Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election


Military hostilities against insurgents may result in Christian casualties and persecution.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, October 22 (CDN) — With Burma’s first election in over 20 years just two weeks away, Christians in ethnic minority states fear that afterward the military regime will try to “cleanse” the areas of Christianity, sources said.

The Burmese junta is showing restraint to woo voters in favor of its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but it is expected to launch a military offensive on insurgents in ethnic minority states after the Nov. 7 election, Burma watchers warned.

When Burma Army personnel attack, they do not discriminate between insurgents and unarmed residents, said a representative of the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers relief aid group in Chiang Mai, close to the Thai-Burma border. There is a large Christian population in Burma’s Kachin, Karen and Karenni states along the border that falls under the military’s target zone. Most of the slightly more than 2 million Christians in Burma (also called Myanmar) reside along the country’s border with Thailand, China and India.

The military seems to be preparing its air force for an offensive, said Aung Zaw, editor of the Chiang Mai-based magazine Irrawaddy, which covers Burma. The Burmese Air Force (BAF) bought 50 Mi-24 helicopters and 12 Mi-2 armored transport helicopters from Russia in September, added Zaw, a Buddhist.

Irrawaddy reported that the BAF had procured combat-equipped helicopters for the first time in its history. Air strikes will be conducted “most likely in Burma’s ethnic areas, where dozens of armed groups still exert control,” the magazine reported, quoting BAF sources.

“Armed conflicts between ethnic armies and the military can flare up any time,” said Zaw. “However, to boost the morale of its personnel, the military is expected to attack smaller ethnic groups first, and then the more powerful ones.”

Seven states of Burma have armed and unarmed groups demanding independence or autonomy from the regime: Shan, Karenni (also known as Kayah), Karen, Mon, Chin, Kachin, and Arakan (also Rakhine).

The junta has designated many areas in this region as “Black Zones” – entirely controlled by armed ethnic groups – and “Brown Zones,” where the military has partial control, said the source from FBR, which provides relief to internally displaced people in states across the Thai-Burma border.

“There are many unarmed Christian residents in these zones where Burmese military personnel attack and kill anyone on sight,” the source said.

A Karen state native in Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph, who fled Burma as a child, referred to the junta’s clandestine campaign to wipe out Christians from the country. At least four years ago a secret memo circulated in Karen state, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” that carried “point by point instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state,” reported the British daily Telegraph on Jan. 21, 2007.

“The text, which opens with the line, ‘There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced,’ calls for anyone caught evangelizing to be imprisoned,” the Telegraph reported. “It advises: ‘The Christian religion is very gentle – identify and utilize its weakness.’”

Persecution of Christians in Burma “is part of a wider campaign by the regime, also targeted at ethnic minority tribes, to create a uniform society in which the race and language is Burmese and the only accepted religion is Buddhism,” the daily noted.

The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the FBR. Three months ago, Burma Army’s Light Infantry Battalions 370 and 361 attacked a Christian village in Karen state, according to the FBR. In Tha Dah Der village on July 23, army personnel burned all houses, one of the state’s biggest churches – which was also a school – and all livestock and cattle, reported the FBR.

More than 900 people fled to save their lives.

 

Vague Religious Freedom

The Burmese regime projects that close to 70 percent of the country’s population is ethnic Burman. Ethnic minorities dispute the claim, saying the figure is inflated to make a case for Burman Buddhist nationalism.

The new constitution, which will come into force with the first session of parliament after the election, was passed through a referendum in May 2008 that was allegedly rigged. It provides for religious freedom but also empowers the military to curb it under various pretexts.

Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 360 (a), however, says this freedom “shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice,” apparently to bar religious groups from any lobbying or advocacy.

Further, Article 360 (b) goes on to say that the freedom “shall not debar the Union from enacting law for the purpose of public welfare and reform.”

Adds Article 364: “The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.”

Furthermore, Article 382 empowers “the Defense Forces personnel or members of the armed forces responsible to carry out peace and security” to “restrict or revoke” fundamental rights.

The Burmese junta is expected to remain at the helm of affairs after the election. The 2008 constitution reserves one-fourth of all seats in national as well as regional assemblies for military personnel.

A majority of people in Burma are not happy with the military’s USDP party, and military generals are expected to twist the results in its favor, said Htet Aung, chief election reporter at Irrawaddy.

Khonumtung News Group, an independent Burmese agency, reported on Oct. 2 that most educated young Burmese from Chin state were “disgusted” with the planned election, “which they believe to be a sham and not likely to be free and fair.”

They “are crossing the border to Mizoram in the northeast state of India from Chin state and Sagaing division to avoid participating,” Khonumtung reported. “On a regular basis at least five to 10 youths are crossing the border daily to avoid voting. If they stay in Burma, they will be coerced to cast votes.”

There is “utter confusion” among people, and they do not know if they should vote or not, said Aung of Irrawaddy. While the second largest party, the National Unity Party, is pro-military, there are few pro-democracy and ethnic minority parties.

“Many of the pro-democracy and ethnic minority candidates have little or no experience in politics,” Aung said. “All those who had some experience have been in jail as political prisoners for years.”

In some ethnic minority states, the USDP might face an embarrassing defeat. And this can deepen the military’s hostility towards minorities, including Christians, after the election, added Aung.

For now, an uneasy calm prevails in the Thai-Burma border region where most ethnic Christians live.

Report from Compass Direct News

Evangelist Arrested in Zanzibar, Tanzania


Elsewhere on island off East Africa, Christians prohibited from worshipping at university.

NAIROBI, Kenya, August 19 (CDN) — Christian university students on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar, a predominantly Muslim area off the coast of East Africa, have been denied the right to worship, while on another part of the isle a Christian leader has been jailed.

Sources said evangelist Peter Masanja, a resident of Zanzibar’s southeastern town of Paje, was arrested by security agents sometime in early August. Earlier this year Masanja, a member of the Pentecostal Church in Zanzibar, would invite Christians to his house, as he had made part of his land available for church activities. Area Muslims interpreted it as plans to establish another church there, the sources said.

The rumor angered local residents, and they vowed to prohibit any Christian activities, the sources said.

“It was only after her husband failed to return home that Masanja’s wife knew that there was something amiss,” said a source who requested anonymity. “After several days of searching, reports reached the wife that Masanja had been arrested and imprisoned in Kilimani cell.”

Pastors from Tanzania’s Zanzibar Island sought to meet with prison authorities about Masanja’s arrest, but officials informed them that the person in charge of the prison was away on official business, said Bishop Obeid Fabian, chairman of an association of congregations known as the Fraternal Churches.

“We are asking for prayers for him and his family, that he would be released,” Fabian said.

At Zanzibar University, a private school in Tunguu 18 kilometers (12 miles) from Zanzibar Town, Islamic administrators have denied Christian students freedom of worship while retaining that constitutional right for Muslims, said Samson Zuberi, Christian Union students coordinator.

Three Christian Union student leaders have protested to school officials and threatened to go to court over the discrimination, he said. Although freedom of worship among Christians has long been restricted at the university, the decision to ban it completely caused an outcry. The vice-chancellor’s office on Dec. 28, 2009 issued the order forbidding Christian students from conducting their affairs and meetings on the school campus.    

Numbering about 100 at a university with more than 2,500 students, the Christian students say they have felt the administration increasingly discriminating against them. There are two mosques at the university, which is sponsored by an Islamic charity, Dar el Uman Charitable Association, registered in Geneva, Switzerland, according to the school’s Web site.

In an April 12 circular, university Dean of Students Mavua H. Mussa warned those defying worship regulations to seek other learning institutions, saying that the ban on religious activities in lecture theaters, halls of residence or anywhere else on campus was absolute.

Students said the ban violates sections 19(1) and 20(1) of the Zanzibar Constitution of 1984, which provide for freedom of association, including religious groups, free of government control. Articles 19(1) (2) and 20(1) of the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania of 1977 provide for the same freedom, they said.

Fabian told Compass by telephone that the students will seek counsel from Christian students at universities in Dar es Salaam and Dodoma, Tanzania.

“We have advised that before they take the case to court, the three Christian Union leaders should travel to get counsel from their fellow students at the universities of Dar es Salaam and Dodoma, especially the Christian law students, to get the correct interpretation of the Tanzanian constitution on the right of worship,” Fabian said.

He added that the students – Zuberi, regional Christian Union Student Chairman Ronald R. Urassa and Christian Union Student Secretary Neema Alex Langalli – need to raise US$800 each for the travel.

Similarly, the dress code at the university has caused tensions, sources said, as officials have threatened to expel female Christian students if they do not wear a veil and headscarf, or the Buibui and Hijab. University regulations state that, “For a female dressing, the clothes must cover from head to an ankle.”

Some of the lecturers have put female Christian students out of class if they do not wear the required Islamic dress, sources said.

They also noted that during the current Islamic month of Ramadan, a period of fasting by day, life for Christian students becomes difficult as university regulations forbid them to cook for themselves, and all cafeterias on or near university campuses are closed. The location of the school makes it difficult for Christian students to find meals outside the university cafeteria.

Even if they remain off campus, the conditions and practices of landlords discriminate against Christians, the sources said.

In predominately Sunni Muslim Zanzibar, churches face numerous challenges. There are restrictions on getting land to build churches, open preaching is outlawed and there is limited time on national television to air Christian programs. In government schools, only Islamic Religious knowledge is taught, not Christian Religious Education.

Zanzibar is the informal designation for the island of Unguja in the Indian Ocean. The Zanzibar archipelago united with Tanganyika to form the present day Tanzania in 1964.

Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf had settled in the region early in the 10th century after monsoon winds propelled them through the Gulf of Aden and Somalia. The 1964 merger left island Muslims uneasy about Christianity, seeing it as a means by which mainland Tanzania might dominate them, and tensions have persisted.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian Professor in Pakistan Beaten for Refusing to Convert


In another province, three eighth-grade students expelled for declining Islam.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, June 25 (CDN) — Muslim students attacked a Christian professor at the University of Peshawar this month after he refused their demand to convert to Islam, the instructor told Compass.

Psychology professor Samuel John, a father of four who has been teaching at the university in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province for 12 years, said that as he came out of his house on the university campus at 8:30 a.m. on June 14, about 20 to 25 students rushed and assaulted him.

“I shouted for help, but no one came to help,” he said.

When his wife learned what was happening, she ran to help him, but the students beat her as well. Both John and his wife were rushed to Lady Reading hospital, where they were treated for their injuries, with John listed in critical condition.

“I am still getting threats,” the professor told Compass. “They say, ‘Leave the university or accept Islam – if you don’t convert, we will kill your family.”

Police have refused to register a First Information Report on the incident, he said.

A group of five students had visited John on May 15, he said.

“They said, ‘Professor, you are a good teacher and a good human being, please convert to Islam and we will provide you with everything you need,’” John said. “I was surprised and said, ‘Why do you want me to convert? I am a Christian, and Jesus Christ is my Savior – He provides me with everything.”

One of the students became angry, saying, “Don’t forget that you are a family man,” John said. “I said, ‘I am not scared of anyone, God will protect me and my family.’”

He reported the matter to the dean of the University of Peshawar, but the official was unable to take any action because the Islamic students councils are supported by political parties and powerful Islamic groups, the professor said.

His family became worried, and other professors spoke of going on strike on John’s behalf, demanding an apology from the students who threatened him.

“They said, ‘This is a university, no one will be allowed to take the law in their hands – we are professors and teach everyone and do not discriminate by religion, caste, creed or color,’” John said.  

But no action was taken against anyone. John subsequently faced various forms of harassment from different Islamic student groups who threw stones at his home, sent threatening letters and threatened his family over the phone, he said.

John had recently been honored with an award for best results in psychology at colleges throughout Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Muslim professors and Muslim student councils were upset that a Christian professor was getting so much attention, Christian sources said.

 

Students Pressured

Separately, in Danna village in southern Punjab Province, Muslim administrators told three Christian students in the eighth grade to leave the school because they refused to convert to Islam.

A new teacher of Islamic Studies who came from another village to Government High School Danna urged students in his class, Sunil Masih, Shazia Masih and Nasir Naeem, to convert to Islam, according to the father of Sunil, Ejaz Masih.

The teacher, whom the parents declined to name, is also a Muslim leader.

“The teacher began by saying, ‘Sunil, Shazia and Nasir, convert to Islam – it is the true religion, and you will go straight to heaven,” Ejaz Masih said.

The students reported the pressure to their parents, who came to the school and complained to the principal.

The principal asked the teacher to explain the details of what happened, but other staff members at the school supported the new teacher, Masih said. On June 16, under pressure from other teachers, the principal told the parents to remove their children from the school unless they were willing to convert to Islam.

“We have been forced to leave the village,” Masih said. “The police have refused to help us. We are helpless here.”

Masih, along with Sohail Masih and Naeem Boota, parents of the other children, have fled the village with their families. Their children were the only Christian students at the school.

Report from Compass Direct News

European Court Rules Against Turkey’s Religion ID


Designation on identification cards used to discriminate on basis of religion.

ISTANBUL, February 5 (CDN) — A European court on Tuesday (Feb. 2) ordered Turkey to remove the religious affiliation section from citizens’ identification cards, calling the practice a violation of human rights.

Religious minorities and in particular Christian converts in Turkey have faced discrimination because of the mandatory religion declaration on their identification cards, which was enforced until 2006. Since then, citizens are allowed to leave the “Religion” section of their IDs blank.

The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) “is a good thing,” said Zekai Tanyar, president of the Turkish Protestant Alliance, citing prejudices against Christian converts.

“[Religion on the ID] can cost people their jobs,” he said. “It has been known to affect whether they get a job or not, how people look at them, whether they are accepted for a post or an application of some sort. Therefore I think [the ruling] is a good and appropriate thing.”

Tanyar said the same principles would apply in the case of Muslims living in a country that had prejudices against Muslims. For converts in Turkey having to state their religion on their ID cards, “in practice, and in people’s experience, it has been negative.” 

The ECHR ruling came after a Turkish Muslim national filed a petition challenging that his identification card stated his religion as “Alevi” and not Muslim. Alevis practice a form of Shia Islam that is different from that of the Sunni Muslim majority.

The court found in a 6-to-1 vote that any mention of religion on an identity card violated human rights. The country was found to be in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights – to which Turkey is a signatory – specifically Article 9, which deals with freedom of religion and belief; Article 6, which is related to due process; and Article 12, which prohibits discrimination.

The presence of the “religion” box on the Turkish national identification card obliges individuals to disclose, against their will, information concerning an aspect of their personal convictions, the court ruled.

Although the government argued that indication of religion on identity cards did not compel Turks to disclose their religious convictions, the ECHR found that the state was making assessments of the applicant’s faith, thus breaching its duty of neutrality and impartiality.

In a statement on the verdict this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the ruling was in line with the government’s intentions.

“I don’t see the ECHR decision as abnormal,” he said, according to Turkish daily Taraf. “It’s not very important if it is removed.” 

The ECHR is independent of the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join. The rulings of the ECHR are binding for members of the Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a member, and must be implemented.

A Step in the Right Direction

Human rights lawyers welcomed the decision of the ECHR, saying it is a small step in the direction of democracy and secularism in Turkey.

“It is related to the general freedom of religion in our country,” said human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “They assume everyone is Muslim and automatically write this on your ID card, so this is a good reminder that, first of all, everyone is not Muslim in this country, and second, that being a Muslim is not an indispensible part of being Turkish.”

The lawyer said the judgment would have positive implications for religious minorities in Turkey who are subject to intolerance from the majority Muslim population. 

In 2000 Turkey’s neighbor Greece, a majority Christian Orthodox country, lifted the religion section from national IDs in order to adhere to European human rights standards and conventions, causing tumult among nationals.

“In Turkey, Greece or whatever European country, racism or intolerance or xenophobia are not rare occurrences if [religion] is written on your card, and if you are a minority group it makes you open to racist, xenophobic or other intolerant behaviors,” said Cengiz. “There might be times that the [religious] declaration might be very dangerous.”

International Implications

It is not yet known what, if any, effect the ECHR decision could have on the rest of the Middle East.

Because of its history, economic power and strategic location, Turkey is seen as a leader in the region. Like Turkey, many Middle Eastern countries have a place for religious affiliation on their identification cards. Unlike Turkey, listing religious affiliation is mandatory in most of these countries and almost impossible to change, even under court order.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), religious identification is used as a tool to deny jobs and even basic rights or services to religious minorities in many Middle Eastern countries.

“It’s a serious problem from a human rights point of view,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa for HRW, an international human rights organization. “It’s especially problematic when that requirement becomes a basis for discrimination.”

Stork said the identification cards shouldn’t have a listing for religion at all. He said the European decision may eventually be used in legal arguments in Middle Eastern courts, but it will be a long time before change is realized.

“It’s not like the Egyptian government is going to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gee, let’s do that,’” Stork said.

Egypt in particular is notorious for using religion on IDs to systematically discriminate against Coptic Christians and converts to Christianity. While it takes a day to change one’s religion from Christianity to Islam on their ID, the reverse is virtually impossible. 

Report from Compass Direct News 

Spike in Anti-Christian Violence Feared before Burma Elections


Attacks on Christians seen as politically expedient in majority-Buddhist nation.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, January 21 (CDN) — As Burma’s military junta gears up for its first parliamentary election in two decades this year, observers fear attacks on the Christian minority could intensify.

Mungpi Suangtak, assistant editor of a New Delhi-based news agency run by exiled Burmese journalists, the Mizzima News, said the Burmese junta has “one of the world’s worst human rights records” and will “definitely” attack religious and ethnic minorities more forcefully in the run-up to the election.

The military regime, officially known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), pledged to hold the election this year, and analysts believe polls will be held after July in the country, also known as Myanmar.

Suangtak told Compass that the Buddhist nationalist junta would target Christians particularly in Karen state, bordering Thailand, and in Chin State, bordering India and Bangladesh.

Many Christians are part of the Karen National Union and the Chin National Front, armed resistance groups that have been demanding freedom or autonomy for their respective states for decades, and therefore the junta sees the Christian minority as a threat, said Suangtak.

There are over 100,000 Christian Chin refugees in India who have fled the junta’s attacks in the past two decades, according to Human Rights Watch.

Christians in Karen state are not safe. A Karen Christian worker living in the Mae La refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border told Compass that ethnic Christians were facing human rights abuses by the junta “on a daily basis.” Most recently, Burma army soldiers attacked a church, murdered a local farmer and injured others in Nawng Mi village on Dec. 19, 2009, reported Burma Campaign UK.

Parts of Karen state fall under the “Black Zone” – identified by the Burma army as an area under the control of armed resistance groups where its soldiers are free to open fire on anyone on sight – and the junta has been launching indiscriminate attacks to take control of village after village, said the Karen Christian.

“Those who are not able to flee across the border during such attacks are either killed or forcibly relocated in and confined to temporary camps set up by the junta,” the Christian said. “Since the army litters surrounding areas with landmines, many local people die or get injured while trying to run away from or coming to the camps to look for their relatives.”

Over 150,000 refugees from Karen and neighboring Karenni states of Burma are living along the Thai side of the border, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of them are Christian.

A representative of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), which trains and sends teams of local people to help victims of the junta’s attacks inside Burma, said youths have been forced to become Buddhists in Chin state, where over 80 percent of the people are Christian.

Printing of Bibles is restricted, and churches are destroyed on a regular basis in the state, the source told Compass on condition of anonymity.

Access for foreign visitors to Chin state is, with some exceptions, prohibited, and the state is widely acknowledged to be the poorest part of the country, said Rogers.

“According to one Chin, the reason Chin state is denied resources, and foreigners are denied access, is specifically because the overwhelming majority of Chins are Christian,” stated a 2009 report by London-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “The SPDC has, it is believed, taken a deliberate decision to discriminate against Chin Christians.”

The report cited a Chin Christian man who had served in the Burma army who faced discrimination.

“I had a colleague who was a Chin who became a Buddhist and he was promoted,” the Christian says in the report. “I was told to change my religion if I wanted to get promotion. I refused to convert.”

The report also quoted a Chin Christian as saying that students from a Christian youth fellowship at a university in Kalaymyo, in Chin state’s Sagaing Division, collected funds among their own community to construct a small church.

“However, in 2008 and again in 2009, ‘extremist Buddhists’ destroyed the church building, and when the students reported the incident to the local authorities, the youth fellowship leaders were arrested, detained and then released with a warning,” he said.

Religious Pretext

Suangtak said successive governments in Burma have promoted Buddhism since General Ne Win took power in 1962, leaving Christians insecure.

“There is a general feeling in Burma that the state represents Buddhism, and most Christians, particularly from conservative sections, cannot trust the regime,” said Suangtak.

Benedict Rogers of CSW said the junta doesn’t differentiate between individual Christians involved in armed struggle and ordinary Christians who have not taken up arms.

“And when it attacks villages in conflict zones, churches and pastors are often among the first to be attacked,” Rogers said.

A Christian worker from Burma’s Mandalay city, however, told Compass that thus far he has heard no reports of any major anti-Christian incidents there. He said he was hoping the junta would try to woo people with peace rather than violence.

“But nothing can be said about the unpredictable junta,” he said, adding that it was difficult to receive or send information in Burma. “Even in cities, the information infrastructure is limited and expensive, phones are tapped and e-mails are monitored. And the press is owned by the state.”

Rogers, deputy chairman of the human rights commission for the U.K.’s Conservative Party, said the Buddhist nationalist regime “distorts and perverts Buddhism for political purposes and is intolerant of non-Burman and non-Buddhist ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims.”

Of the 56 million people in Burma, around 89 percent are Buddhist, with only 4 percent Christian.

Given that the junta merely uses religion for political power, it doesn’t target Christians alone, Suangtak said.

“The junta has no respect for any religion, be it Christians or Buddhists, and anyone who opposes its rule is dealt with harshly.”

Burma was ruled by military regimes from 1962 to 1990; at that point the National League for Democracy party, led by Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won the parliamentary election. But the regime seized power again by imprisoning members of parliament after the election.

Rogers, who has co-authored a soon-to-be-published biography of SPDC chairman Senior General Than Shwe, said that while the armed groups are not perfect, they are essentially fighting to defend their people against a “brutal regime” and are “not in any way terrorists.”

“The armed groups have sometimes launched pre-emptive attacks on the military, but they have never attacked non-military targets and have never engaged in indiscriminate acts of violence,” he said. “Even the pre-emptive acts are conducted for defensive, rather than offensive, purposes.”

Rogers added that resistance groups were fighting to defend their people.

“Individual Christians who have joined the armed ethnic groups do so out of a perfectly biblical concept of just war, the right to defend your people from gross injustice.”

Added an FBR source, “In Burma, no one protects except the pro-democracy resistance groups, and all relief inside the country is only possible because of them.”

International Disrepute

The 2009 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states that Burma’s military junta had “one of the world’s worst human rights records.”

“Burma’s Christian populations face forced promotion of Buddhism and other hardships in ethnic minority areas where low-intensity conflict has been waged for decades,” the report states. “In addition, a new law passed in early 2009 essentially bans independent ‘house church’ religious venues, many of which operate because permission to build church buildings is regularly denied.”

The report also pointed out that in January 2009, authorities in Rangoon ordered at least 100 churches to stop holding services and forced them to sign pledges to that effect. Burma, which the ruling junta describes as “The Golden Land” on its official website, has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. Department of State since 1999.

Even after the 2010 election, little is expected to change.

The FBR source said the election was not likely to be free and fair, pointing out that the new constitution the junta adopted after an apparently rigged referendum in 2008 virtually enshrined military power.

“However, having an election is better than not having one at all,” the source said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

INDONESIA: CHRISTIANS CALL FOR REJECTION OF SHARIA-INSPIRED BILLS


Church leaders fear legislation will lead to religious intolerance; church, orphanage opposed.

JAKARTA, August 19 (Compass Direct News) – The Indonesian Council of Churches (PGI) has called for the rejection of two bills inspired by sharia (Islamic law).

The Halal Product Guarantee Bill and the Zakat Obligatory Alms Management Bill, both under consideration in the Indonesian parliament, cater to the needs of one religious group at the expense of others, violating Indonesia’s policy of pancasila or religious tolerance, said the Rev. Dr. A.A. Yewangoe, director of the PGI.

“National laws must be impartial and inclusive,” Yewangoe told Compass. “Since all laws are binding on all of the Indonesian people, they must be objective. Otherwise discrimination will result … The state has a duty to guard the rights of all its citizens, including freedom of religion.”

Dr. Lodewijk Gultom, head of PGI’s Law and Human Rights Department, pointed out that according to regulations on the formation of proposed laws, a bill cannot discriminate against any group of citizens. But the Halal product bill several times mentions sharia, as if Indonesia were an exclusively Muslim state, he said.

“If this bill is enforced, it will cause other religions to demand specific rights, and our sense of unity and common destiny will be lost,” Gultom said.

Gultom also said the bills were an attempt to resurrect the Jakarta Charter, a statement incorporated into Indonesia’s constitution in 1945 before it was quickly withdrawn. It declared that the newly-created state would be based on a belief in the one supreme God “with the obligation to live according to Islamic law for Muslims.”

Public opinion on the Jakarta Charter remains sharply divided, with some insisting that Islamic law is warranted because of the country’s Muslim majority, while others believe its implementation would disturb national unity.

Two members of Parliament, Constant Pongawa and Tiurlan Hutagaol, both from the Prosperous Peace Party, have requested the withdrawal of the Halal and Zakat bills to avoid creating conflict between Muslims and other religious groups.

“These bills are a step backward and will lead to the isolation of different religions,” agreed Ronald Naibaho, head of the North Sumatran chapter of the Indonesian Christian Youth Movement.

National church leaders have requested a meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to discuss the impact of these bills and a number of other discriminatory laws being applied at provincial levels across the country.

Church, Orphanage Closed

Muslim groups, meantime, recently moved to close more Christian institutions.

On July 21, following complaints from community groups, police forcibly dismantled a church in West Java on grounds that it did not have a building permit, while similar groups in East Java successfully lobbied for the closure of a Catholic orphanage claiming that it planned to “Christianize” local children.

Police in Bogor district, West Java, dismantled the temporary bamboo structure erected by the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan church in Parung Panjang on July 21. Church leaders insist that the church had long ago applied for a building permit that was not granted even though they had met all requirements, including obtaining permission from the Bogor Interfaith Harmony Forum.

“There are 234 buildings in Parung Panjang that lack building permits, including a mosque,” church elder Walman Nainggolan told Compass. “Why was our house of worship singled out?”

The church has filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia. Commissioner Johny Nelson Simanjuntak agreed to clarify the status of the church building permit with local officials and asked local police to permit peaceful worship as guaranteed by the constitution.

Separately, a group of Muslims lobbied for the closure of a Catholic orphanage for crippled children in Batu, in the Malang district of East Java, stating concern that the facility would become a covert vehicle for “Christianization.” In response to demonstrations in front of the mayor’s office in October 2008 and June 2009 and complaints from 10 different Muslim religious and community organizations, Batu Mayor Eddy Rumpoko on June 19 rescinded a building permit issued to the Catholic Bhakti Luhur Foundation and ordered that construction cease immediately.

The foundation operates 41 orphanages serving approximately 700 children with special needs.

“We are greatly saddened by this action,” the Rev. Laurentius Heru Susanto, a local vicar, told Compass. “The home was meant to serve the people. There was no other purpose.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

INDONESIA: SHARIA-BASED LAWS CREEP INTO HALF OF PROVINCES


Islamic-based legislation may be a key issue in this year’s elections.

DUBLIN, February 2 (Compass Direct News) – As candidates hit the campaign trail in preparation for Indonesia’s presidential election in July, rights groups have voiced strong opposition to an increasing number of sharia-inspired laws introduced by local governments. They say the laws discriminate against religious minorities and violate Indonesia’s policy of Pancasila, or “unity in diversity.”

With legislative elections coming in April and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono likely to form a coalition with several Islamic parties for the July presidential election, such laws could become a key campaign issue.

Although Aceh is the only province completely governed by sharia (Islamic law), more than 50 regencies in 16 of 32 provinces throughout Indonesia have passed laws influenced by sharia. These laws became possible following the enactment of the Regional Autonomy Law in 2000.

The form of these laws varies widely. Legislation in Padang, West Sumatra, requires both Muslim and non-Muslim women to wear headscarves, while a law in Tangerang allows women found “loitering” alone on the street after 10 p.m. to be arrested and charged with prostitution. Other laws include stipulations for Quran literacy among schoolchildren and severe punishment for adultery, alcoholism and gambling.

“Generally the legal system regulates and guarantees religious freedom of Indonesian citizens … but in reality, discrimination prevails,” a lawyer from the legal firm Eleonora and Partners told Compass.

Some regencies have adopted sharia in a way that further marginalizes minority groups, according to Syafi’I Anwar, executive director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism.

“For instance, the Padang administration issued a law requiring all schoolgirls, regardless of their religion, to wear the headscarf,” he told the International Herald Tribune. This is unacceptable because it is not in line with the pluralism that the constitution recognizes.”

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 29 of the country’s constitution, he added. “Therefore the government must assist all religious communities to practice their beliefs as freely as possible and take actions against those who violate that right.”

While Indonesia’s largest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has publicly denounced the implementation of such laws, other groups actively support them. The Committee for the Implementation and Maintenance of Islamic Law (KPPSI) has held several congresses in Makassar, South Sulawesi with the goal of passing sharia-inspired legislation and obtaining special autonomy for the province, similar to that in Aceh.

KPPSI has also encouraged members to vote for politicians who share their goals, according to local news agency Komintra.

 

‘Threatening’ Decision

In February of last year, Home Affairs Minister Mardiyanto declared that the government saw no need to nullify some 600 sharia-inspired laws passed by local governments. His announcement came after a group of lawyers in June 2007 urged the government to address laws that discriminated against non-Muslims.

Moderates were alarmed at Mardiyanto’s decision, fearing it would encourage other jurisdictions to pass similar laws. Last August, Dr. Mohammad Mahfud, newly re-elected as head of the Constitutional Court, slammed regional administrations for enacting sharia-inspired laws.

“[These] laws are not constitutionally or legally correct because, territorially and ideologically, they threaten our national integrity,” he told top military officers attending a training program on human rights, according to The Jakarta Post.

Mahfud contended that if Indonesia allowed sharia-based laws, “then Bali can pass a Hindu bylaw, or North Sulawesi can have a Christian ordinance. If each area fights for a religious-based ordinance, then we face a national integration problem.” According to Mahfud, sharia-based laws would promote religious intolerance and leave minority religious groups without adequate legal protection.

Under the 2000 Regional Autonomy Law, the central government has the power to block provincial laws but showed little willingness to do so until recently when, bowing to pressure from advocacy groups, it pledged to review 37 sharia-based ordinances deemed discriminatory and at odds with the constitution.

Such reviews are politically sensitive and must be done on sound legal grounds, according to Ridarson Galingging, a law lecturer in Jakarta.

“Advocates of sharia-based laws will stress the divine origin of sharia and resist challenges [that are] based on constitutional or human rights limits,” he told The Jakarta Post. “They maintain that sharia is authorized directly by God, and political opposition is viewed as apostasy or blasphemy.”

 

Empowering Vigilantes

A national, sharia-inspired bill regulating images or actions deemed pornographic sparked outrage when presented for a final vote in October last year. One fifth of the parliamentarians present walked out in protest, leaving the remainder to vote in favor of the legislation.

The bill provided for up to 15 years of prison and a maximum fine of US$1.5 million for offenders.

“This law will only empower vigilante groups like the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI),” Eva Sundari, a member of the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) told reporters. FPI is widely-regarded as a self-appointed moral vigilante group, often raiding bars and nightclubs, but also responsible for multiple attacks on churches.

“Many of the members are preparing for elections and looking for support among the Islamic community,” she added. “Now they can point to this law as evidence that they support Islamic values.”

Although several Golkar Party politicians support sharia-based laws, senior Golkar Party member Theo Sambuaga has criticized politicians for endorsing such legislation to win support from Muslim voters. Several major parties openly back sharia laws, including the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the United Development Party, and the Crescent Star party.

 

Key Election Issue

Sharia-based laws may become an even hotter election issue this year as a change to the voting system means more weight will be given to provincial candidates.

Political analysts believe Yudhoyono must form a coalition with most if not all of the country’s Islamic parties in order to win a majority vote against the Golkar party, allied for this election with former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDIP.

The coalition Yudhoyono could form, however, likely would come with strings attached. As Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance wrote in September 2008, “The more the president needs the Islamists, the more they can demand of him.”

In 2004, Yudhoyono partnered with the NU-sponsored National Awakening Party, the National Mandate Party (founded by the Islamic purist organization Muhammadiyah) and the PKS to achieve his majority vote. Analysts predict PKS will again be a key player in this election.

Few realize, however, that PKS draws its ideology from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group formed in Egypt in 1928 with a firm belief in Islamic world dominance. Crushed by the Egyptian government in the 1960s, members of the Brotherhood fled to Saudi Arabia, where they taught in the nation’s universities – influencing the future founders of Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Sudan’s National Islamic Front.

The Brotherhood took root at a university in Bandung, West Java in the 1970s in the form of Tarbiyah, a secretive student movement that eventually morphed into the Justice Party (JP) in 1998. Winning few votes, JP allied itself with a second party to form the PKS prior to the 2004 elections.

Since then, PKS has gained widespread support and a solid reputation for integrity and commitment to Islamic values. Simultaneously, however, PKS leaders are vocal supporters of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, leader of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Sadanand Dhume, writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review, says the two organizations have much in common. In its founding manifesto, PKS calls for the creation of an Islamic caliphate. Unlike JI, however, “the party can use its position in Parliament and its … network of cadres to advance the same goals incrementally, one victory at a time.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: FATHER’S BRIEF CONVERSION TRAPS DAUGHTERS IN ISLAM


Two Christian sisters battle to regain religious identity following forgery charges.

ISTANBUL, October 10 (Compass Direct News) – An Egyptian Coptic Christian woman has been sentenced to three years in prison for failing to uphold her Islamic identity – an identity she didn’t know she had for over four decades.

Sisters Shadia and Bahia Nagy El-Sisi, both in their late 40s and residents of the small east Delta town Mit-Ghamr, were arrested and tried for claiming their official religious identity as Christian. Unknown to them, their religious identity officially changed 46 years ago due to their father’s brief conversion to Islam. Both are illiterate.

Shadia El-Sisi was tried for stating her religion as Christian on her marriage certificate and sentenced to three years in prison on Nov. 21, 2007. She was released two months later. Last Sept. 23 a judge also sentenced Bahia El-Sisi to three years in prison for “forging” her marriage certificate by stating her religion as Christian.

Their father, Nagy El-Sisi, converted to Islam in 1962 during a brief marital dispute in order to divorce his wife and potentially gain custody of his daughters, the sisters’ lawyer Peter Ramses told Compass.

Egyptian law is influenced by Islamic jurisprudence (sharia), which automatically awards child custody to whichever parent has the “superior” religion and dictates “no jurisdiction of a non-Muslim over a Muslim.”

If Bahia El-Sisi’s identity as a Muslim stands, then her religious status could potentially create a domino effect that would require her husband to convert to Islam or have their marriage nullified. Her children, too, would be registered as Muslims. Both women are married to Christians.

“All of their children and grandchildren would be registered as Muslims,” Ramses said. “[The ruling] would affect many people.”

Other sources said it is too soon to determine the fate of the sisters’ marriages and families, as neither of their cases have been finalized.

 

‘But I Am a Christian’

A few years after his conversion, Nagy El-Sisi returned to his family and Christianity. He sought the help of a Muslim employee in the Civil Registration Office, Ramadan Muhammad Hussein, who agreed to forge his Christian identification documents. Reversion back to Christianity for converts to Islam has been nearly impossible in Egyptian courts.

The daughters discovered they were still registered as Muslims when Hussein was arrested for forgery in 1996 and confessed he had helped El-Sisi obtain fake documents three decades earlier. El-Sisi was later arrested.

When the two daughters visited him in prison, they were detained and accused of forging their Christian identification documents, according to national weekly Watani. A criminal court gave them each a three-year prison sentence in absentia in 2000.

Shadia El-Sisi was arrested in August 2007, three days before her son’s wedding. Her first hearing was on Nov. 21, 2007 at the Shobra El-Khema criminal court; she asserted that she had no idea of her so-called conversion to Islam. Judge Hadar Tobla Hossan sentenced her to three years in prison.

Confronted with the sentence, Shadia El-Sisi kept repeating, “But I am a Christian. I am a Christian,” according to Watani.

She was in prison until Jan. 13, when Prosecutor-General Abdel Meged Mahmood retracted the sentence because she was unaware of her conversion by proxy and due to legal technicalities that voided incriminating evidence.

The advocacy group Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination also pressured the judiciary through a signature drive to release her from prison.

Bahia El-Sisi went into hiding following her sister’s imprisonment, but came out after news of her release. Legal experts believe that when Bahia El-Sisi’s case comes before the Supreme Court, her sentence will be retracted as her sister’s was, as their cases have no legal foundation.

Early in the morning of May 5, however, police arrested Bahia El-Sisi and held her in jail until her hearing on July 20, after which she was released pending the verdict.

On Sept. 23 she was sentenced to three years in prison for “forgery of an official document,” as her marriage license states her religion as “Christian.” Bahia El-Sisi was married years before learning of her father’s brief conversion.

Ramses will appeal to Egypt’s Supreme Court in next week. He said he worries the case could further erode the precarious situation of religious minorities in the Muslim-majority country of 79 million.

“How can the government say to [someone] who has lived 50 years in a Christian way that they must become a Muslim and their children must be Muslim and their whole family must all be Muslims?” he said. “This is very important for the freedom of religion.”

Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of belief and practice for the country’s Christian minority, which makes up 10 percent of the population. Islam, however, is the official state religion and heavily influences the government and court system.

The case is an example of the social pressure put on Egyptian non-Muslims to convert when one of their parents embraces Islam, despite the constitution guaranteeing equality, said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Watani.

“This is a sick environment that we struggle to change,” Sidhom stated. “According to what is taking place here freedom is protected and provided for Christians to convert to Islam while the opposite is not provided.”

Egyptian courts have continued to discriminate against Christians who have one Muslim parent, according to human rights reports, as the judiciary gives them no choice but to convert to Islam.

On Sept. 24 an Alexandria court awarded custody of 14-year-old Christian twins to their Muslim father even though the twins said they were Christians who wanted to stay with their mother. Egyptian civil law grants child custody to their mothers until the age of 15.  

Report from Compass Direct News