BURMA: REPORT DOCUMENTS ABUSE OF CHIN CHRISTIANS


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

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INDIA: CHRISTIANS ATTACKED IN KARNATAKA, INDIA


State authorities seal three churches, order 13 others to get ‘worship license.’

NEW DELHI, September 10 (Compass Direct News) – As tensions continued in the eastern state of Orissa, Hindu nationalist groups intensified attacks on churches and Christian institutions in the southern state of Karnataka.

Hindu extremists launched attacks on churches and leveled false charges of “forcible” conversions against Christian workers as the Karnataka government, ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), prepared to close down churches.

Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) told Compass that a mob of more than 200 people attacked the Mission Action Prayer Fellowship church in Bada village of Davangere district on Sunday (September 7), accusing the Christians of “forcible” conversions.

The attack took place during the worship service. Besides assaulting believers and the pastor, the mob burned the Bibles, musical instruments and furniture in front of the church. They also vandalized the church building.

Media accompanied the mob, and local TV channels telecast the attack, George added.

The Hindu daily reported that the incident occurred despite a government ban on the gathering of four or more people within a 200-meter radius of three other prayer halls in K.T.J. Nagar police station limits in Davangere town, “which have been under attack since mid-August.”

The police arrested 10 people for instigating the attack.

The daily also reported that extremists of a Hindu nationalist group, the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, carried out a procession the following day (September 9) demanding the immediate release of those arrested. The newspaper quoted the extremists as rationalizing their attack on the pretense of the alleged forcible conversions.

“Had the authorities been alert and not given room for forcible conversions, such incidents would not have happened,” one Hindu nationalist told the newspaper.

The state convener of the Hindu group, Jagadish Karanth, complained that missionaries from seven countries, including the United States, France and Germany, had been funding churches and pastors in Davangere to motivate people of other faiths to join their fold. He said he had documents to prove that a pastor had written to a Christian missionary saying he had converted 6,000 Hindus into Christians within just two years.

 

Bogus Worship License Requirement

George of the GCIC said the commissioner of Davangere City had issued notices to demolish three churches – Eternal Life Church, Divine Healing Ministry church and Jesus Prayer Hall – in the city, claiming that their buildings were illegal. The three churches have been sealed.

The order was issued because these churches were facing allegations of fraudulent conversions by the Hindu extremist Hindu Jagarana Vedike, according to The Indian Express newspaper, adding that the Davangere deputy commissioner labeled the churches “unauthorized.”

A representative of the Christian Legal Association (CLA) told Compass that the Davangere deputy commissioner had also sent notices dated Aug. 30 to 13 other churches asking them to obtain a “license” for holding worship services.

“This is a violation of the religious freedom enshrined in the Indian Constitution,” said the CLA source. “There is neither any such requirement anywhere in the country, nor is there any provision for such license in any government authority.”

The CLA representative also said Hindu extremists were going from village to village in Davangere to identify Christian houses.

“The extremists demand that some identity cards be shown to prove their religious affiliation,” said the representative. “Such a data can be extremely dangerous. We fear the Hindu groups may be planning organized attacks.”

Besides the collection of data by extremist groups, district authorities are also surveying churches.

On Sept. 8, The Hindu quoted Deputy Commissioner K. Amar Narayan as saying that he had instructed the police to conduct an area-wide survey of churches and prayer halls to check how many of them were “authorized.”

Asked if the survey would also be conducted on places of worship of other religious faiths, Narayan said that it would be “exclusively” on churches because of the present controversy surrounding them. He said the survey would be completed in two or three days.

 

Bogus Conversion Charges

Christians have been at the receiving end of a spate of “communally tinged” incidents in recent weeks in Karnataka, mainly in Davangere district, The Indian Express newspaper said on Monday (September 8).

The newspaper quoted Davangere Superintendent of Police Sandeep Patil as saying that there had been allegations of forced conversions in the district for the last 12 months. Patil added that the police had identified 75 churches across villages in the district where security was enhanced.

Some police officers of the district told the newspaper that there was “nothing new” about allegations of “forced” conversions. “Maybe because the BJP is in power they are getting highlighted,” an assistant commissioner of police said.

The Indian Express also suggested that the recent spate of attacks was triggered by the state education ministry’s show-cause notices to over 2,000 Christian schools for staying shut on Aug. 29 to protest the violence against Christians in Orissa.

All Christian schools in the country remained closed on Aug. 29 to show solidarity with victims of anti-Christian violence in Orissa that started after a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples were killed on August 23 in Kandhamal district. The VHP blamed local Christians for the assassination, though Maoists or extreme Marxists claimed responsibility for it. More than 56 people have been killed and hundreds of houses and churches burned in the violence.

The newspaper also pointed out that over the past two successive Sundays, police cases had been registered in Karnataka’s capital Bangalore against nearly 25 people, leading to the arrest of as many as 12, including a U.S. citizen, on charges of “promoting enmity between different religious groups” and “insulting religious feelings.”

Local police officers at Frazer Town and Ulsoor police stations, where cases had been registered, told the newspaper they had received complaints from members of Hindu groups alleging forcible conversions and use of inducements against the arrested persons.

 

Bogus ‘Communal Harmony’

The Hindu newspaper reported that Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, who completed 100 days in office yesterday (Sept. 9), said that “all efforts would be made to maintain communal harmony.”

What communal harmony is for the chief minister, however, was clear when he told The Hindu, “The rule of law will prevail. Nobody has the right to indulge in forcible conversions, and inducement to pave the way for conversions is banned. However, I will direct the district officials and district in-charge ministers to ensure that such activities are kept under check.”

Yeddyurappa also claimed that there has been no communal clash in the state “for long,” and “we will maintain this record.”

“I call upon the people to refrain from paying heed to rumors which are aimed at fomenting trouble and tarnishing the image of the government,” he added.

According to a 2001 Census, Christians form less than 2 percent of the total population of 52.8 million in Karnataka.  

Report from Compass Direct News