More than 28 million people around the world have now contracted COVID-19, and more than 900,000 people have died.
Research groups across the globe are rightly racing to find a vaccine to protect against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
While it’s not surprising all eyes are on this vaccine race, COVID-19 isn’t the only disease for which scientists are currently trying to find a vaccine.
Let’s look at three others.
The big three
We regard malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS as the “big three” infectious diseases. Together they’re responsible for about 2.7 million deaths a year around the world. They disproportionately affect low- and middle-income countries.
Deaths from these three diseases could almost double over the next year as a result of disruptions to health care in the face of COVID-19.
This is a clear example of the indirect effects of an uncontrollable infectious disease. It also reminds us of the importance of vaccine research for the many other infectious parasites, viruses and bacteria that can cause disease and death.
Malaria: the parasite
Malaria is a parasitic disease transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito. Common symptoms are flu-like: fever, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. If not treated promptly, malaria can lead to severe disease and death.
In 2018, nearly half of the world’s population was at risk from malaria. There were roughly 228 million cases and 405,000 deaths from the disease, mainly in children under five in sub-Saharan Africa.
Anti-malarial drugs are routinely used to treat and prevent malaria infection. But Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest of the malaria parasites that can infect humans, has developed resistance against all drugs currently used to treat and prevent malaria. So we urgently need an effective vaccine.
Development of a malaria vaccine is complicated by the diverse forms, or life-cycle stages, of the parasite in the human host. The immune responses required to kill the parasite differ between these different stages. So malaria vaccine candidates typically target just one parasite stage.
British multinational pharmaceutical company GSK has licensed the world’s first malaria vaccine, Mosquirix. It targets the stage the parasite is at when the mosquito injects it.
Although it’s the only malaria vaccine candidate to successfully complete phase 3 trials, Mosquirix has only moderate effectiveness (less than 40%) which drops off rapidly after the final dose. So we need a more effective vaccine capable of inducing long-lasting immunity.
There are 20 other malaria vaccine candidates in advanced pre-clinical or clinical evaluation.
At the forefront of these is Sanaria’s whole sporozoite vaccine (PfSPZ), which also targets the parasite stage injected by the mosquito. It’s currently being evaluated for effectiveness in Africa.
Tuberculosis: the bacterium
Globally, tuberculosis is the leading cause of death by a single infectious agent. It’s caused by a bacterium that spreads from person to person through the air and mainly affects the lungs.
Tuberculosis was responsible for 1.5 million deaths in 2018. About one-quarter of the world’s population has latent tuberculosis, which has no symptoms and is not infectious. But 5-15% of these people will go onto develop active, infectious disease.
Generally, tuberculosis can be effectively treated with antimicrobial drugs. But the emergence of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis is a major cause of death and a serious public health concern.
We do have one licensed vaccine for tuberculosis. The BCG vaccine was first used in 1921 and is usually administered to infants in countries with high tuberculosis prevalence. But the degree and duration of protection this vaccine offers is not enough to control the disease.
Scientists are working to develop prophylactic vaccines (to prevent infection from the outset) and post-exposure vaccines (to prevent disease progression in people with latent tuberculosis).
At least 14 tuberculosis vaccine candidates are in clinical trials, with promising results giving hope we might be able to get the disease under better control in years to come.
HIV/AIDS: the virus
There’s currently no cure or protective vaccine. While antiviral therapeutics can effectively control HIV, around 20% (7.6 million) of HIV-infected patients don’t have access to them.
Researchers are aiming to develop a protective vaccine against HIV. A major focus is developing broadly neutralising antibodies (antibodies that can attack different HIV strains) in HIV-infected patients.
Notably, researchers identifying and developing COVID-19 therapeutics have used significant expertise from HIV vaccine development.
For example, defining the structural details of SAR-CoV-2’s spike protein as a target for a COVID-19 vaccine, and identifying broadly neutralising antibodies from convalescent plasma as a potential treatment, are similar to strategies scientists working on HIV have used.
Time and commitment
Beyond COVID-19 and the big three, there are many more conditions for which scientists are working to develop vaccines.
The current pandemic highlights the need for governments, NGOs and philanthropists to support this work — and scientific research more broadly.
Research on one type of disease can often accelerate the development of treatments for others. We’re seeing this in the quest for a COVID-19 vaccine.
Ultimately, COVID-19 has raised public awareness of the type of scientific challenges researchers encounter every day. There’s neither a silver bullet nor a shortcut in the development of a safe and effective vaccine.
The White House’s confirmation that US President Donald Trump has been taking hydroxychloroquine every day for the past two weeks, with his doctor’s blessing, has reignited the controversy over the drug. It has long been used against malaria but has not been approved for COVID-19.
Trump said he has “heard a lot of good stories” about hydroxychloroquine, and incorrectly claimed there is no evidence of harmful side-effects from taking it. His previous claims in March that the drug could be a “game changer” in the pandemic prompted many people, including Australian businessman and politician Clive Palmer, to suggest stockpiling and distribution of the drug to the public.
But the dangers of acting on false or incomplete health information were underlined by the death of an Arizona man in March after inappropriate consumption of the related drug chloroquine. It’s important to know the real science behind the touted health benefits.
How do these medicines work?
Hydroxychloroquine is an analogue of chloroquine, meaning both compounds have similar chemical structures and a similar mode of action against malaria. Both medications are administered orally and have common side-effects such as nausea, diarrhoea and muscle weakness. However, hydroxychloroquine is less toxic, probably because it is easier for the body to metabolise.
Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are listed by the World Health Organisation as an essential medicine. Both drugs have been used to treat malaria for more than 70 years, and hydroxychloroquine has also proved effective against auto-immune diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis. The US Food and Drug Administration has approved both chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine for treating malaria, but not for COVID-19.
We don’t know exactly how these drugs work to combat the malaria parasite. But we know chloroquine disrupts the parasite’s digestive enzymes by altering the pH inside the parasite cell, presumably effectively starving it to death.
Malaria parasites and coronaviruses are very different organisms. So how can the same drugs work against both? In lab studies, chloroquine hinders replication of the SARS coronavirus, apparently by changing the pH inside particular parts of human cells where the virus replicates.
This offers a glimmer of hope that these pH changes inside cells could hold the key to thwarting such different types of pathogens.
Is it OK to repurpose drugs like this?
Existing drugs can be extremely valuable in an emergency like a pandemic, because we already know the maximum dose and any potential toxic side-effects. This gives us a useful basis on which to consider using them for a new purpose. Chloroquine is also cheap to manufacture, and has already been widely used in humans.
But we shouldn’t be complacent. There are significant gaps in our understanding of the biology of SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, because it is a brand new virus. There is a 20% genetic difference between SARS-CoV-2 and the previous SARS coronavirus, meaning we should not assume a drug shown to act against SARS will automatically work for SARS-CoV-2.
Even in its primary use against malaria, long-term chloroquine exposure can lead to increased risks such as vision impairment and cardiac arrest. Hydroxychloroquine offers a safer treatment plan with reduced tablet dosages and lessened side-effects. But considering their potentially lethal cardiovascular side-effects, these drugs are especially detrimental to those who are overweight or have pre-existing heart conditions. Despite the urgent need to confront COVID-19, we need to tread carefully when using existing medicines in new ways.
Any medication that has not been thoroughly tested for the disease in question can have seriously toxic side-effects. What’s more, different diseases may require different doses of the same drug. So we would need to ensure any dose that can protect against SARS-CoV-2 would actually be safe to take.
The evidence so far
Although many clinical trials are under way, there is still not enough evidence chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine will be useful against COVID-19. The few trials completed and published so far, despite claiming positive outcomes, have been either small and poorly controlled or lacking in detail.
A recent hydroxychloroquine trial in China showed no significant benefits for COVID-19 patients’ recovery rate. A French hydroxychloroquine trial was similarly discouraging, with eight patients prematurely discontinuing the treatment after heart complications.
The fascination with chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine has also adversely affected other drug trials. Clinical trials of other possible COVID-19 treatments, including HIV drugs and antidepressants, have seen reduced enrolments. Needless to say, in a pandemic we should not be putting all our eggs in one basket.
Then there is the issue of chloroquine hoarding, which not only encourages dangerous self-medication, but also puts malaria patients at greater risk. With malaria transmission season looming in some countries, the anticipated shortage of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine will severely impact current malaria control efforts.
Overall, despite their tantalising promise as antiviral drugs, there isn’t enough evidence chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are safe and suitable to use against COVID-19. The current preliminary data need to be backed up by multiple properly designed clinical trials that monitor patients for prolonged periods.
During a pandemic there is immense pressure to find drugs that will work. But despite Trump’s desperation for a miracle cure, the risks of undue haste are severe.
This article was coauthored by Liana Theodoridis, an Honours student in Microbiology at La Trobe University.
Forced from Buddhist homeland, dangers arise in Hindu-majority Nepal.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, February 23 (CDN) — Thrust from their homes in Bhutan after Buddhist rulers embarked on an ethnic and religious purge, Christian refugees in Nepal face hostilities from Hindus and others.
In Sunsari district in southeastern Nepal, a country that is more than 80 percent Hindu, residents from the uneducated segments of society are especially apt to attack Christians, said Purna Kumal, district coordinator for Awana Clubs International, which runs 41 clubs in refugee camps to educate girls about the Bible.
“In Itahari, Christians face serious trouble during burials,” Kumal told Compass. “Last month, a burial party was attacked by locals who dug up the grave and desecrated it.”
Earlier this month, he added, a family in the area expelled one of its members from their home because he became a Christian.
Bhutan began expelling almost one-eighth of its citizens for being of Nepali origin or practicing faiths other than Buddhism in the 1980s. The purge lasted into the 1990s.
“Christians, like Hindus and others, were told to leave either their faith or the country,” said Gopi Chandra Silwal, who pastors a tiny church for Bhutanese refugees in a refugee camp in Sanischare, a small village in eastern Nepal’s Morang district. “Many chose to leave their homeland.”
Persecution in Bhutan led to the spread of Christianity in refugee camps in Nepal. Though exact figures are not available, refugee Simon Gazmer estimates there are about 7,000-8,000 Christians in the camps – out of a total refugee population of about 85,000 – with many others having left for other countries. There are 18 churches of various faiths in the camps, he said.
“Faith-healing was an important factor in the spread of Christianity in the camps,” said Gazmer, who belongs to Believers’ Church and is awaiting his turn to follow five members of his family to Queensland, Australia. “A second reason is the high density in the camps.”
Each refugee family lives in a single-room hut, with one outdoor toilet for every two families. The Nepalese government forbids them to work for fear it will create unemployment for local residents.
Life was even harder for them before 2006, when Nepal was a Hindu kingdom where conversions were a punishable offence.
“When I began preaching in 2000, I had to do it secretly,” said Pastor Silwal of Morang district. “We could meet only surreptitiously in small groups. I used my hut as a make-shift church while many other groups were forced to rent out rooms outside the camp.”
A fact-finding mission in 2004 by Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers found that police pulled down a church structure built by Pentecostal Christians in the Beldangi camp by orders of Nepal’s home ministry. The rights group also reported that Hindu refugees ostracized the Christians, who had proceeded to rent a room outside the camp to meet three times a week for worship services and Bible study.
When the Jesus Loves Gospel Ministries (JLGM) organization sent officials from India to the Pathri camp in Morang in 2006, they found that local residents resentful of the refugees had taken note of a baptism service at a pond in a nearby jungle.
“In August, we were planning another baptism program,” JLGM director Robert Singh reported. “But the villagers put deadly poisonous chemicals in the water … Some of the young people went to take a bath ahead of our next baptism program. They found some fish floating on the water and, being very hungry – the refugees only get a very small ration, barely enough to survive on – they took some of the fish and ate them. Three of them died instantly.”
Singh also stated that poisoned sweets were left on the premises of the refugee school in the camp. They were discovered in time to avert another tragedy.
Life for Christian refugees improved after Nepal saw a pro-democracy movement in 2006 that caused the army-backed government of Hindu king Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah to collapse. The king was forced to reinstate parliament, and lawmakers sought to curb his powers by declaring Nepal a secular state.
Though Christian refugees are now allowed to run churches openly in the camps, ill will toward them has yet to end. When Pastor Silwal asked camp authorities to allow him to open a church in 2006, Hindu neighbors protested, saying it would cause disturbances. Camp authorities allowed him to open a tiny church in a separate room on the condition that its activities would not disturb neighbors.
Earlier in his life in Bhutan, said the 40-year-old Pastor Silwal, he had been a stern Hindu who rebuked his two sisters mercilessly for becoming Christians. He forbade them to visit their church, which gathered in secret due to the ban on non-Buddhist religions in place at the time. They were also forbidden to bring the Bible inside their house in Geylegphug, a district in southern Bhutan close to the Indian border.
“I became a believer in 1988 after a near-death experience,” Pastor Silwal told Compass. “I contracted malaria and was on the verge of death since no one could diagnose it. All the priests and shamans consulted by my Hindu family failed to cure me. One day, when I thought I was going to die I had a vision.”
The pastor said he saw a white-robed figure holding a Bible in one hand and beckoning to him with the other. “Have faith in me,” the figure told him. “I will cure you.”
When he woke from his trance, Silwal asked his sisters to fetch him a copy of the Bible. They were alarmed at first, thinking he was going to beat them. But at his insistence, they nervously fetched the book from the thatched roof of the cow shed where they had kept it hidden. Pastor Silwal said he tried to read the Bible but was blinded by his fever and lost consciousness.
When he awoke, to his amazement and joy, the fever that had racked him for nearly five months was gone.
Pastor Silwal lost his home in 1990 to the ethnic and religious purge that forced him to flee along with thousands of others. It wasn’t until 1998, he said, that he and his family formally converted to Christianity after seven years of grueling hardship in the refugee camp, where he saw “people dying like flies due to illness, lack of food and the cold.”
“My little son too fell ill and I thought he would die,” Silwal said. “But he was cured; we decided to embrace Christianity formally.”
In 2001, Bhutan4Christ reported the number of Bhutanese Christians to be around 19,000, with the bulk of them – more than 10,500 – living in Nepal.
When persecution by the Bhutanese government began, frightened families raced towards towns in India across the border. Alarmed by the influx of Bhutanese refugees, Indian security forces packed them into trucks and dumped them in southern Nepal.
Later, when the homesick refugees tried to return home, Indian security forces blocked the way. There were several rounds of scuffles, resulting in police killing at least three refugees.
Simon Gazmer was seven when his family landed at the bank of the Mai river in Jhapa district in southeastern Nepal. Now 24, he still remembers the desolation that reigned in the barren land, where mists and chilly winds rose from the river, affecting the morale and health of the refugees. They lived in bamboo shacks with thin plastic sheets serving as roofs; they had little food or medicine.
“My uncle Padam Bahadur had tuberculosis, and we thought he would die,” said Gazmer, who lives in Beldangi II, the largest of seven refugee camps. “His recovery made us realize the grace of God, and our family became Christians.”
The plight of the refugees improved after the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stepped in, receiving permission from the government of Nepal to run the refugee camps. According to the UNHCR, there were 111,631 registered refugees in seven camps run in the two districts of Jhapa and Morang.
Though Nepal held 15 rounds of bilateral talks with Bhutan for the repatriation of the refugees, the Buddhist government dragged its feet, eventually breaking off talks. Meantime, international donors assisting the refugee camps began to grow weary, resulting in the slashing of aid and food. Finally, seven western governments – Canada, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the Netherlands – persuaded Nepal to allow the refugees to resettle in third countries.
The exodus of the refugees started in 2007. Today, according to the UNHCR, more than 26,000 have left for other countries, mostly the United States. A substantial number of the nearly 85,000 people left in the camps are ready to follow suit.
Although they now have a new life to look forward to, many of Bhutan’s Christian refugees are saddened by the knowledge that their homeland still remains barred to them. So some are looking at the next best thing: a return to Nepal, now that it is secular, where they will feel more at home than in the West.
“I don’t have grand dreams,” said Pastor Silwal. “In Australia I want to enroll in a Bible college and become a qualified preacher. Then I want to return to Nepal to spread the word of God.”
Report from Compass Direct News
LOS ANGELES, July 27 (Compass Direct News) – Another Christian imprisoned for his faith in Eritrea has died from authorities denying him medical treatment, according to a Christian support organization.
Sources told Netherlands-based Open Doors that Yemane Kahasay Andom, 43, died Thursday (July 23) at Mitire Military Confinement Center.
A member of the Kale-Hiwot church in Mendefera, Andom was said to be secretly buried in the camp.
Weakened by continuous torture, Andom was suffering from a severe case of malaria, Open Doors reported in a statement today.
“He was allegedly further weakened by continuous physical torture and solitary confinement in an underground cell the two weeks prior to his death for his refusal to sign a recantation form,” the organization said. “It is not clear what the contents of the recantation form were, but most Christians interpret the signing of such a form as the denouncement of their faith in Christ.”
Andom is the third known Christian to die this year at the Mitire camp, located in northeastern Eritrea. Mogos Hagos Kiflom, 37, was said to have died from torture at the same center in early January. On Jan. 16, Mehari Gebreneguse Asgedom, 42, died in solitary confinement at the Mitire camp from torture and complications from diabetes, according to Open Doors.
It was not immediately known whether Andom was married or how many family members survive him. He had spent the past 18 months at the Mitire camp.
Last October Open Doors learned of the death of another Christian, Teklesenbet Gebreab Kiflom, 36, who died while imprisoned for his faith at the Wi’a Military Confinement Center. He was reported to have died after prison commanders refused to give him medical attention for malaria.
In June 2008, 37-year-old Azib Simon died from untreated malaria as well. Weakened by torture, sources told Compass, Simon contracted malaria only a week before she died.
With the death of Andom last week, the number of Christians who have died while imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea now total nine. Along with the two Christians who died in January and Kiflom and Azib last year, Nigisti Haile, 33, tied from torture on Sept. 5, 2007; Magos Solomon Semere, 30, died from torture and pneumonia at Adi-Nefase Confinement Center, outside Assab, in February 2007; Immanuel Andegergesh, 23, died in Adi-Quala Confinement Center in October 2006 from torture and dehydration; and also at the Adi-Qaula center, Kibrom Firemichel, 30, died from torture and dehydration also in October 2006.
More than 2,800 Christians remain imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea, according to Open Doors.
The Eritrean government in May 2002 outlawed all religious groups except Islam and the Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran churches. The government of President Isaias Afwerki has stepped up its campaign against churches it has outlawed, once again earning it a spot on the U.S. Department of State’s latest list of worst violators of religious freedom.
Incarcerated Christians from throughout Eritrea have been transferred to the Mitire prison. In April Open Doors learned that 27 Christian prisoners held at police stations in the Eritrean capital of Asmara had been transferred to the Mitire military camp for further punishment.
They included a pastor identified only as Oqbamichel of the Kale-Hiwot Church, pastor Habtom Twelde of the Full Gospel Church, a pastor identified only as Jorjo of the Full Gospel Church, two members of the Church of the Living God identified only as Tesfagaber and Hanibal, Berhane Araia of the Full Gospel Church and Michel Aymote of the Philadelphia Church.
On April 17, according to the organization, 70 Christians were released from the Mitire military facility, including 11 women imprisoned for six months for allegedly failing to complete their required 18 months of military service. The Christians said that authorities simply told them to go home and that they had no idea why they had been released. They had been originally arrested in Asmara, Dekemhare, Keren, Massawa and Mendefera and transported to Mitire for punishment.
Eritrean officials have routinely denied that religious oppression exists in the country, saying the government is only enforcing laws against unregistered churches.
The government has denied all efforts by independent Protestant churches to register, and people caught worshipping outside the four recognized religious institutions, even in private homes, suffer arrest, torture and severe pressure to deny their faith. The Eritrean Orthodox Church and its flourishing renewal movement have also been subject to government raids.
Reliable statistics are not available, but the U.S. Department of State estimates that 50 percent of Eritrea’s population is Sunni Muslim, 30 percent is Orthodox Christian, and 13 percent is Roman Catholic. Protestants and Seventh-day Adventists, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Hindus, and Baha’is make up less than 5 percent of the population.
Report from Compass Direct News
Three more believers die in military confinement centers in past four months.
LOS ANGELES, January 21 (Compass Direct News) – Three Christians incarcerated in military prisons for their faith have died in the past four months in Eritrea, including the death on Friday (Jan. 16) of a 42-year-old man in solitary confinement, according to a Christian support organization.
Sources told Open Doors that Mehari Gebreneguse Asgedom died at the Mitire Military Confinement center from torture and complications from diabetes. Asgedom was a member of the Church of the Living God in Mendefera.
His death followed the revelation this month of another death in the same prison. Mogos Hagos Kiflom, 37, was said to have died as a result of torture he endured for refusing to recant his faith, according to Open Doors, but the exact date of his death was unknown. A member of Rhema Church, Kiflom is survived by his wife, child and mother.
Incarcerated Christians from throughout Eritrea have been transferred to the Mitire prison in the country’s northeast. In 2002 the Eritrean regime outlawed religious activity except that of the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim religions.
In October Open Doors learned of the death of Teklesenbet Gebreab Kiflom, 36, who died while imprisoned for his faith at the Wi’a Military Confinement center. He was reported to have died after prison commanders refused to give him medical attention for malaria.
In June 2008, 37-year-old Azib Simon died from untreated malaria as well. Weakened by torture, sources told Compass, Simon contracted malaria only a week before she died.
Together with the deaths this month, the confirmed number of Christians who have died while imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea now totals eight.
At the same time, the government of President Isaias Afwerki has stepped up its campaign against churches it has outlawed, earning it a spot on the U.S. Department of State’s list of worst violators of religious freedom.
The government arrested 15 members of the Kale-Hiwot Church in Keren on Jan. 11, and before Christmas at least 49 leaders of unregistered churches in Asmara were rounded up over two weeks, Open Doors reported. Last November, 34 members of the Kale-Hiwot Church in Dekemhare were arrested.
Those arrested included members of the Church of the Living God, Medhaniel Alem Revival Group and the Philadelphia, Kale-Hiwot, Rhema, Full Gospel and Salvation by Christ churches, according to Open Doors. The church leaders’ names appeared on a government list of 180 people who were taken from their homes and work places.
In the November sweep, authorities arrested 65 members of the Kale-Hiwot Church in the towns of Barentu and Dekemhare, including 17 women. In Keren and Mendefera, 25 members of the Full Gospel Church were arrested, and 20 Christians belonging to the Church of the Living God in Mendefera and Adi-Kuala were arrested.
Church leaders in Eritrea told Open Doors that by mid-December, a total of 2,891 Christians, including 101 women, had been incarcerated for their faith.
On June 8, 2008 Compass learned that eight Christians held at the Adi-Quala prison were taken to medical emergency facilities as a result of torture by military personnel at the camp. Eritrean officials have routinely denied religious oppression exists in the country, saying the government is only enforcing laws against unregistered churches.
The government has denied all efforts by independent Protestant churches to register, and people caught worshipping outside the four recognized religious institutions, even in private homes, suffer arrest, torture and severe pressure to deny their faith. The Eritrean Orthodox Church and its flourishing renewal movement has also been subject to government raids.
Report from Compass Direct News
Two women whose houses were burned die from illnesses in hospital.
NEW DELHI, October 20 (Compass Direct News) – A paramilitary soldier assigned to protect Christians from Hindu violence in Kandhamal district, Orissa was mutilated and killed by a mob in Sisapanga village on Oct. 13.
The body of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) soldier was recovered from a nearby forest. He was believed to have been hacked to death by tribal people in the wake of the worst anti-Christian violence in the history of modern India.
“Police recovered the body on Monday night – he has injuries on his torso and head,” District Superintendent of Police S. Praveen Kumar told national media. “It appears he was first beaten up by sticks and then killed by a sharp weapon.” Sisapanga village is under Raikia police jurisdiction.
“The soldier had been to Sisapanga village, accompanied by a driver, to buy provisions. A group of six-seven men attacked him from behind, dragged him into the jungle and hacked him to death,” Kumar told the Times of India (TOI). “The driver fortunately managed to escape.”
The death marks the first time that central security personnel have been targeted in Orissa in the riots that have raged since Hindu extremists insisted on blaming Christians for the Aug. 23 murder of Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati, even though Maoists admitted killing him and four associates.
“The murder of the CRPF jawan [soldier] comes in the wake of persistent demands from the tribals to withdraw the paramilitary force,” a police spokesman told TOI. “The CRPF has made mass arrests, mostly of tribals, during the past two weeks.”
A local source who wished to be unnamed told Compass that the attackers have warned authorities through local media that they will carry out more killings of CRPF soldiers if the forces are not withdrawn.
Amid several assurances of protection by the state government, a mob demolished a Church of North India building on Oct. 11 in Sikuli village, Kalahandi district. The same day, the gang burned down two Christian houses in the village.
Two women who previously were driven from their homes when Hindu extremists set the structures on fire have died from illnesses. Minakshi Pradhan, 22, contracted malaria after fleeing to a refugee camp, later developing typhoid, and was admitted to MKCG Berhampur hospital, where she died on Thursday (Oct. 16).
“She has a 4-year-old child she left behind,” said a local source who wished to remain unnamed. Also survived by her husband, Anand Pradhan, Minakshi Pradhan was from Murudipanga village, Raikia block division, in Kandhmal district.
Another woman, Mili Pradhan, had a tumor detected in her stomach after her house was burned on Aug. 29, and she and husband Joshi Pradhan had to flee to Berhampur. Doctors operating on her detected blood cancer, and she died in the same hospital on Wednesday (Oct. 15.) She left behind an 18-month-old daughter.
Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said in an interview to television channel NDTV that half of the 1,000-odd people arrested in the state for rioting belonged to the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). He added that he considered the Bajrang Dal a fundamentalist group.
In reaction, Subash Chouhan, national co-coordinator of the Bajrang Dal, said “It’s not the Bajrang Dal but Naveen Patnaik who is the real fundamentalist. . . . He is trying to show his secular character by trying to implement the Christian organizations’ agenda.”
Orissa police have arrested one of the “most wanted” in the anti-Christian riots in the state’s Kandhmal district.
Manoj Pradhan, a key tribal leader, was reportedly arrested at a lodge in Berhampur on Wednesday (Oct. 15) night.
“While investigating the case, we are finding it to be one of the most complicated cases in the state,” Arun Ray, inspector general of police, told media. “The crime was planned much before. We have identified the perpetrators of the crime. We have arrested three people and are likely to arrest some more people in the near future.”
In the rape of a nun shortly after the violence began, police have arrested Mitu Patnaik and also implicated Muna Ghadei and Saroj Ghadei. They were arrested at a mill in Kerala’s Palakkad district on Oct. 11.
Police had earlier arrested five men – Juria Pradhan, Kartik Pradhan, Biren Kumar Sahu and Tapas Kumar Patnaik on Oct. 3 and Santosh Pradhan on Oct. 7 for their alleged roles in the crime.
Orissa police sent Patnaik to Cuttack for DNA testing. The alleged rape of the 29-year-old woman took place at the building of a Non-Governmental Organization in Kanjamendi village in Kandhamal on Aug. 25.
The nun has refused to come forward to identify any of the suspects, though inspector general Ray told media they were hopeful of making their case.
“The nun must be very scared and disturbed,” he said. “If necessary, the trial of the case can be held in any other place in Orissa.”
The nun has expressed her disbelief by saying that she would not like to “meet” the state police that remained a mute witness of her predicament.
“The nun wrote from a hospital, as she is yet to recover from the shock,” Archbishop Raphael Cheenath reportedly said.
At the same time, Hindu radicals want to reintroduce a tribal law that would obligate a rape victim to marry the man who rapes her.
On Oct. 13, some 5,000 radical Hindu women demonstrated in K. Nuagaon demanding that “the victim marry her rapist in accordance with local tradition.”
Refugee Camp Conditions
“With around 3,000 people in one camp, public health is pathetic in refugee camps,” attorney B. D. Das told Compass. “There is an epidemic of malaria, and water-borne diseases are spreading rapidly.”
One local source told Compass, that excess people in the refugee camps are forced to go back to their homes.
“As their homes are burnt, a plastic tent along with 10 days ration (food supply) is given to them and they are sent away,” he said. “Those in the relief camps are still better off as they at least have food. Those sent back do not have income, shelter and food.”
Christian leaders are concerned with the unhygienic conditions of the camps and people dying due to inadequate facilities.
Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council, told Compass that the chief minister of Orissa admitted that at least 10,000 people are still in government-run refugee camps, and that tens of thousands are in the forests or have migrated to towns outside Kandhamal.
“The government has admitted 40 dead, though we have details of 59 men and women mercilessly killed in the seven weeks of unabated mayhem,” he said. “For us, peace would be when the last refugee is back in his home, secure in his faith, with a livelihood restored, his children’s future secured as it should be in a secular India.”
On Oct. 12 a student association, the Kandhamal Chatra Sangharsa Samiti, called for a moratorium on conversions by Christians to honor Saraswati’s lifetime of work trying to halt Christian conversions.
Christians have been forced to reconvert to Hinduism, burn Bibles and prayer books, have their heads shaved and drink cow urine (for Hindu purification). They have been placed for days under the watchful eye of Hindu groups so that they do not have any contacts with their former co-religionists.
Attorney Das noted, “700 forcible reconversions have taken place in Kandhmal since the riots began.”
Hindu extremist groups denied ever having attempted to “reconvert” tribal people, many of whom were not Hindus in the first place. “Why should we do it?” Subhash Chouhan, national co-convenor of Bajrang Dal said to the Times of India. “The Christian churches and missionaries have let them down, and the natives are making a conscious choice to become Hindus. We don’t have a single office in Kandhamal.”
Dr. Dayal told Compass that he has been distressed that while the continuing anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal, Orissa, Karnataka was forcefully detailed by Christians as well as by leaders of leftist parties, and human rights activists, “there was no assurance forthcoming as to when the more than 50,000 internally displaced persons, refugees in their homeland, can return home without being forced at gunpoint by the Bajrang Dal to become Hindus.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Weakened by torture, Azib Simon succumbs to disease only a week after contracting it.
LOS ANGELES, July 23 (Compass Direct News) – Imprisoned and tortured for her Christian faith since December, 37-year-old Azib Simon died of malaria in Eritrea’s Wi’a Military Training Center last week.
Weakened by ongoing torture, sources said, Simon contracted malaria only a week before she died. Christians in the prison are rarely given medical attention, and the sources said authorities refused to provide treatment for Simon’s malaria.
Simon was the sister of former Eritrean television journalist Biniam Simon, who recently fled the country after abandoning his career at government controlled ERI-TV.
Azib Simon had attended the Kale-Hiwet Church in Assab, one of the independent evangelical churches that have been targeted by the country’s Marxist-leaning authoritarian regime. She was held at the notorious Wi’a Military Training Center, 20 miles south of the Red Sea port of Massawa, since her arrest in December 2007.
Prisoners at the Wi’a military camp are under constant pressure to recant their faith.
On June 8 Compass learned that eight Christian brothers held at the Adi-Quala prison were taken to the medical emergency facilities as a result of torture by military personnel at the camp.
Simon’s death makes a total of five Christians whom Compass has confirmed have died in Eritrean prisons after being tortured for refusing to recant their faith. On September 5, 2007, Eritrean authorities at the Wi’a Military Training Center tortured Nigisti Haile, 33, to death for refusing to recant her faith. On February 15, 2007, Magos Solomon Semere also died under torture at the Adi-Nefase Military Confinement facility outside Assab.
In 2006, two other Christians – Immanuel Andegergesh, 23, and Kibrom Firemichel, 30 – died from torture wounds in Eritrea on October 17.
Since 2002 the oppressive regime has outlawed all independent Protestant churches, closing their buildings and banning gatherings in private homes. Worshippers caught disobeying the blanket restrictions are arrested and tortured for weeks, months or even years. They are never allowed legal counsel or brought to trial.
The government only recognizes Islam and Eritrean Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran Christian denominations as “historical” legal religions. High ranking clergy have been replaced by the government’s choice of men, and many believe the clampdown is an attempt of President Isaias Afwerki’s government to control church members.
It is estimated that more than 1,000 Christians are imprisoned at any given time. Many of the arrests of Christians take place in groups when the government breaks up local house meetings.
It was not clear how Simon was arrested or where she was at the time of her detention last December.
Under Attack in Assab
Another round-up of Christians in the port city of Assab took place earlier this month, sources told Compass.
Sources said authorities were singling out Pentecostal believers, among other evangelicals, whom they arrested with the intention of pressuring them to recant their faith.
On July 8 alone, six members of the Kale-Hiwet Church, 11 members of the Full Gospel Church in Assab and 15 members of the Rema Church in Assab were arrested at their homes one by one and imprisoned in the Wi’a military camp. Among them were seven women, one of them a known evangelist of the Kale-Hiwet Church in Eritrea, whose name was withheld for the safety of her family.
One of the arrested women, a member of the Berhane Hiwet Church, was taken to the Adi-Abyto Military Camp and released on bail on July 9. Her bail was 50,000 nakfa, (approximately US$3,400), and authorities warned her not to participate in Christian activities in the future.
Eritrean authorities also arrested nine leaders of a Jehovah’s Witnesses group on Wednesday July 16 in Asmara, Compass confirmed.
The nine leaders are held at Mai Serwa Military Camp, known for its harsh torture and conditions. It is believed that the government has intensified hunting of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ main leaders because it is angry that the group is still organized and active in the country.
Since the Eritrean referendum in 1992, followers of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrea have been under constant attack, succumbing to arrests and torture.
Report from Compass Direct News