of the military.

The 2008 constitution “technically guarantees a degree of religious freedom. But then, it’s Burma,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass.

 

Voter Intimidation

The Chin National Party defeated the USDP in three electorates in Chin state despite reports of widespread voting anomalies, some of which were outlined in a CHRO press release on Nov. 7.

In Tedim township northern Chin state, for example, USDP agent Go Lun Mang went to the home of a local resident at 5 p.m. the day before the election and told the family that he had already voted on their behalf in favor of the USDP. He added that soldiers in a nearby camp were ready to arrest them if they complained.

On Nov. 5, the local government had already ordered village officials to instruct residents to vote for the USDP. On Nov. 7, the day of the election, USDP agents in campaign uniforms stood at the gate of the polling station in Tedim and asked voters if they intended to vote for the USDP. Those who said yes were allowed into the station, while those who said no were refused entrance.

USDP agents also warned Chin voters in Thantlang town that they should vote for the USDP “while the door was open” or they would regret it, Burma News International reported on Nov. 5.

David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the intimidation indicated that the junta and the USDP knew how unpopular they were.

Reports by the CHRO show a long history of discrimination against the majority Christian Chin, including the destruction of crosses and other Christian monuments, state-sponsored efforts to expand Buddhism, forced contributions of finance and labor to Buddhist construction projects, arrest and detention, torture and particularly harsh treatment of pastors. In addition, officials have refused construction for all new church building projects since 2003.

A report issued by HRW in January confirmed serious and ongoing abuses against Chin Christians.

One Chin pastor interviewed by HRW described how soldiers held him at gunpoint, forced him to pray in a Buddhist pagoda and told him that Burma was a Buddhist country where Christianity should not be practiced. (See “Report Documents Abuse of Chin Christians,” Feb. 20.)

 

SIDEBAR

Suu Kyi’s Release Stirs Guarded Hope among Burma’s Christians

NEW DELHI, November 18 (Compass Direct News) – The release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in Burma on Saturday (Nov. 13) has sparked cautious optimism about human rights among Christians and the country’s ethnic minorities even as the junta does battle with armed resistance groups.

Freeing her six days after elections, the military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar) kept 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi from running in the country’s first election in 20 years, but ethnic minorities are still “very happy” and “enthused with hope and anticipation,” said Plato Van Rung Mang, who heads the India chapter of Chin Human Rights Organization.

Suu Kyi is the only leader from the majority Burmese community – predominantly Buddhist – who is trusted by the ethnic minorities, said Mang, an India-based Christian originally from Burma’s Chin state, which borders India.

“We have faith in Suu Kyi’s honesty and leadership, and she has been our hope,” he added.

The ethnic Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni people – many of whom are Christian – as well as mostly Buddhist ethnic Shan, Mon and Arakanese (some of them Muslim) people have been fighting for self-determination in their respective states and opposing the military junta’s policy of centralized control and Burmese dominion.

“We trust that Suu Kyi can fulfill her father’s ideal and political principles which have been subverted by the Burmese military junta’s Burmanization policy,” said Mang. Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was the nation’s leader at the time of independence and favored autonomy for ethnic minorities.

“Just as her father was trusted and held in high esteem by the ethnic people, Aung San Suu Kyi also has the ability to work together with the minorities to build a better, peaceful Burma where the human rights of all citizens are respected and protected,” said Garrett Kostin, a U.S. citizen who runs the Best Friend Library, built by a Buddhist monk in support of Suu Kyi, in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

While sections of the ethnic communities have been involved in armed resistance against the junta’s rule, many local residents in the region remain unarmed but are also at risk of being killed in the post-election conflict.

In the wake of the Nov. 7 election, as expected (See “Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election, Oct. 22), clashes between armed ethnic groups and the Burmese army erupted in three of the seven ethnic states – Karen, Shan and Mon – mainly along Thailand and China border, reported Thailand-based Burma News International. The violence has resulted in an influx of over 20,000 people into Thailand – the largest flow in the last five years.

According to US-based Refugees International, the Thai government forced many of the asylum seekers back.

There are also tensions in Kachin and Karenni states, which could erupt at any time, between the Burmese army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army-North, and the Karenni National Progressive Party.

Rights advocates, however, were still heartened by Suu Kyi’s release.

It’s “a wonderful opportunity for the ethnic minorities of Burma to unify in support of each other’s rights and desires,” said Kostin.

In September 2007, many Buddhist monks joined democracy activists in street protests against the military regime’s decision to cut fuel subsidies, leading to a sharp rise in gas and diesel prices. Known as the Saffron Revolution, the protests resulted in hundreds of deaths as government security personnel resisted it militarily.

In numerous clashes between the repressive military regime and political opponents and ethnic minorities, over 3.5 million Burmese have been displaced and thousands killed over the years.

Suu Kyi will continue to enjoy the trust of ethnic minorities because “she has been working so hard since the beginning [of her political career] to speak out about the plight of ethnic people with an honest and sincere commitment,” said Bangkok-based Soe Aung, deputy secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Forum for Democracy in Burma.

Chiang Mai-based Christian relief group Free Burma Rangers (FBR) recalled that Suu Kyi, the general secretary of the National League for Democracy, along with allies won more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament “in Burma’s only truly democratic election” in 1990. “The military regime, however, did not recognize the results and continued to hold power,” it said in a statement.

Last week’s election was “neither free nor fair,” FBR said, adding that “thousands of political prisoners [estimated at 2,200] are still in jail, ethnic minorities are attacked [on a regular basis], and the people of Burma remain under oppression.

“Still, we are grateful for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi as she is a leader who gives real hope to the people of Burma.”

An FBR team leader who spoke on condition of anonymity recalled Suu Kyi requesting his prayers when he met with her during a brief period when she was not under house arrest in 1996.

“The Global Day of Prayer for Burma and the ethnic unity efforts we are involved in are a direct result of that meeting,” the leader said. “As she told me then, one of her favorite quotes is, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”

Some Christians, however, remained cautious.

“Although San Suu Kyi wants Burma to be a true federal country, there is no certainty in the hearts of the Karen people because they have suffered for very long, and the so-called Burmese have turned their backs on them several times,” said a Karen Christian from Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph.

La Rip, a Burmese activist in China, also said that while Suu Kyi deserved to enjoy freedom, she and her party “do not seem to have a clear idea on how to solve the long-standing issues” related to ethnic minorities.

For her part, Suu Kyi spelled out a plan to hold a nationwide, multi-ethnic conference soon after she was freed. Her father held a similar meeting, known as the Panglong Conference, in 1947. Aung San, then representing the Burmese government, reached an agreement with leaders from the Shan, Kachin and Chin states to accept full autonomy in internal administration for the ethnic controlled frontier areas after independence from Britain.

Suu Kyi’s planned conference is seen as the second Panglong Conference, but it remains uncertain if the new Burmese regime, which is likely to be as opposed to ethnic minorities as the junta, will allow her plan to succeed.

In the awaited election results, the junta’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is likely to have majority in parliament to form the next government. Suu Kyi’s party had been disbanded by the military regime, and only a small splinter group ran in the election.

It is also feared that Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for nearly 15 years since 1990 until her release last weekend, could face assassination attempts or fresh charges followed by another term under arrest.

Burma has a population of around 50 million, out of which around 2.1 million are estimated to be Christian.

Report from Compass Direct News

Chinese Christians Blocked from Attending Lausanne Congress


Police threaten or detain some 200 house church members who planned to attend.

DUBLIN, October 15 (CDN) — As organizers prepared for the opening of the Third Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelization tomorrow in Cape Town, South Africa, Chinese police threatened or detained some 200 delegates who had hoped to attend.

After receiving an invitation to attend the event, house church groups in China formed a selection committee and raised significant funds to pay the expenses of their chosen delegates, a source told Compass. Many delegates, however, were “interviewed” by authorities after they applied to attend the Congress, the source said.

When house church member Abraham Liu Guan and four other delegates attempted to leave China via Beijing airport on Sunday (Oct. 10), authorities refused to allow them through customs, reported the Chinese-language Ming Pao News. Officials detained one delegate and confiscated the passports of the other four until Oct. 25, the closing date of the conference.

China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Public Security had notified border control staff that the participation of Chinese Christians in the conference threatened state security and ordered them not to allow delegates to leave, Liu told U.S.-based National Public Radio (NPR).

Officials also prevented two house church Christians from Baotou City, Inner Mongolia, from leaving the country, and on Oct. 9 placed one of them in a 15-day detention, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported.

When Fan Yafeng, leader of the Chinese Christian Legal Defense Association and winner of the 2009 John Leland Religious Liberty Award, discussed the harassment with NPR on Tuesday (Oct. 12), officials assigned some 20 police officers to keep him under house arrest.

On Wednesday (Oct. 13), approximately 1,000 police officers were stationed at Beijing International Airport to restrain an estimated 100 house church members who planned to leave for the Congress via Beijing, according to CAA.

CAA also said authorities over the past few months had contacted every delegate, from Han Christians in Beijing to Uyghur Christians in Xinjiang, for questioning, and threatened some family members.

Normal church operations were also affected. The Rev. Xing Jingfu from Changsha in Hunan province told NPR that authorities cited the Lausanne Congress when they recently ordered his church to close.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ma Zhaoxu, in a statement issued to NPR, accused the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization of communicating secretively with members of illegal congregations and not issuing an official invitation to China’s state-controlled church.

According to the Ming Pao report, the Lausanne committee said members of the Three-Self Protestant Movement had asked if they could attend. Delegates, however, were required to sign a document expressing their commitment to evangelism, which members of official churches could not do due to regulations such as an upper limit on the number of people in each church, state certification for preachers, and the confinement of preaching to designated churches in designated areas. House church Christians faced no such limitations.

The first such conference was held in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974, which produced the influential Lausanne Covenant. The second conference was held in 1989 in Manila. Some 4,000 delegates from 200 countries are expected to attend the third conference in Cape Town.

 

Progress or Repression?

China watchers said there has been a slight easing of restrictions in recent months, accompanied by a call on Sept. 28 from senior Chinese political advisor Du Qinglin for the government to allow the independent development of the official church. Du made the remarks at the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, according to the government-allied Xinhua news agency.

The BBC in August produced a glowing series on the growth of Christianity in China after Chinese authorities gave it unprecedented access to state-sanctioned churches and religious institutions. Religious rights monitor Elizabeth Kendal, however, described this access as part of a propaganda campaign by the Chinese government to reduce criticism of religious freedom policies.

NPR also produced a five-part series on Chinese religions in July. The series attributed the growth of religious adherence to the “collapse of Communist ideology” and pointed out that growth continued despite the fact that evangelism was “still illegal in China today.”

The claims of progress were challenged by an open letter from Pastor Zhang Mingxuan, president of the Chinese Christian House Church Alliance, to Chinese President Hu Jintao on Oct. 1, China’s National Day.

In the letter, published by CAA on Oct. 5, Zhang claimed that Chinese house church Christians respected the law and were “model citizens,” and yet they had become “the target of a group of government bandits … [who] often arrest and beat innocent Christians and wronged citizens.” Further, he added, “House church Christians have been ill-treated simply because they are petitioners to crimes of the government.”

Zhang then listed several recent incidents in which Christians were arrested and sent to labor camps, detained and fined without cause, beaten, interrogated and otherwise abused. He also described the closure or demolition of house churches and the confiscation of personal and church property.

He closed with a mention of Uyghur Christian Alimjan Yimit, “who was sentenced to 15 years in prison because he evangelized among Uyghurs – his very own people.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Despite Court Victories, Church Building in Indonesia Blocked


Islamists attack, issue threats to halt construction of worship center in West Java.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 22 (CDN) — A year after a church in West Java won a court battle over whether it could erect a worship building, Islamic extremists have blocked construction through attacks and intimidation tactics, church leaders said.

A mob of 50 Muslim extremists on Sept. 12 attacked construction workers at the Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) site in Cinere village, near Depok City, in Limo district, eyewitnesses said; the 24 workers, who were on break, fled from the attackers, who chased them brandishing wooden boards studded with nails. Cinere village police arrived to restore order, but the mob left behind seven banners opposing the construction.

Three days later, Islamic groups demonstrated near the construction site on Puri Pesanggarahan IV St., demanding that all Christian activities in the area cease. About 70 Muslims participated in the demonstration, trying to approach the construction site until hundreds of police repelled them. Police have continued guarding the site.

The church won a case in West Java State Administrative Court on Sept. 17, 2009, rescinding a local order that had revoked the church’s building permit. The Supreme Court later upheld the Bandung court’s ruling, but threats have kept the church from proceeding.

Betty Sitompul, vice-chair of the church building committee, said she has received many intimidating text messages from a group opposed to the construction.

“They demanded that the church construction be halted,” she told Compass.

Sitompul added that some of the messages were intensely angry, and that all were aimed at stopping construction.

She said she an official of the Depok municipal government contacted her requesting that construction be delayed two months in order to discuss it with area residents. With a Supreme Court decision backing their case, church leaders declined and continued building.

Sitompul said she never yielded to threat or intimidation because the church construction project has a firm legal basis in the Supreme Court decision.

“There was no need to worry any longer,” she said. “I felt the problem was solved. It is normal for some to be dissatisfied.”

The Muslim Defenders’ Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI) reportedly participated in the Sept. 15 demonstration, but the FPI leader for Depok City, Habib Idrus Al Gadhri, denied opposing the area HKBP church.

“The rejection is from the Cinere Islam Solidarity Forum [FSUM] not from the FPI,” Al Gadhri told Compass.

He said that the HKBP church in Cinere is not facing opposition from the FPI but from the entire Muslim community.

“If FPI members are involved, I’m not responsible,” Al Gadhri said. “My advice is for the entire Muslim community in Cinere to sit down together and not demonstrate.”

The church had originally been granted a building permit in 1998. Applications for church permits are often fraught with difficulty in Indonesia, leaving many congregations no choice but to worship in private homes, hotels or rented conference facilities. Such gatherings leave churches open to threats and intimidation from activist groups such as the FPI, which in recent years has been responsible for the closure of many unregistered churches.

 

Congregational Concern

Despite having the law on their side, church leaders said many in the congregation are haunted with dread amid outbreaks of Islamic ire at the presence of churches in West Java, such as the Sept. 12 attack on the HKBP church in Ciketing, Bekasi, in which an elder was seriously wounded and a pastor injured.

Peter Tobing, head of the Cinere HKBP church building committee, said that some in the congregation and building committee feared that the outbreaks of Islamic opposition will lead to chaos.

The church is planning to sue the Depok municipality based on the allegation that its actions were illegal and caused deterioration at the site. When Depok Mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail revoked the building permit for a multipurpose building and house of worship on March 27, 2009, it led to losses for the church as the congregation had to leave it unattended for a year, according to Tobing.

“Because of this, construction began with the clearing of weeds and building materials [such as paint] that had degraded,” Tobing said.

Sitompul said the bases for the lawsuit are the court decisions declaring the Depok mayor’s revocation of the building permit to be illegal.

“The Depok municipal government must take responsibility for the losses incurred when the building permit was revoked,” she said.

The lawsuit will seek compensation for damages incurred over the last two years, she said.

“We are going to submit all the data to the Depok government,” Sitompul said. “Then we will file our suit in the Depok Municipal Court.”

The church plans to construct its multipurpose building on a 5,000-square meter lot. Construction was halted in the initial stages, with the bottom floor 30 percent completed. The church had spent some 600 million rupiahs (US$66,000), with total costs projected at 2 billion rupiahs (US$220,000).

Report from Compass Direct News

Mob Threats Lead to Closure of Church Building in Indonesia


North Sumatra congregation unable to withstand pressure from local officials, Muslim clerics.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, August 13 (CDN) — Police and local government officials joined forces with a Muslim mob to close a church in North Sumatra Province on July 30, with church leaders forced to promise never to hold services at the site.

The Rev. Leritio Panjaitan of the Binanga HKBP (Huria Kristen Batak Protestant) Church on the Gunung Tua-Sibuhan Highway in Siboris Dolok Village, Sipirok, North Sumatra Province said government officials and mobs threatened to burn the facility if worship continued there.

Pastor Panjaitan said rejection of the church was aided by the presence of a Quranic boarding school, Darul Hasnah Madrassa, which appeared in the vicinity six months ago.

“I have received information that the leader of that madrassa [Islamic school], Dr. Gong Matua Siregar, has incited citizens to reject the presence of the church,” Pastor Panjaitan said.

She said that a local government official admitted to her that the head of the madrassa had pressured him to close the church.

Pastor Panjaitan added that the church had applied for a building and worship permit long ago but that authorities had not acted on it, and that all necessary administrative requirements had been fulfilled.

The head of the Sipirok Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Assembly of Indonesian Muslim Clerics, or MUI), Haji Fahri Harahap, has said it is clear that the residents of the area, long predominantly Muslim, do not want a church there.

The closure means 80 people have lost their worship place.

“At this time, we haven’t decided if we are going to move to another place,” Pastor Panjaitan said. “But temporarily, the congregation will worship by moving from house to house.”

 

Threat

The congregation had first used the building in 2005. After several months, objections began from a Muslim group called the Congregation of the Binanga Sipirok Islamic Forum.

They wrote a letter to church officials requesting that the congregation no longer hold worship services in the area, as the majority in the area were Muslim and there was a fear of “Christianization.”

With no answer from the church, the Islamic group asked the local government to apply pressure, and local government officials wrote to the church requesting that all worship activities cease in order to avoid disturbances with area Muslims. The church leaders and congregation agreed and did not use the building from March 2006 through 2009.

During that time, the congregation worshipped in another building at a distant location, requiring members to incur travel expenses. As the area Christians were largely poor, they asked church leaders to consider using the building again. The elders questioned local residents about the reopening of the church building, and in February the congregation began using it again.

On July 23, however, Regent Basyrah Lubis warned the church to stop worship activities.

Up to that point there had been no problems with the local people, church leaders said, noting that the village leader had no objection to the presence of the church.

With pressure building, however, church leaders met with regional government officials and the MUI, who said many groups opposed the presence of the church and ordered that all Christian activities in the area cease.

Otherwise, the officials and Muslim clerics said, the local government would not be responsible if protestors came and burned the church.

In spite of this brazen threat, church officials decided to continue worship services. Pastor Panjaitan said worship is a human right.

“This is a matter concerning human relations with God, and government should not interfere,” she told Compass.

Noting that their threat was not heeded, government officials again called church leaders to a meeting on July 29. This meeting included the MUI, the district officer, the head of the Department of Religion, and demonstrators who objected to the presence of the church. They forced elder L. Situmorang to sign a letter pledging not to use the building and not to hold worship services on the property, church leaders said.

Initially Situmorang declined, asking for three days to consult with other church leaders, church leaders said, but the next day he was called and forced to sign the letter to stop worship.

Report from Compass Direct News