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 


With the passing of the year 2008 and the beginning of 2009, I am looking forward to what I hope is a much better year than the one just finished. It would be very easy for me to simply look on 2008 as a year to forget (if I could), given the many difficulties that I had to pass through during the year.

Among the most difficult events of the year was my near fatal car accident in February 2008. I have been recovering from that accident for the entire year and still have a way to travel until I can again be confident that I am as fully fit as I can expect to be. Yet even here, I can be thankful that I wasn’t killed and that I have been able to return to work, am approaching a condition in which I should not be affected to greatly in the long term as a result of the accident, etc.

My greatest loss in 2008 was that of my dear friend Rebecca in June. She was my dearest friend whom I loved greatly. I have missed her every day since she died and will never forget her. This was the tragedy of 2008 for me, far surpassing the car accident and anything else that happened. Her death left me shattered and it is a blow from which I will never fully recover. Yet it was a tremendous privilege to have been given the opportunity to know her at all and to count her as my dearest friend for as long as I was able to do so is something I will forever be thankful for. Thank you Rebecca for giving me a place in your heart and in your life – I was blessed for knowing you.

There have been financial difficulties also from which I am beginning to emerge and I think this has been for the good, even through the immediate hardships that resulted. They will be for my good for the rest of my life and I look forward to the continuing recovery ahead.

2009 has the promise of a rebuilt life and that of continuing personal reformation which excites me as much as it will challenge me. When I left my previous employment in 2007 I thought the rest of my life was about to begin and a second chance presented itself. However, 2008 has been a continuance of that transition period and 2009 may well be the beginning of my second chance at life – so to speak.

I know I ended 2007 feeling very relaxed and contented with where I was at that exact moment and the ride ahead is something I look forward to. I have an agenda of personal reform, life changes and interests to pursue throughout 2009 – I now go ahead seeking to fulfil them as best I can.

Unlike New Years’ resolutions, I can have the confidence that progress can be made in these areas without the fear of simply failing to achieve what I have set out to do. With the Spirit of God operational in my life I have a living force that is more powerful than any of the obstacles that I can foresee and that I will in time confront. By the grace of God I can go on. Praise be to Him – I know my Redeemer lives!!!


As renewed violence in Mosul halts return, refugees wait in Turkish legal limbo.

ISTANBUL, November 14 (Compass Direct News) – In this Turkish city’s working-class neighborhood of Kurtulus, Arabic can be heard on the streets, signs are printed in the Arabic alphabet and Iraqis congregate in tea shops.

In 99-percent Muslim Turkey, most of these Iraqis are not Muslims. And they are not in Turkey by choice. They are Christian refugees who fled their homeland to escape the murderous violence that increasingly has been directed at them.

It is hard to tell how many of Mosul’s refugees from the recent wave of attacks have made their way to Istanbul, but finding these residents here is not hard. A middle-aged Iraqi refugee who fled Mosul five months ago now attends a Syrian Orthodox Church in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Tarlabasi, where gypsies, transvestites, and immigrants from Turkey’s east live in hopes of a better life in Istanbul.

Declining to give his name, the refugee said there is no future for Christians in Iraq and that nearly everyone he knew there wanted to leave the country. He said the only hope for Iraqi Christians is for Western countries to open their doors to Christian Iraqi refugees.

“We don’t have hope,” he said. “If these doors aren’t opened, we will be killed.”

Since October, violence in Mosul has pushed more than 12,000 Christians from their homes and left more than two dozen dead, according to U.N. and Christian organizations. In the face of Mosul violence, Iraqi Christians flee to Turkey before settling permanently in another country, usually in a place where their family has gone out before them.


Christian Sisters Killed

Weeks after the mass exodus of Mosul Christians to surrounding villages, Turkey and other nations, around one-third of families reportedly have returned due to the presence of 35,000 army and police and the Iraqi government offering cash grants of up to $800.

But those returning Christians were shaken again on Wednesday (Nov. 12), when Islamic militants stormed into the house of two Syrian Catholic sisters, Lamia’a Sabih and Wala’a Saloha, killing them and severely injuring their mother. They then bombed their house and detonated a second explosive when the police arrived, which killed three more.

The Christian family had recently returned after having fled Mosul. Many believe this attack will deter other Christians from returning to Mosul, and there are reports of Christians again leaving the area.

There has been a steady exodus of Christians from Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1991. The church in Iraq dates from the beginning of Christianity, but the population has plummeted by 50 percent in the last 20 years. The outflow of Iraqi Christians spiked in 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion.

Although Iraq as a whole has seen a dramatic decrease in violence due to last year’s surge in U.S. troops, the flight of Christians to Turkey has grown. One-third of the 18,000 refugees who registered in Turkey last year are from Iraq. In Syria, an estimated 40 percent of the 1.2 million Iraqis who have fled Iraq are Christians, though they make up only about 3 percent of Iraq’s population.

Monsignor Francois Yakan, the 50-year-old leader of the Chaldean Church in Turkey, said all Iraqi refugees are undergoing hardships regardless of religion, but that the situation is especially difficult for Christians since there is less support for them in Turkey.

“Muslims have the same difficulty as Christians, but there are more foundations to assist them,” he said. “The government notices Muslim immigrants, but nobody pays attention to us.”

Yakan travels to other countries to raise awareness of the plight of Iraqi Christians, trying to marshal the support of government and church leaders – last week he traveled to France, Romania and Germany. If Western governments don’t wake up to this crisis, he said, the results could be catastrophic.

“People don’t know the plight of Iraqi Christians. They have no government, no soldiers, and no power,” he said. “Christianity in Iraq is ending. Why aren’t they noticing this?”


Strangers in Strange Land

The unnamed Iraqi refugee in Tarlabasi said not even pleas from Iraqi priests can make them stay.

“The church in Iraq can’t stop the people from leaving because they can’t guarantee their security,” he said.

He came to Istanbul with his family but still has an adult son and daughter in the city. He hopes to join his brother in the United States soon.

A group of Iraqi refugees at a tea shop in the Kurtulus area of Istanbul interrupted their card game to talk to Compass of their troubled lives.

“We can’t find any work,” said Baghdad-born Iraqi Jalal Toma, who acted as the translator for the group. He pointed to a young man at the table and said, “He works moving boxes and carrying things, and they pay him half as much as a Turk for a day’s work.”

All of the men are Chaldean Christians, a Catholic Eastern-rite church whose historical homeland is in northern Iraq, and came from Mosul in recent months. They are chronically under-employed and rely on financial help from family members abroad to make ends meet.

They had to flee their homes at a moment’s notice, taking along their families but leaving behind their cars, houses and most of their possessions. The men hope to join family members who live in foreign countries, but they harbor few hopes that they can ever return to Iraq again.


Offering Relief

Work is scarce for refugees and hard to come by legally in Turkey. To survive, most Iraqi Christians rely on money from families abroad or the handful of local church charities that struggle to keep up with the overwhelming volume of refugees, such as the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program, an ecumenical umbrella group that unites the city’s parishes to assist migrants and asylum seekers.

Another such charity is Kasdar, the Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriac Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Organization, run by Yakan, the Chaldean Church leader in Turkey.

He launched Kasdar two years ago to provide a safety net for Christian refugees who live in Turkey’s legal limbo. Kasdar assists all Christians regardless of denomination or faith tradition and has 16 volunteers from an equally diverse background.

Yakan sees thousands of refugees pass through Istanbul each year. Most of them are Chaldean, and he knows of 60-70 people who fled due to the recent October violence in Mosul. He travels constantly to visit Chaldean refugees scattered throughout the country.

When refugees first arrive in Turkey, they must register with the United Nations as asylum seekers. The Turkish police then assign them to one of 35 cities to live in as they wait to receive official refugee status. These Christians face the biggest hardships since they don’t have access to the same social resources as refugees in Istanbul, said Metin Corabatir, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman in Turkey.

“The Chaldean population faces problems in Turkey, especially due to the policy of resettling them to satellite cities,” said Corabatir. “The Chaldeans in Istanbul have NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] and churches to help them, but in satellite cities there is no church or community to help them.”

Most refugees send their children to school at a local center run by Caritas, a Catholic confederation of relief, development and social service organizations. Here, Iraq children receive education and lessons in basic vocational skills.

The wait for legal status can be as short as a few months or a couple of years. But complicated circumstances can push back the wait to five years, 10 years, or even 17 years – as it is now for a man who fled during the first Gulf War, Yakan of the Chaldean Church said.

Another church leader who has helped Christian refugees is 70-year-old Monsignor Yusuf Sag, vicar general of the Syrian Catholic Church in Turkey. His 350-person congregation assembles packets of clothes and food for the refugees.

Many who come to Sag also seek medical help. He has connections with doctors throughout the city, both Muslim and Christian, who offer basic treatment to refugees free of charge. Sag said he tries to help all who come to him, without asking them of their denomination or even their religion.

“Their situation is not a Christian problem, but a human problem,” he said.

Often Iraqi Christians work illegally, where they are vulnerable to extortion. Refugee workers in Istanbul said registered asylum seekers can work legally, but it is not uncommon for employers to garnish their wages or withhold them completely, with the foreigners getting little protection from police.

The Turkish government charges a refugee a residence tax of US$460 a year and will not allow them to leave the country until it is paid, making them remain in the country even longer. With all these hurdles to finding stable employment, many Iraqi refugees are never too far from homelessness.

“There was a family we found living on the streets – a husband, wife and two children,” Yakan said. “They have lived in Istanbul for six months and couldn’t even afford to pay rent.”

His foundation found the family an apartment and assisted them with rent, but they only have enough resources to help for two months.

Kasdar gave similar assistance to 54 families in October. But the organization can only help for a few months at a time and assist the most vulnerable refugees.

Report from Compass Direct News


Provincial official claims local authorities “misunderstood” religious freedom regulations.

DUBLIN, September 18 (Compass Direct News) – Confronted with evidence of rights abuses yesterday, an official in Champasak province, Laos, said district officials had “misunderstood” religious freedom regulations when they arrested and detained two men for converting to Christianity, according to Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).

District police officers in cooperation with the chief of Jick village in Phonthong district arrested Khambarn Kuakham and Phoun Koonlamit on Sept. 8, accusing them of “believing in Christianity, a foreign religion,” HRWLRF reported.

Both men were placed in criminal detention for five days and ordered to renounce their faith, the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) confirmed.

Officials warned Kuakham that he had violated the terms of his employment by having contact with Christians and converting to the Christian faith. He must renounce his faith in order to return to his teaching position, they said. If he refused, he would face a lengthy detention.

When challenged by local Christians, the head of Champasak province’s National Front for Reconstruction – a religious affairs body – claimed that according to a government decree issued in 2002 the men should have sought prior approval to convert. The Decree on Management and Protection of Religious Activities states that if there were no Christians in a village prior to the Communist takeover in 1975, potential converts in the village or town must seek permission to convert to Christianity.

Local Christians argued that since Kuakham attended worship services in another village with an existing Christian presence, he had not violated the decree.

They also pointed to Article 3 of the same decree, which states that “all Lao citizens are equal before the law in believing or not believing religions as provided by the Constitution and laws of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.”

The official then said district authorities had “misunderstood” the situation, and that he would caution them to respect the believers’ freedom to worship.

Still, the men were released after five days with the understanding that if they continued to practice their faith, then they would be arrested and detained again. At press time, Kuakham was back in his teaching position and had no intention of renouncing his faith.


Christians Held in Stocks

In Boukham village, Savannakhet, three Christians remain in detention for their faith, HRWLRF reported yesterday. Officials have kept pastor Sompong Supatto, 32, Boot Chanthaleuxay, 18, and Khamvan Chanthaleuxay, 18, in handcuffs and foot stocks since their arrest on Aug. 3, causing considerable pain.

Released from the stocks only for toilet breaks, both Boot Chanthaleuxay and Khamvan Chanthaleuxay were suffering from loss of feeling and infection in their legs and feet due to lack of blood circulation.

Supatto, who had been nursing a sick family member before he was detained, learned last week that the family member had died. Despite hardships caused to the family, both Supatto and his wife are adamant that they will not forsake Christianity.

Authorities have said they will release the men only if they renounce their faith.


Livestock Seized

Several sources have confirmed that authorities are still targeting Tah Oih tribal Christians in Saravan province.

On Sept. 8, provincial and district authorities held a meeting in Katin village, claiming the Lao central government had ordered them to do so in response to international inquiries about religious freedom abuses in the village. Officials talked to leaders and residents about the 2002 decree and asked all parties to respect the religious laws of the nation, HRWLRF reported on Tuesday (Sept. 16).

They also cautioned Christians that their right to faith would stand only if they cooperated with village activities and if they were not bribed or paid to believe in Christianity.

On Friday (Sept. 12), however, village authorities seized a buffalo belonging to a Christian villager identified only as Bounchu and informed him that the animal would only be returned if he renounced his faith. The buffalo, worth about US$350 and vital for agricultural activity, was a prized family asset.

When Bounchu refused, officials on Saturday (Sept. 13) slaughtered the buffalo in the village square and distributed the meat to all non-Christian families in the village. They also warned all Christian residents that they would continue to take possession of their livestock until they renounced their faith.

Residents of Katin village had earlier killed a Christian villager on July 21. Officials arrested a total of 80 Christians on July 25 and detained them in a local school compound, denying them food for three days in an attempt to force the adults to sign documents renouncing their faith. (See Compass Direct News, “Authorities Arrest 90 Christians in Three Lao Provinces,” Aug. 8.)


More Intervention

Several aspects of the 2002 decree need to be addressed, a spokesman from HRWLRF told Compass today.

“From this and other incidents of persecution in Saravan and Savannakhet provinces, it appears that district and local authorities have been misinterpreting the decree, either intentionally or in ignorance,” he said.

International advocacy efforts were helpful in addressing these issues, he added. For example in Champasak, there was some evidence that provincial officials were embarrassed by negative publicity generated over the arrest of Kuakham and Koonlamit.

The LMHR issued a press release on Sept. 10 pointing to an upsurge in arrests and religious freedom abuses in Laos and calling for intervention from international governments and Non-Governmental Organizations.

Report from Compass Direct News