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 

Christians in India Faced Three Attacks per Week in 2009

Over 150 assaults reported, many in southern part of country.

NEW DELHI, December 31 (CDN) — After unprecedented large-scale attacks on Christians in the previous two years, 2009 brought hardly any respite as the minority faith faced an average of more than three violent attacks a week.

There were at least 152 attacks on Christians in 2009, according to the “Partial List of Major Incidents of Anti-Christian Violence in India” released by the Evangelical Fellowship of India.

“The trend of attacks on the Christian community by rightwing Hindu groups goes unabated,” said Dr. Dominic Emmanuel, the spokesperson of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese. “Overall, the Christian community still feels insecure.”

Emmanuel also noted that none of the states that have “anti-conversion” laws have repealed them. The north-central states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Orissa in the east, Gujarat in the west and Himachal Pradesh in the north have anti-conversion laws, which Hindu hardliners routinely use to arrest Christians on spurious accusations of “forcible conversion.”

“If 2007 and 2008 went down in history as the most blood-soaked ones in the history of modern Christianity in India, 2009 surely rates as the year of frustrating confrontations with the law and tardy governance and on justice for the victims of communal violence,” said Dr. John Dayal, a Christian and human rights activist and member of the government’s National Integration Council.

Dayal referred to violence that erupted in Orissa’s Kandhamal district during the Christmas week in 2007, killing at least four Christians and burning 730 houses and 95 churches. The attacks were carried out to avenge an alleged attack on a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.

Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal in August 2008 after the assassination of Saraswati by a Maoist group, as rightwing Hindu groups falsely blamed Christians for it. This time, the violence killed more than 100 people and resulted in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

No Longer a Haven

A disturbing new trend emerged this year as southern India, which had long been considered a haven for Christians, recorded the highest incidence of anti-Christian violence. Of the total 152 incidents, 86 were reported from southern states, mainly Karnataka with 48, Andhra Pradesh with 29, Tamil Nadu with five and Kerala with four.

Northern and central states, seen as the stronghold of rightwing Hindu extremists, recorded 42 incidents of violence, half the number in the south.

There were 15 attacks in Madhya Pradesh state, 14 in neighboring Chhattisgarh, three each in Uttar Pradesh and the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, and one each in the national capital Delhi and neighboring Haryana state.

In the west, seven attacks were reported: six in Maharashtra and one in Gujarat. In the northeast, four attacks were reported: three in Assam and one in Manipur.

Karnataka recorded the highest number of violent incidents as the first-ever victory of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state elections in 2007 emboldened rightwing Hindu extremist groups. Karnataka became the first southern state with a stand-alone BJP government in the history of India.

Anti-Christian violence in Andhra Pradesh rose to new heights after a Christian, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, became the chief minister of the state in May 2004. To target him politically, rightwing Hindu groups attacked Christians while accusing them of converting Hindus to Christianity. This year Reddy died on Sept. 2 in a helicopter crash.

The incidence of Christian persecution in the north and the central states declined apparently due to the BJP’s defeat in the April-May general elections and a growing realization among a section of the BJP leadership that violent incidents no longer please voters. But the hard-line section of the BJP and groups linked to the party, such as the VHP and its youth wing Bajrang Dal, carried on with their hardcore anti-Christian stand.

Impunity in Orissa

Orissa state in the east, which witnessed two massive spates of attacks on Christians in 2007 and 2008, saw only two recorded violent incidents this year.

The morale of Christians in Orissa, however, remained low as few assailants in the 2008 rampage were brought to justice.

“The courts in Kandhamal make a mockery of the judicial process, and the murderers lord it over the witnesses and victims while judges and law look on,” Dayal said. “The church remains helpless, its puny effort at giving strength to the witnesses falling far too short.”

Of 787 cases registered by Orissa police, 100 are being handled by two-fast track courts in Kandhamal. Around 35 cases have been heard, resulting in around 50 convictions and more than 190 acquittals.  Manoj Pradhan, a legislator for the BJP, has been exonerated “for lack of evidence” in six cases, most of them involving murder charges.

Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said the growing number of acquittals was producing a culture of impunity, “where those who commit crimes against Christian minority do not fear punishment by law.”

“As the elected representative of the Orissa state assembly [Pradhan] has been let off in murder cases,” George said. “People want to know what has happened to the long arms of justice.”

Dayal, who was in Kandhamal recently, said that of the more than 4,640 houses burned in 2008 violence, only 200 have a roof over the rebuilt walls as 2009 ends.

“And perhaps at the end of the next year, another 2,500, God willing, will have been rebuilt,” he said. “But around 2,000 houses will even then remain unfinished.”

Dayal added that more than 20,000 men, women and children of Kandhamal continue to live as refugees or homeless people in various cities, working at odd jobs and sometimes begging.

“Some girls have already been pushed into the evil of human trafficking,” he said.

Most people in Kandhamal remain without jobs, and the rehabilitation process, in which the church is participating, still is a long distance from covering all victims, Dayal said, adding, “The state government seems to have called it a day with the barest minimum done in this sector.”

Emmanuel of the Delhi Archdiocese said that since the BJP is not in power at the federal level, some of their front organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal will harass Christians in order to remain in the news.

“Christianity teaches us to hope in God,” Emmanuel said. “We can only hope that 2010 will be a better year for Christians, but in practical terms it really does not appear that things would be any better as the ranks of rightwing Hindu fundamentalists keep their pressure.”

There are around 24 million Christians in India, or roughly 2.3 percent of the over 1.1 billion people.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Muslim extremists kill convert from Islam they were monitoring.

NAIROBI, Kenya, August 22 (Compass Direct News) – Muslim extremists seeking evidence that a Somali man had converted from Islam to Christianity shot him dead Tuesday morning (Aug. 18) near the Somali border with Kenya, according to underground Christians in the war-torn nation.

Al Shabaab rebels killed 41-year-old Ahmed Matan in Bulahawa, Somalia, according to Abdikadir Abdi Ismael, a former leader of a secret Christian fellowship in Somalia to which Matan belonged. Matan had been a member of the underground church since 2001.

The early morning shooting comes at a time when Islamist groups led by al Shabaab are hunting down converts to Christianity as they seek to establish sharia (Islamic law) throughout Somalia.

Ismael, who fled the area in 2005, said he received a telephone call from Matan two weeks ago in which the convert told him that monitoring by the Islamic extremists kept him from leaving his home and carrying out his small-trade business across the border in Mandera, in eastern Kenya.

“I am afraid for my life – the al Shabaab want to get a proof that I follow the Christian faith,” Matan told Ismael. “They have not been seeing me in the mosque and seem to have realized that I am not part of them.”

Ismael subsequently learned from a member of the underground church who requested anonymity that on Aug. 18 Matan was shot dead as he was about to enter Mandera with a donkey carrying goods for sale such as sugar, batteries and shampoo. He was a father of three, his last child just 3 months old.

Since the beginning of this year, Ismael said, the Islamic militants had been questioning Matan about why he was carrying on business outside of Somalia.

“They then began monitoring him, especially from the beginning of this year,” said Ismael.

Besides his infant child, Matan leaves behind a widow, Fatuma, and children ages 7 and 4.

Ismael was visibly shaken by the death of his close friend.

“We have been going through difficult times because of choosing to follow Christianity,” Ismael told Compass. “We have lost everything. We even lack words to share our feelings. I have been always on the run from one refugee camp to another. The Muslims have issued a fatwa on me.”

Ismael had been the leader of the underground church in Bulahawa before fleeing in 2005. Bulahawa has gained a reputation for harboring Islamic extremists, mainly al Shabaab militants said to be linked with al Qaeda terrorists.

Matan, who is from a Maharan sub-clan called Habar Yaqub, was an industrious small-scale merchandise trader. His problems with the Islamist militia began long ago when he expanded his business sojourns to Kenya’s northern town of Mandera, Ismael said.

The border area near Mandera, including Bulahawa, has become the site of frequent kidnappings. Lack of security forces in the area has given free rein to brutal activities by al Shabaab, which kidnapped three foreigners in the area on July 17 and spirited them into Somalia. Ismael described Bulahawa as “a very insecure and sensitive area.”

In Mahadday Weyne, 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, al Shabaab Islamists on July 20 shot to death another convert from Islam, Mohammed Sheikh Abdiraman, at 7 a.m., eyewitnesses told Compass. They said the Islamic extremists appeared to have been hunting the convert from Islam.

The sources told Compass that Abdiraman was the leader of an underground “cell group” of Christians in Somalia. He was survived by two children, ages 15 and 10, and his wife died three years ago due to illness.

Intent on “cleansing” Somalia of all Christians, al Shabaab militia are monitoring converts from Islam especially where Christian workers had provided medical aid, such as Johar, Jamame, Kismayo and Beledweyne, sources said. Mahadday Weyne, 22 kilometers (14 miles) north of Johar, is the site of a former Christian-run hospital.

Already enforcing sharia in large parts of southern Somalia that they control, al Shabaab rebels have mounted an armed effort to topple President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s Transitional Federal Government and impose Islamic law.

The militants reportedly beheaded seven Christians on July 10. Reuters reported that they were killed in Baidoa for being Christians and “spies.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Muslim neighbors, local council threaten to burn home if they file assault case.

MALUMGHAT, Bangladesh, December 8 (Compass Direct News) – The harassment that Bangladeshi converts from Islam face from Muslim neighbors in this southeastern area near Cox’s Bazar can take serious turns – as it did last month, when an attack by about a dozen Muslims left a Christian family with machete wounds.

Confident that no police would side with Christian converts from Islam, the Muslims in Chakaria town, near Cox’s Bazar 380 kilometers (236 miles) southeast of the capital city of Dhaka, later filed false charges of assault against the wounded and limping Christians, family members said.

The smallest of claims can serve to provoke such attacks. Laila Begum, a 45-year-old Christian convert from Islam, said she was helping to make disbursements for a local non-governmental micro-credit agency called Darpan in Chakaria town on Nov. 1 when 10 to 15 Muslim neighbors blocked her way and demanded 200 taka (US$3).

Begum told Compass she had borrowed 2,000 taka (US$30) last year from a neighbor, a Muslim woman who goes by the single name of Kohinoor, and this year paid her back with interest. Telling the group she would give them no more money as she had already repaid the loan, Begum said, she asked why they were demanding more.

They began beating her, snatching a pair of gold ornaments from her ear.

“Suddenly they got equipped with sticks, iron rods, knives and machetes,” she said. “Several places of my head were lacerated by machetes and iron rods. They also cut two of my fingers when I tried to fend off their attacks. They beat me in several places of my body by iron rods and sticks.”

Begum said her husband Abdur Rahman, a 48-year-old gatekeeper at Memorial Baptist Hospital, and her 27-year-old son Selim Rahman, heard her screams and were also beaten when they rushed to help her.

“They thrust at my son with machetes and a sharp knife and stabbed him in his thigh,” she said. “They beat my son with sticks and iron rods, knocking him down. They also beat the kneecap of my husband and other parts of his body.”

When her 18-year-old daughter Rosy Rahman came to their aid, the attackers punched her in the neck and chin, she said.

“They beat her in various parts of the body with sticks,” Begum said. “Shamelessly they removed her wrap over the breasts in front of dozens of onlookers.”

One of the attacking neighbors, she said, told her, “Nobody will come to save you if we beat you, because you are converted to Christianity from Islam.”

Begum, her husband and elder son were admitted to a nearby hospital. Her husband is still hobbled, walking with the aid of a stick.

“Muslim neighbors filed a case against us where they mentioned that we had beaten them – it is a false case,” Begum said. “They beat us and they filed a false case against us.”

Police Sub-inspector Manjurul Alam confirmed that the Muslim neighbors had filed a case against Rahman’s family, and that Rahman had also filed an assault case against the attackers.

“We are investigating it,” he said.

Begum said local Muslims threatened to beat the Christians again if they filed a case against them.

“They threatened that if we file a case, they will carry out an arson attack, and our house will be burnt to the ground,” she said. “They will evict us from the locality. They will beat us again and our life will be in great trouble.”

The family informed local governing council members about the attack, but they demanded 20,000 taka (US$300) to settle the matter and also threatened them, she said.

“The local council officials also told us that if we file any case in the police station, our houses will be burnt to ashes and we will be evicted from the locality,” she said. “The Muslim neighbors are spreading rumors that we beat them, that we borrowed 22,000 taka from them and that we did not pay them back the money. But we do not have anyone to stand beside us and listen to us.”


Belligerent Attitude

Because the family members are converts from Islam, they said, neighbors and distant relatives often pick quarrels with them over any small issue, with villagers later joining in to threaten or attack them.

“If we go to the market or any public places, Muslim people push us roughly from behind and use filthy words against us about Christianity,” said the oldest son, Salim Rahman.

The entire family is living in isolation due to their conversion, which the female members said is especially difficult for them.

“Whenever I go outside, local people look at me with evil leers,” said the oldest daughter, Rosy Rahman. “Everyone bad-mouths me and casts aspersions on our faith.”

She said such harassment forced her to stop going to school in 2004.

“If I had not stopped going to school, my life would have been in trouble,” she said. “I feel insecure and mixed-up, because local people always want to deflower me. If anything bad happens to me, no one in the society will stand beside me. What did we do against the society? We did nothing against them, we simply changed our faith.”

She said the ostracism and societal misconduct sometimes lead her to contemplate suicide.


History of Resentment

When the family and others converted to Christianity in 1991, area resentment festered and finally broke into violence in late 1992, when local Muslims vandalized and burned the local church and several Christian-owned homes.

The government deployed more than 2,000 police and other law enforcement personnel to bring the situation under control, and some local Muslims were arrested for arson.

“The arrests made the local Muslims very angry,” said pastor Benu Barua of Memorial Christian Baptist Church of Malumghat.

Rage dating back to the events of the 1990s may be at the root of the beating of Begum’s family, he said.

“The Muslim neighbors beat them for such a small amount of money – any small issue to the Muslim neighbors is like a red rag to a bull,” Barua said. “This kind of oppression, what happened to Begum’s family, is less common on other traditional Christians or those who converted from the Hindu religion. But Muslim-converted Christians are more oppressed here.”  

Report from Compass Direct News