Foreign Ministry spokesman asserts ‘full religious freedom’ despite arrests, torture.

DUBLIN, May 8 (Compass Direct News) – A U.S. government body cited increased harassment, imprisonment and torture of members of unregistered religious groups in China last year, which a Chinese official roundly denied.

After the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last week recommended China remain on the U.S. Department of State’s list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said USCIRF’s report was “an attempt to smear China.”

“It is a fact that the Chinese government protects its citizens’ freedom of religious belief according to law, and every ethnic group in any part of China enjoys full religious freedom,” Ma Zhaoxu, said Tuesday (May 5) in a statement quoted by the Chinese daily Xinhua.

The commission acknowledged that “the freedom to participate in officially-sanctioned religious activity increased in many areas of the country over the past year,” but noted that abuses of members of unregistered religious groups had extended to a small handful of lawyers who dared to defend them.

In at least 17 provinces, some 764 Protestant leaders and house church members were arrested in the past year, 35 of whom were sentenced to prison for a year or more, the report said. According to the state department, the total number of Protestant house church members and “underground” Catholics arrested in the past year may be in the thousands.

Religious freedom also deteriorated significantly in Uyghur Muslim and Tibetan Buddhist regions over the past year, according to the commission report. Officials have urged “stronger management” of Protestant and Catholic activity in Xinjiang, while new laws have allowed greater control over Muslim and Buddhist community leaders in both regions.

Police detained Chinese house church leader Lou Yuanqi in Xinjiang province in May 2008, charging him with “inciting separatism” and “utilizing superstition to undermine the law.” A local court refused to accept his case due to insufficient evidence, but Yuanqi remained in detention until his release on bail on April 24.

Officials further restricted religious freedom in the autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet during the period USCIRF covered for the report, May 2008 through April 2009. Ismail Tiliwaldi, chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), urged local police and religious affairs officials to “exercise stronger management” over Protestantism and Catholicism and strictly guard against foreign infiltration and sabotage, the commission stated.

On Jan. 1, 2008, new laws gave officials in both regions greater powers to monitor the training, assembly, selection and speeches of community religious leaders. More recently, officials have enforced bans on religious education; authorities in Tibet have warned parents to keep children away from religious ceremonies, while Xinjiang officials in February and March began a campaign to halt illegal religious schools and arrest anyone engaged in “cross-village worship.”

The campaigns in Xinjiang have largely targeted Muslims, but Uyghur Christians are also affected. Unable to freely attend government-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) Protestant churches, they continue to meet in small groups in private homes, risking arrest and detention in labor camps.

House church Christian Alimjan Yimit (Alimujiang Yimiti in Chinese) remains in arbitrary detention awaiting trial, 15 months after his arrest. Officials initially closed the foreign-owned business Alimjan worked for in September 2007 and accused him of using it as a cover for “preaching Christianity.” He was then detained in January 2008 on charges of endangering state security and was formally arrested on Feb. 20, 2008 on charges of “inciting secession” and leaking state secrets.

Court officials returned Alimjan’s case to state prosecutors in May 2008, citing lack of evidence. The case was returned to court for consideration last October.

On April 21, attorney Li Dunyong petitioned for and was granted permission for a rare meeting with his client on April 21 after witnesses saw police and a prison doctor escorting Alimjan to hospital on March 30; Compass sources said Alimjan had been beaten in prison, although it was not clear who beat him or why. When Li questioned him, Alimjan indicated that he was not allowed to speak about his health.

Officials also continued tight surveillance of underground Catholic groups across China last year, according to USCIRF.

The official Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) insists on selecting and ordaining clergy and forbids clergy or CPA members to have contact with the Vatican or other foreign Catholic organizations, USCIRF stated. The Vatican, however, has secretly ordained as many as 90 percent of CPA bishops and priests, the commission reported.

China watchers say pressure will increase rather than decrease as China anticipates several significant political anniversaries later this year.

Troubled Rights Advocates

The crackdown has extended to lawyers, particularly those handling religious rights cases. In March, officials revoked the license of Beijing’s Yitong Law Firm; the firm’s lawyers had been handling cases for unregistered house church Christians.

Christian attorney Gao Zhisheng, known for defending unregistered Protestant Christians and Falun Gong members, disappeared in February. Immediately prior to his disappearance, Gao had published a report of torture endured during a September 2007 interrogation. At press time his whereabouts remained unknown. (See “Action Urged for Missing Rights Activist,” March 25.)

Court officials in November 2007 sentenced Gao’s legal partner, Yang Maodong, to five years in prison for “illegal business practices.” Prison guards have reportedly tortured Yang with electric shock batons and other implements.

Earlier, in September 2007, officials beat prominent religious freedom advocate and attorney Li Heping with electric batons and ordered him to stop practicing law. When he refused, officials revoked his license.

Given these developments, the commission has urged the U.S. government to include religious freedom concerns in its discussions with the Chinese government.

Under terms of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, U.S. government officials are obliged to address religious rights concerns with the government of any country designated as a Country of Particular Concern.

Report from Compass Direct News


Human Rights Watch shows systematic, officially sanctioned religious freedom violations.

DUBLIN, February 20 (Compass Direct News) – A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in January details serious and ongoing abuses against the Chin people, a minority group in Burma’s northwest who claim to be 90 percent Christian.

HRW’s research echoes a 2004 report by the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) that described targeted abuse of Christians in Chin state, with the Burmese army subjecting pastors and church members to forced labor, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and sometimes death.

While religious oppression is extreme in Chin state, restrictions also apply elsewhere in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Most recently, officials in January forced the closure of more than 100 churches in Rangoon and ordered owners of apartment buildings and conference facilities not to rent their properties to religious groups.

Based on interviews with Chin refugees in India and Malaysia between 2003 and 2008, HRW’s report describes how an increasing number of army battalions stationed in Chin state since 1988 have inflicted forced labor and arbitrary fines on the Chin people, as well as bullied them away from Christianity toward Buddhism.

“When we meet the army, we are shaking,” a Chin refugee pastor told HRW. “Whatever they want is law.”

The HRW report, entitled “We Are Like Forgotten People,” notes that soldiers frequently forced Christians to donate finances and labor to pagoda construction projects in areas where there were few or no Buddhist residents.

They also occasionally forced Christians to worship in Buddhist pagodas. One Chin pastor described how Burmese soldiers brought him to a pagoda and prodded him with their guns, commanding him to pray as a Buddhist.

“They said that this is a Buddhist country and that I should not practice Christianity,” he told HRW.

The military forced village headmen to present “volunteers” for military training or army construction projects and secured “donations” such as food or finance for army battalions. Soldiers severely beat or detained headmen if a village failed to meet quotas, seizing livestock or property in retribution.

Pastors often faced similar treatment, particularly if church members were accused – often without proof – of involvement with the Chin National Front insurgency group. HRW listed arrest, detention and torture as methods used against those accused of being part of the Chin National Front, based across the border in northeast India. Torture included beatings with sticks or guns and electric shocks via metal clips attached to high-voltage batteries. Such measures were also used to crush dissent against army policies such as failure to pay extortionate and arbitrary fees.

The military government promoted Buddhism over all other religions in Chin state through threats and inducements, destroying churches and other religious symbols, and restricting the printing and importing of Bibles and other Christian literature, HRW reported.

A judge in 1999 sentenced one man from Falam township to three years in prison for bringing Chin language Bibles into Burma, contravening Burma’s 1965 Censor Law. Authorities also burned 16,000 copies of Chin and other ethnic language Bibles brought into neighboring Sagaing Division, another Chin majority area, in 2000.


‘Campaign of Ethnocide’

CHRO’s 2004 report, “Religious Persecution: A Campaign of Ethnocide Against Chin Christians in Burma,” explained that Christianity had become inseparable from Chin culture following the arrival of American Baptist missionaries in 1899.

The report, based on information gathered in Chin state, gave numerous examples of the destruction of churches and crosses, the burning of Bibles and restrictions on other religious publications and activities between 1993 and 2004 – including the extrajudicial killings of four Chin Christians in 1993.

Burmese authorities routinely denied permission for the construction of new churches and required permits for large church gatherings, although lengthy bureaucratic processes meant that most of these gatherings were eventually postponed or cancelled.

A September 2008 U.S. Department of State report confirmed that Chin state authorities have not granted permission to build a new church since 2003.

As recently as last November, a government official ordered residents of Tayawaddy village in neighboring Sagaing Division to destroy the foundations of a new church building erected by members of a Chin Christian student fellowship. A report in the Chinland Guardian claimed villagers were subsequently ordered not to rent their homes to Chin students or the homes would be destroyed.


Enticement to Convert

CHRO’s report gave clear evidence of government support for coerced conversions. For example, the government offered free secular education to several children from impoverished families, only to place them as novice monks in Buddhist monasteries in Rangoon.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs has also sent Buddhist monks to villages and towns throughout Chin state under the Hill Regions Buddhist Mission program, one of several Buddhist missionary initiatives highlighted on the ministry’s website. Chin residents who spoke to CHRO likened these monks to “military intelligence” operatives who worked in partnership with Burmese soldiers to control the Chin people.

According to one Chin resident, “Anyone who doesn’t abide by the monks’ orders is reported to the State Peace and Development Council [Burmese government officials] and punished by the army.”

Another Chin man from Matupi township attended a government-sponsored “social welfare” training session only to discover that it was a propaganda session led by a Buddhist monk.

“In the training we were taught the 17 facts of how to attack and disfigure Christians,” he explained.

The 17-point method encouraged converts to criticize Christian ways of life as corrupting culture in Burma, to point out weaknesses in Christianity, and to attack Christians by both violent and non-violent means.

“We were promised that 1,200 kyats per month [US$190] would be provided to those families who became Buddhist,” the training participant added. That amount of money is significant in the Burmese economy.

The instructor also ensured participants that they would be exempt from “portering” and other forms of forced labor and compulsory “donations” if they converted, and that the government would provide education for their children.

“I became a Buddhist because of such privileges rather than because I think Buddhism is better than Christianity,” the Chin participant told CHRO.


Religious Policy Elsewhere

According to CHRO, both the Burmese army and the monks are pursuing an unofficial government policy summed up in three words; “Amyo, Batha, Thathana,” which translates as “One race, one language, one religion” – or Burman, Burmese and Buddhist.

This policy was exemplified by the forced closure in January of more than 100 churches in the capital, Rangoon.

Officials on Jan. 5 invited pastors from more than 100 Rangoon churches to a meeting where they were ordered to sign documents pledging to cease operation of their churches or face imprisonment. About 50 pastors attended, according to Burmese news agency Mizzima.

A CHRO spokesman told Compass yesterday that a significant number of these churches were ethnic rather than majority Burman churches.

In mid-January, officials ordered several other major Rangoon churches to close, including Wather Hope Church, Emmanuel Church and an Assemblies of God Church. (See Compass Direct News, “Burma Clamps Down on Christians,” Jan. 21.)

Officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs in January summoned the owners of buildings where churches met and ordered them not to rent their properties to religious groups, according to another local online news source, the Democratic Voice of Burma.

In the late 1990s, Burma stopped issuing permits for land purchase or the construction of new churches in Rangoon and elsewhere, leading many Burmese Christians to conduct services in rented apartments or office buildings.

The church closure orders may simply be an extension of Burma’s existing religious policies, which elevate Buddhism in an effort to solidify national identity. The country’s population is 82 percent Buddhist, 9 percent Christian and 4 percent Muslim, with traditional ethnic, Chinese and Hindu religions accounting for the rest.

In a 2007 report describing religious persecution throughout Burma, including Chin state, Christian Solidarity Worldwide cited the “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” a 17-point document that had circulated widely in Rangoon. Allegedly authorized by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the program’s first point declared that, “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced.”

The Ministry of Religious Affairs subsequently pressured religious organizations to publicly condemn CSW’s report and deny all claims of religious discrimination in Burma.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Government uses brothers as scapegoat in murder; officials claim violence not sectarian.

ISTANBUL, December 1 (Compass Direct News) – Two Coptic Christians wrongfully arrested for killing a Muslim during the May 31 attack on Abu Fana monastery in Egypt have been tortured and sent to a detention camp so authorities could try to extract a false confession, their lawyer said.

Egyptian authorities sent brothers Refaat and Ibrahim Fawzy Abdo to El Wadi El Gadid Detention Camp near the Egypt-Sudan border on Nov. 22. A week earlier they were bailed out pending their court case – but never released – and held in a Mallawi police station until their transfer to the camp.

The brothers’ attorney, Zakary Kamal, said the timing of the murder at the monastery rules out any possibility of the two Copts having committed it.

Monks at Abu Fana say the Fawazy Abdo brothers were far from the monastery at the time of the May 31 attacks, which began at roughly 4 p.m. and continued until police arrived four hours later.

Security forces are detaining the brothers to blackmail the Coptic Church into testifying that the attack against Abu Fana monastery in Mallawi, Upper Egypt, was not religiously motivated, Kamal said.

“They want the whole issue to be seen by the public as if it were an exchange of gunfire and a criminal case that had nothing to do with persecution of Christians,” he told Compass.

At the beginning of Refaat and Ibrahim Fawzy Abdo’s captivity in June, police subjected the two men to electric shocks eight hours a day for three days to try to force them to testify that the Abu Fana monks were armed during the attack, sources said.

Kamal said those guilty in the attack knew the brothers were innocent but attempted to extort 5 million Egyptian pounds (US$920,000) from the Coptic church in exchange for testimony in support of the brothers during informal “reconciliation meetings.”

Such meetings are somewhat customary in Egypt, in which different parties come together to settle legal matters out of court. Egyptian parliamentarians attended the first meetings, but the parties did not reach a settlement.

Kamal said he worries that police and parliamentarians are using the meetings to pressure the Coptic Church to agree to their terms and take the focus of the case off of rising sectarian violence within Egypt.

Reconciliation meetings are part of a larger trend in Egypt of the government framing such clashes as cases of simple land disputes with no sectarian overtimes, the attorney claimed, and so far he has refused to pay money in exchange for a testimony.

“I completely refused any agreements of reconciliation, because if we accept those terms, that means we admitted [the brothers] killed someone,” he said.

The two men worked as building contractors on the walls of Abu Fana monastery when nearly 60 armed Muslim residents attacked it on May 31. The attack left one Muslim dead, four Christians injured, and three monks briefly kidnapped.

Ibrahim Tiqi Riad, the brother of resident monk Father Mina, was also kidnapped and remains missing. A Coptic priest who preferred to remain anonymous told Compass that they believe he may have been forcibly converted to Islam.

In the course of the violence, attackers tied two of the kidnapped monks to a palm tree, whipped and beat them, and forced them to spit on a cross and give the confession of Islam, according to a report by the Coptic Assembly of America.

Five days after the attacks, security forces arrested the Fawazy Abdo brothers, charging them with murder. Their case is pending.

The families of the two men are suffering in their absence as they were the sole breadwinners. The electricity in their families’ houses has been shut off since they can’t pay their bills, Kamal said.

The reasons behind the death of the Muslim at Abu Fana monastery remains a mystery. Police did not record the details of the killing in the investigation report of the monastery attack.

Bishop Demetrios Avanmina, head of the Mallawi diocese and abbot of Abu Fana monastery, is working to resolve the matter with local politicians and security forces.

Avanmina declined to comment to Compass on the brothers’ captivity, saying only that he and others were working with the police and the state to resolve the matter.


Government Spin

The nature of the May attacks against the monastery, located 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Cairo, is in dispute. Coptic advocacy groups claim the attacks were motivated by growing hostility against Egypt’s Christian community.

But local Muslims say monastery leaders were illegally taking possession of land and attempting to frame the attacks in the form of religious persecution in order to gain sympathy for their cause.

Gov. Ahmed Dia el-Din said police reports have documented disputes over the land going back several years, and that Abu Fana obtained portions of its land from informal contracts, resulting in the governor’s rejection of the monastery’s claim of possessing valid land titles, according to Egyptian weekly Al-Maydan.

Following the attacks, hundreds of Coptic Christians took to the streets of Mallawi to demonstrate against the violence. They chanted, “With our blood and soul, we will defend the cross.”

The monastery has seen violent episodes in the past with its neighbors, typically over issues relating to land.

In January another group of a dozen men armed with automatic weapons burned the monastery’s library and destroyed many monastic cells, according to the Coptic Assembly advocacy group.

The Coptic Church makes up at least 10 percent of the Muslim-majority country’s population of 80 million. Its church dates back to the early centuries of Christianity.  

Report from Compass Direct News