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
In murder of Christian, Hindu nationalist sentenced to seven years for causing ‘grievous hurt.’
NEW DELHI, July 2 (CDN) — Christians in Orissa state had mixed feelings about the sentencing on Tuesday (June 29) of state legislator Manoj Pradhan to seven years in prison for causing grievous hurt and rioting – but not for murder.
“Pradhan is not convicted of murder, but offenses of voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons and rioting were upheld,” attorney Bibhu Dutta Das told Compass. “Pradhan will be debarred from attending the Orissa Legislative Assembly unless the order of conviction is stayed by the Orissa High Court, or if special permission is granted by the court allowing him to attend.”
Kanaka Rekha Nayak, widow of murdered Christian Parikhita Nayak, acknowledged that the verdict on Pradhan and fellow Hindu nationalist Prafulla Mallick in the August-September 2008 violence against Christians did not meet her expectations. She said she was happy that Pradhan was finally behind bars, but that she “expected the court to at least pronounce life imprisonment on Pradhan and Mallick for the gruesome act that they committed.”
Das said he will try to increase the sentence.
“Pradhan spearheaded the riots and has several criminal charges against him – he cannot be let off with a simple punishment,” Das said. “We will be filing a criminal revision in the Orissa High Court for enhancing the period to life imprisonment.”
The day after Pradhan was sentenced, two Hindu nationalists were reportedly convicted of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” in the burning death of a paralyzed Christian during the 2008 attacks on Christians in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district and sentenced to only six years of prison.
UCAN agency reported that Sushanta Sahu and Tukuna Sahu were convicted and sentenced on Wednesday (June 30) in the death of Rasananda Pradhan, a paralytic burned alive when Hindu extremists set his house on fire on Aug. 24, 2008. Church leaders criticized the lenient sentences.
Manoj Pradhan has been charged in 14 cases related to the August-September 2008 anti-Christian attacks. In seven of the cases he has been acquitted, he was convicted of “grievous hurt” in this one, and six more are pending against him.
Of the 14 cases in which he faces charges, seven involve murder; of those murder cases, he has been acquitted in three.
After a series of trials in which murder suspects in the 2008 Kandhamal district violence have gone free as Hindu extremist threats kept witnesses from testifying, the testimony of Nayak’s daughter, 6-year-old Lipsa Nayak, helped seal Pradhan’s conviction.
His widow, Rekha Nayak, told Compass that due to the severe threats on her life that she has received, she and her two daughters were forced to flee the area and go into hiding.
There were around 1,500 Hindu supporters present for this week’s verdict, a source in the courtroom told Compass on condition of anonymity.
“We had to leave the place before the judgment was pronounced and could not enter that area for three or four days after the verdict,” said the source, adding that prosecuting lawyers and human rights activists received the main threats.
Along with the seven years of prison, the Phulbani Court sentenced the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of the Legislative Assembly of Orissa from G. Udayagiri, Kandhamal to a fine a little more than US$100, as it did for Mallick. The verdict came from Fast Track Sessions Court I Judge Sobhan Kumar Das in the Aug. 27, 2008 murder of 31-year-old Parikhita Nayak, a Dalit Christian from Tiangia, Budedipada, in Raikia block of Kandhamal district.
Pradhan was also accused of setting fire to houses of people belonging to the minority Christian community.
“I have the highest regard for the judiciary,” Pradhan told Press Trust of India after this week’s verdict. “We will appeal against the verdict in the higher court.”
Cases have been filed against Pradhan for rioting, rioting with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly, causing disappearance of evidence of offense, murder, wrongfully restraining someone, wrongful confinement, mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy houses, voluntarily causing grievous hurt and voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means.
Dibakar Parichha of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese told Compass that the judgment was “a good boost to the Christian community.”
“When the trials were on, the Nayak family faced terrible times,” Parichha added. “Pradhan and his associates threatened Kanaka Rekha, the widow of the deceased, right inside the courtroom of dire consequences if they testified about them.”
Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar diocese issued a statement saying that the verdict had boosted confidence in the judiciary that criminals will be punished.
“People have been waiting for good judgment, and we have confidence in the judiciary that criminals will be punished,” Cheenath said, adding that the sentence will show criminals that the law will not spare any one. “One day or other, they will be punished.”
The Rev. Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, told Compass that the verdict offered some hope.
“The fact that something has happened gives us some hope that more convictions would take place in the trials to come,” he said.
Calling the conviction “justice that was long overdue,” Howell said that not much can be expected from Fast Track Courts as no security is provided to witnesses.
During the 2008 anti-Christian attacks that followed the death of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, Lipsa Nayak’s parents and her sister had taken refuge in the forest to escape the fury of the Hindu extremists, but the rampaging mob tracked them down.
Lipsa, then 4 years old, along with her mother and then 2-year-old sister, Amisha Nayak, watched in horror as the crowd allegedly beat her father for two hours and then killed him by cutting him into pieces and burning him.
Rekha Nayak filed a complaint and a case was registered against Pradhan, Mallick and others for murder, destroying evidence, rioting and unlawful assembly. Pradhan was arrested on Oct. 16, 2008, from Berhampur, and in December 2009 he obtained bail from the Orissa High Court.
Despite his role in the attacks, Pradhan was the only BJP candidate elected from the G. Udayagiri constituency in the 2009 Assembly elections from Kandhamal district. He had campaigned inside jail.
On March 14, Rekha Nayak and her daughter Lipsa testified in court in spite of the threats. Rekha Nayak reportedly testified that when the Hindu mob demanded that her husband renounce Christianity or face death, he kept quiet, which led to his death.
Prosecution and defense lawyers questioned Lipsa for more than 90 minutes, and she reportedly answered all questions without wavering. Asked by the judge if she could identify the killer of her father, she pointed to Pradhan.
So far he has been exonerated of murder charges against him for “lack of witnesses.” Christian leaders say that Pradhan has been intimidating witnesses because of his position as a member of the Legislative Assembly.
The government of Orissa has set up two Fast Track courts to try cases related to the violence that spread to more than a dozen districts of Orissa. The attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.
Trials are being held for 38 cases in which 154 people have been convicted and more than twice that many have been acquitted, as high as 621 by one count. Victims filed 3,232 complaints in the various police stations of Kandhamal district. Of these, police registered cases in only 832 instances.
“Nearly 12,000 people are accused in the riot case – 11,803 are out on bail,” said attorney Das.
Report from Compass Direct News
Ground-breaking for ‘reconversion rally’ leads to attack on Christian house church.
NEW DELHI, May 20 (CDN) — Hindu nationalist organizations in Madhya Pradesh state have declared their intentions to rid Mandla district of all Christian influence by starting preparations for a large “reconversion” event next year.
A similar event in Dangs district, Gujarat state in 2006 was filled with Christian hate speech. As a result of anti-Christian sentiment stirred at the April 22 ground-breaking ceremony for the Madhya Pradesh “reconversion” rally to be held next February, Hindu nationalists attacked a house church in the district’s Bamhni Banjar village on May 2, Christian leaders said.
More than 100 Hindu devotees from Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra attended the ground-breaking ceremony in Mandla, reported Patrika newspaper. A source present disclosed that leaders announced a list of objectives to be achieved before the festival, with one prominent agenda item being to drive away Christian pastors, evangelists and foreign aid workers from the district.
The newspaper quoted four Hindu leaders who have spoken out against foreign Christians and renewed their oath to obtain “reconversions” from supposed Hindus who had become Christians. The leaders pledged to “cleanse Mandla of Christians” and cleanse the Narmada River by means of the kumbh.
The Maa Narmada Samajik Kumbh (Mother Narmada Social Kumbh, with kumbh literally meaning, “pot”) is scheduled for Feb. 10-12 on the Narmada, a river that flows through Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.
After anti-Christian speeches at the ground-breaking ceremony, Mandla district reported its first attack against Christians in Bamhni Banjar village on May 2, said Pastor Rakesh Dass.
“This is a repercussion of the inaugural pledges revived by the Hindu community,” Pastor Dass told Compass.
Around 40 Hindu nationalists from the Bajrang Dal surrounded the house of Pastor Bhag Chand Rujhiya, who has led a home fellowship for five years, and accused him of forceful conversion as they shouted anti-Christian slogans. Using abusive language, they pelted his house with stones as about 60 people were attending a worship service, Pastor Dass said.
“The mob was carrying deadly weapons like knives and rods,” he said.
The mob left but soon returned with police, and officers took Pastor Rujhiya and his wife into custody. Their three frightened and crying children followed them to the police vehicle, Pastor Dass said. The couple was detained for around three hours and questioned while the Hindu mob gathered in front of the station and demanded that the pastor be handed over, with some shouting that they wanted to kill him.
The 60 church members also arrived at the police station, protesting the arrest of the pastor without evidence, and the Hindu mob began to try to persuade them to return to Hinduism.
“How much have these Christians paid you?” said some of the Hindu nationalists, according to Pastor Dass, who said they added, “We will pay you double the amount for returning back to Hinduism.”
Police finally dispersed the mob and sent the pastor and his family away after forcing them to sign statements that they would no longer lead Sunday worship or pray with friends or relatives inside their house, and that they would not evangelize again in the area.
As the family returned, motorcyclists harassed them with intent to harm, said Pastor Dass.
Pastor Rujhiya, 36, and his family went into hiding. He returned to Bamhni Banjar on May 7, though he said he was still fearful as threats from Hindu nationalists continued.
“My wife and children say that we are ready to face whatever comes our way,” he said. “We will not renounce our faith.”
Pastor Rujhiya told Compass that local police have refused to provide any kind of security for him and his family. Officers have also refused to file a First Information Report, saying they do not register complaints for such “trivial matters.”
Bamhni Banjar police station constable T.L. Jagela refused to comment to Compass, though he acknowledged that the couple had been forced to sign the pledges to forego evangelism and Christian activities in their home. Asked the reasons for the forced pledges, he said only that his senior officers “would know.”
Christian leaders in Mandla submitted a memorandum to Superintendent of Police Kamal K. Sharma requesting his intervention. He promised local Christian leaders that he would look into the matter, but he told Compass, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
Sharma denied any knowledge of the attack on Pastor Rujhiya’s home or of the memorandum.
The violence against Christians in Madhya Pradesh state signals a major onslaught in the offing, warned Kurishinkal Joshi, president of the Madhya Pradesh Isai Sangh, an assembly of Christians in the state.
If Christians do not come forward to protest such atrocities, “the next Kandhamal will be in our state,” Joshi told some 1,500 people at the meeting in Indore, the state’s commercial capital, on May 2.
Organizers of the kumbh hope for some 2 million participants, though attendance at such events often falls short of projections.
Originally the kumbh was a gathering of holy men to discuss Hinduism. Since then Hindu nationalists led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have steered the traditional definition toward their own ends. RSS leader Mukund Rao said the “social kumbh” began in 2006 with the Shabri Kumbh in Dangs, Gujarat – described as an attempt to counter the influence of foreign Christian workers in the area. It resulted in propaganda against Christians and heightened tensions.
Besides hate speeches before, during and after the event, the kumbh also led to the beating of Christians, with many abandoning the area, and much loss of Christian property, including graveyards. Christian graves were dug up and crosses desecrated.
A Compact Disc produced by the Shabri Kumbh Samaroh Aayojan Samiti (Organizing Committee) entitled “Shri Shabri Kumbh 2006: Spirituality along with the Wave of Patriotism,” was banned by the Supreme Court of India because it incites “Hindus against the Christian community and suggests that Christians be attacked and beheaded.”
The CDs were widely circulated, distributed and openly sold in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, as well as in northeastern states.
Report from Compass Direct News
Hindu nationalists try to burn Christians alive for protesting offensive Jesus banners.
NEW DELHI, March 3 (CDN) — Attacks on Christians last month in Punjab state following protests against banners depicting Jesus drinking and smoking were eerily similar to the anti-Christian violence in Orissa state in 2007 and 2008, according to a fact-finding mission.
“I was struck by the similarities between the attacks in northern Punjab state and the violence in eastern Orissa state in 2007 and 2008,” said Dr. John Dayal, a member of the All India Christian Council (AICC) fact-finding mission, which released the report yesterday.
Dayal pointed out that factors such as the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being part of the ruling coalition, police inaction, coordination of attacks and support of the local merchant community for Hindu nationalist groups in the anti-Christian attacks in Punjab reminded him of mayhem in Orissa’s Kandhamal district.
“I have been in Orissa almost a week a month since December 2007 and have become quite familiar with the range of right-wing groups’ violence techniques,” Dayal, a member of government’s National Integration Council, told Compass. “The strategy of the assailants in Punjab was eerily reminiscent of what was practiced and perfected against churches in Orissa.”
Violence erupted in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district during Christmas week of 2007, killing at least four Christians and burning 730 houses and 95 churches. The attacks came in retaliation for an alleged attack on a Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. More blood was shed there in August-September 2008, after the assassination of Saraswati by a Maoist group, as Christians were falsely blamed for it. The attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.
Following the Feb. 20 attacks, the AICC fact-finding team visited the affected region from Feb. 22 to Feb. 25. In its report, it gave an account of the attacks in Batala town near Amritsar city in Gurdaspur district in west Punjab, where most Christians are from Dalit (formerly “untouchable” according to Hinduism’s caste hierarchy) backgrounds.
It reported that supporters of the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar burned the 1865-built Church of the Epiphany belonging to the Church of North India (CNI) denomination on Feb. 20. They also tried to destroy a nearby Salvation Army church, built in 1958, and attacked its pastor, Gurnam Singh, leaving him seriously injured.
The Sangh Parivar is the family of outfits under the umbrella of India’s chief Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), seen also as the parent body of the BJP.
“Even as the larger group of attackers focused on burning the CNI church, a group of men armed with sticks and rods came to the house of the CNI deacon,” the report notes. “The deacon, Victor Gill, and his wife Parveen, hid themselves under the bed. The assailants damaged the doors, tried to enter the room forcibly, and told the couple they would be burnt alive if they did not come out.”
At the same time, the report notes, Hindu nationalists at a second CNI house overturned a scooter, took gas from it and doused teacher Christopher Morris and his daughter Daisy with the fuel while her mother, Usha, cringed in their home.
“They tried to set the two on fire, but the matchbox had also been soaked in the petrol, and despite three attempts to strike a match, the matchsticks would not ignite, saving the family from being burnt alive,” the report states.
Provoked and Attacked
Christians were attacked while they were trying to enforce an area-wide closure of markets to protest a picture of Jesus Christ holding a can of beer in one hand a lit cigarette in another. It appeared on roadside banners in preparation for a Hindu festival, Ram Navami (the birthday of Rama), which falls on March 24 this year.
“The banners were sponsored by a coalition of local political, media and business leaders, together with the trading community, which is almost entirely Hindu,” said the report without identifying the sponsors.
“The Sangh Parivar reacted to the Christian protest by mobilizing shopkeepers and youth ‘to teach a lesson to Christians,’” the report states. “Otherwise, local shopkeepers routinely enforce closures.
The Rev. Madhu Chandra, AICC’s regional secretary, also a fact-finding team member, told Compass that the banners were apparently put up to provoke Christians and then launch attacks on them. The fact-finding team included attorney M. Adeeb of the Human Rights Law Network and Marang Hansda of the AICC.
The offensive picture of Jesus was taken from a cursive writing exercise book for Class I of a private school in Shillong, the capital of the northeastern state of Meghalaya, reported the Press Trust of India on Feb. 18. Published by Skyline Publication, the book used the picture to illustrate the alphabet “I” for the word “Idol.”
When some parents of the students noticed the picture, they reported it to the school authorities, which reported it to police. Christians, who constitute 80 percent of Meghalaya’s population, protested. On Feb. 18, police registered a case against the Delhi-based publisher and confiscated the books.
In Batala town in Punjab more than 1,500 miles away, however, the same picture was appeared on banners, causing tensions.
The Tribune, a regional newspaper, reported on Feb. 20 that Christian youth tried to forcibly implement the market shut-down, or “closure,” and looted shops. But Chandra of the AICC said the district officials the fact-finding team met were not sure if the allegation was true.
“The officials asked us if the newspaper reports were true,” he said. “But we also read it in newspapers only.”
Dayal said that Hindu nationalists used the market shut-down to attack Christians.
“Instead of sympathizing and cooperating with the protest – as merchants do when the Sangh Parivar or the ruling Shironami Akali Dal party calls for closures on routine intervals – they sought to teach the Christians a lesson,” said Dayal.
He added that in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district, Hindu nationalist groups likewise befriended merchants, mostly tribal or aboriginal people, and turned them against Dalit Christians.
The fact-finding report deplored police inaction. When the mob tried to burn Morris and his daughter Daisy, said the report, “police were watching” but did nothing to help.
It quoted Pastor Gurnam Singh as saying, “We pleaded with the police to help, but they did not.”
Police were outnumbered by rioters, as happened in Kandhamal in Orissa, remarked Dayal.
Despite intelligence reports of Christian anger and the Hindu nationalist groups’ plans to counterattack, authorities said they “could not enforce a quick curfew until late on Feb. 20 because most of the police were sent to the Pakistani border nearby, where Home Minister P. Chidambaram inaugurated a defence outpost.”
By the time the police returned and a curfew was imposed, “violence had already occurred,” the report states.
“No police report has been filed on the attempted murders, even as the top police and administrative officers enforced a one sided ‘peace accord’ on the local Christian leadership,” the report notes. “Christians were instructed not to press for charges immediately so that a number of Christian youth who were arrested – together with a few Hindu men – could be released. Police forcibly cleaned up the Church of the Epiphany. They removed burnt furniture and made the presbyter whitewash the walls to remove traces of fuel oil used in the blaze. This was done before a formal enquiry could be conducted by the government.”
Referring to the police inaction, Dayal pointed out that “the BJP, as in Orissa during 2007 and 2008, is in power in Punjab as member of the coalition government with the regional Shironami Akali Dal party.
Punjab Chief Minister Sardar Prakash Singh Badal has asked his officials to unravel the “entire conspiracy,” the report states.
There are around 300,000 Christians in Punjab, or roughly 1.2 percent of the total population.
Report from Compass Direct News
Female visitors said to be merely attending Bible study with fellow believers.
ISTANBUL, March 31 (Compass Direct News) – The Moroccan government announced on Sunday (March 29) it had expelled five foreign female Christians for trying to “proselytize” in the Islamic country, although sources said they were foreign visitors merely attending a Bible study with fellow Christians.
The accused women were among 23 tourists, expatriates and Moroccans arrested in Casablanca on Saturday during what the Interior Ministry called a “proselytizing” meeting involving Moroccan citizens. Police seized numerous pieces of evangelistic “propaganda,” including Arabic books and videos.
But a source told Compass that everyone in attendance was a Christian and that they had merely gathered for a Bible study, which he said falls within Morocco’s constitutional right of freedom to express one’s faith.
Arriving at the meeting at 5 p.m., 18 plainclothes police officers arrested all in attendance and transported them to a police station. They were detained and questioned until 5 a.m. Sunday morning.
“This was a great humiliation for these women, most of which were of the same family, to be arrested as criminals,” the source said.
Prior to the arrest, all the materials at their meeting had received official government approval. Those in attendance included 15 Moroccan women and one man, two female expatriates of Iraqi and U.S. origin, and the five women visiting Casablanca on the group’s invitation. The women the government called “missionaries” – four Spaniards and one German – were deported to Spain via ferry, according to Morocco’s official MAP news agency.
While the decision to expel the five women indicated lack of religious freedom in Morocco, it likely has more to do with a Moroccan bias against missionary activity in general, not against Christian evangelism per se, said Elliot Abrams, senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations.
Morocco severed ties with Iran in early March on suspicion that the latter was supporting Shiite Islamic missionary activity, which officials believed would disrupt the unity of the 99-percent Sunni country. Earlier this month a Shiite school was closed after accusations that it was attempting to convert students, and rights groups claim that about a dozen people have been arrested for allegedly converting to Shiite Islam, according to The Associated Press.
In light of these moves, Abrams said, the government would have been hard-pressed to allow Christian activities the five women were suspected of undertaking after it shut down Islamic missionary enterprises.
“[Morocco] is generally more sensitive about missionary activity, and cannot be seen to allow Christian activity while stopping Muslim activity,” he said.
A Christian worker agreed with this assertion. He said the government may be attacking Christians “for balance,” even if they are only having a Bible study, after launching an initiative against Shiites.
The North African country prides itself on its religious freedom and tolerance. The constitution provides for freedom to practice one’s religion, but Article 220 of the Penal Code criminalizes any attempt to induce a Muslim to convert to another religion.
Official Church Leaders Pounce
Without directly mentioning the women, representatives of Morocco’s official churches swiftly condemned all forms of “proselytism” – a term with a pejorative connotation of asserting one’s will, as distinct from “evangelism,” or proclaiming Christ for people to respond freely – adding that the role of the nation’s churches is only to guide Christians on their “spiritual quest.”
Archbishop of Rabat Monsignor Vincent Landel and Chairman of the Evangelical Church in Morocco Jean-Luc Blanc issued a joint statement that Catholics and Muslims should focus on dialogue, which “by definition rules out proselytizing activities.”
“This dialogue has an intellectual and theological dimension and copes with the social and cultural realms,” they wrote. “Thus, Christians are engaged in various activities alongside Muslims, share the same values and goals and are not afraid of showing their differences.”
Blanc pastors a French Pentecostal church in Casablanca, a congregation mostly made up of expatriates from across Africa. He has criticized independent foreign mission groups, mainly out of worry that they could upset a delicate religious balance in the Sunni Muslim country.
Catholic and Protestant churches have been operating in Morocco for more than a century, and “have learned over the years to live in harmony with the country and its people,” he said in the statement.
In 2007 the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments claimed that foreign missionaries had converted more than 3,000 people to Christianity, particularly in remote areas of the country, according to the 2008 U.S. Department of State Report on International Religious Freedom.
But a source with contacts in Morocco said that radical Islam is perceived as far more of a threat than evangelical Christianity.
Report from Compass Direct News