Karnataka Top in Attacks on Christians in India

Through August, more violence against Christians reported in state than in any other.

NEW DELHI, September 21 (CDN) — With at least 43 incidents of anti-Christian violence, Karnataka saw more attacks on Christians in the first eight months of this year than any other state in India, according to advocacy organizations.

The figure compares with 35 attacks on churches, worship services and Christians during the same period last year in the state, which has become the center of violence against Christians. The states with the next highest incidents of anti-Christian violence from January through August this year were Andhra Pradesh with 14 and Madhya Pradesh with 11, according to figures from the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) and the All India Christian Council.

Former Chief Minister of Karnataka H.D. Kumaraswamy on Sept. 11 called on Gov. H.R. Bhardwaj to rein in abuses by the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to ensure that law and order is maintained, reported the GCIC. In several districts of Karnataka during the first eight months of the year, local authorities allowed Hindu extremists to beat pastors, disrupt prayer meetings and worship services, and burn, vandalize, demolish or shut down prayer halls.

After August last year the number of violent incidents against Christians in Karnataka raced up, with a total of 112 attacks on Christians in 2008, and the Christian community fears a repeat of hostilities.

Kumaraswamy noted that a Sept. 10 attack on St. Francis De Sales Church at Hebbagudi, on the outskirts of Bangalore, came just days after Gov. Bhardwaj voiced concern over the security of minorities in the state. Armed attackers broke into the church, damaged statues and other items, smashed windows and destroyed a house behind the building, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India. Church damages were estimated at 200,000 rupees (US$4,173).

“It is unfortunate that the government did not take any action to curb communal menace even after your caution,” Kumaraswamy wrote in a memorandum to the governor, adding that Gov. Bhardwaj was constitutionally bound to stop state security personnel from violating the law.

The former chief minister said he felt that the attack on the church, located close to the Hebbagudi police station on a busy road, reflected growing religious intolerance and tension in the state, and he criticized Home Minister V.S. Acharya for terming the attack a “minor incident.”

Archbishop of Bangalore Bernard Moras told Compass that past experience leaves him little hope for future justice.

“The state government has promised to make an immediate inquiry into the recent church attack in Hebbagudi, but nothing has been done so far, and we have no results whatsoever from the Justice B.K. Somashekar Commission of Inquiry made into church attacks last year,” he said. “Sad as it is, we feel that justice delayed is justice denied.”

Former chief minister Kumaraswamy has demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into attacks on prayer halls in the state. The leader of the opposition in the state Legislative Assembly, Siddaramaiah (who goes by a single name), has also demanded a CBI inquiry into all attacks on minorities and places of worship. The Hindu reported that he had asked state Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa to stop blaming others for the mistakes of his government.

Siddaramaiah told media on Sept. 13 that members of the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar were involved in the attacks on churches.

“The BJP government led by B.S. Yeddyurappa has failed to take action against those involved in these incidents that created unrest in society, and now the chief minister is blaming others for the mistakes committed by his government, which has resulted in a law-and-order problem in the state,” he said.

The Hindu reported Siddaramaiah as saying that in an effort to cover up their mistakes, the chief minister and his cabinet dismissed the accusations as efforts to topple his government.

“If the chief minister has any proof to support his statements, let him hand over the issue to the CBI,” Siddaramaiah added. “The truth will be out.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also recently remarked that Karnataka has witnessed a number of incidents of communal violence this year.

“What is more worrisome is that the incidents were not limited to one or two districts,” Singh said in comments that Chief Minister Yedduyurappa brushed off as untrue; the chief minister referred to the violence as a “few stray incidents” that were “blown out of proportion.”

Tensions are high in the districts of Davangere, Mangalore, Bangalore, and also potentially volatile are the districts of Chickmagalur, Chitradurga, Belgaum, Tumkur, Udupi, Shimago, Bagalkot, Dharwad and Kodagu, reported the GCIC.

Chief Minister Yeddyurappa reportedly has instructed police to provide security at all religious venues and directed them to take steps to take preventative measures. City Police Commissioner Shankar Bidari has reportedly said the chief minister ordered security officers to deal sternly with those involved in incidents of religious violence.

The Bangalore Rural police on Sept. 12 reportedly handed over the investigation of the attack on St. Francis De Sales to the Criminal Investigation Department.

Attempted Anti-Conversion Law

Foremost among priorities of the Hindu nationalist BJP when it came to power in Karnataka last year was to introduce the kind of “anti-conversion” law that has provided the pretext for anti- Christian violence in other states.

Alarmed by what they said was an increase in conversions to Christianity, six prominent Hindu leaders on June 25 said that they had urged Chief Minister Yedduyurappa to introduce “anti-conversion” laws similar to those of Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, reported The Hindu. Passage of an anti-conversion bill has been left hanging, however, with negative publicity over communal violence and Christian protests against such a bill.

Such laws are designed to thwart forcible or fraudulent conversion, but they are popularly misunderstood as criminalizing conversion in general. The laws seek to curb religious conversions made by “force, fraud or allurement,” but human rights groups say they obstruct conversion generally as Hindu nationalists invoke them to harass Christians with spurious arrests and incarcerations.

Anti-conversion laws are in force in five states – Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat – and its implementation is awaited in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. Several cases against Christians have been filed under various anti-conversion laws in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, but no one has been convicted in more than four decades since such laws were enacted.

Naveen Kumar of the Federation of Christian Churches and Organizations told Compass that Christians from different districts in Karnataka have come out in protest against such a bill since August of 2008. The Christians believe that the passing of an anti-conversion bill in the state would heighten atrocities against them.

Of the 52.8 million people in Karnataka, Christians number slightly more than 1 million.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Pakistan court releases 18 Muslims held for Gojra violence

Eighteen Muslims arrested in the wake of Gojra violence under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), were released from their local district jail on Saturday, September 19, Pakistan English Daily “Dawn” has reported, reports Dan Wooding and Sheraz Khurram Khan, special to ASSIST News Service.

Gojra, a small town in Punjab province of Pakistan exploded into the international limelight when miscreants on August 1 set ablaze over 50 Christian houses that resulted in killings of seven Christians. Scores of Christians left their houses, fearing further trouble from extremists.

The newspaper said the Muslim men were booked under Section 7 of the ATA on the charges of attacking Christian community on July 29 and August 1 following an incident of alleged desecration of the Holy Quran in Chak (village) 95-JB, Adda Korian, and Christian Colony, Gojra.

They were declared innocent by a joint committee of Muslims and Christians formed to reconcile between both the groups, said the Dawn report.

The committee recommended to the police to delete the names of these 18 people from the Police First Information Report on which they were set free, it said.

Reacting to the release of the Muslim men, Mr. Joseph Francis, Director of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), has alleged that the Chief Justice Lahore High Court, is “anti-Christian, biased and a fanatic.”

Francis alleged that the Chief Justice had granted bail to the Muslim men without serving notice on the lawyers of Catholic Church, therefore they could not appear in the court the day the accused were granted bails, he said.

He said CLAAS was going to protest against the decision by setting up a hunger strike camp outside Lahore Press Club.

When ANS asked him how Christians could have reservations on the release of the Muslim men when a committee comprising of Muslims and Christians declared them innocent, Mr. Joseph said he doubted the “credibility of the committee.” He went on to say that a Catholic priest of Gojra Shafique had given a pardon to the Muslim men without consulting with the victims.

“How could the Muslim men in question be granted bail when the findings of the Inquiry Commission led by Justice Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rehman have not come to the fore?,” he questioned.

Francis maintained the police in the wake of Gojra violence mentioned names of some 129 Christians in a cross version. Out of 129, he said, 100 Christians are unidentified where as 29 Christians have been named.

He also revealed that a Bishop of the Church of Pakistan, John Samuel and his son have also been named in the cross version, which means these people were not originally named in the FIR but police added their names later as accused.

The CLAAS director said the police arrested two Christian brothers named Naveed and Nouman and claimed to ANS that Nouman had opened fire on miscreants, which he said saved lives of so many Christians as it enabled them to flee the scene.

He said Nouman was in Karachi when the Gojra violence took place but the police have arrested him.

Francis said he lodged a petition against arrest of the two brothers in Lahore High court. Mr. Francis said that when the high court asked the police in a hearing on Friday, September 18, they said the pair was not in its custody rather they have been taken by the law enforcement agencies.

According to Mr. Francis, the court has ordered the Station House Officer, Rasool Ghulam, District Coordination Officer and District Police Officer to explain the court about Naveed and Nouman on October 1, 2009.

Asked to comment on the recent statements by Pakistani religious hardliners and conservative politicians opposing the repeal of Pakistan blasphemy laws, he said he was going to present a memorandum demanding the repeal of Pakistan blasphemy laws to the United Nations in Rawalpindi.

“The religious parties are making a political capital by reiterating their inflexible posture on repeal of the blasphemy laws,” he claimed.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Karnataka, December 19 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal on Dec. 14 attacked a Christmas program of Christian social organization Helping Hands and accused the director of forcible conversion in Bangarapet, Kolar. The intolerant Hindus disrupted the program of the organization, which helps rural women and children, and accused Samuel Moses of trying to forcibly convert women and children, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India. The extremists burned gospel literature and took Moses and his accountant to the Bangarapet police station. The Christians were detained in the police station for about nine hours, with the incident publicized on local broadcast and print media. The Christians were later released without charges. Police Inspector Chinnana Swami told Compass that the Christians were detained for questioning but police found no forcible conversion and the case has been closed.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists allegedly belonging to the Hindu extremist Rakshane Vedike on Dec. 8 attacked a pastor, accusing him of forceful conversion in Ibrahim Pura, Bellary. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that at 5 p.m Assembly of God pastor N. Satyam and another Christian were on their way home from a prayer meeting organized by convert Krishna Veni when a mob of about 25 extremists led by Sidesh Mallesh and Mahendra Bhatt dragged the Christians from an auto-rickshaw, cursed them in foul language, beat them and falsely accused the pastor of forceful conversion. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that police arrived and took the Christians to the police station, where about 100 Christians later protested against the violence. The Christians were released without charges at 11:30 p.m., and the matter was settled peacefully between the two parties, EFI reported.

Andhra PradeshHindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Dec. 7 beat a pastor in Bhainsa Mandal, Adilabad district. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that at about 7 p.m. Bethel Church pastor Prabhu Das and church members identified only as Mark and Raju were on their way back from a prayer meeting when nearly 25 Hindu extremists armed with wooden batons surrounded them and angrily questioned them about their reason for coming to the village. The extremists repeatedly slapped Das and Mark and snatched Raju’s bag, which contained a Bible, and the latter fled. A local pastor told Compass that on identifying Das as pastor, the extremists falsely accused him of forcible conversion and beat him up with their batons on his hands and legs. Raju phoned a Christian who came with a vehicle and took Das to a private nursing home for treatment for a fracture in his left hand. Later he was admitted to the Adilabad Government Hospital. Das has declined to file a First Information Report, saying he has forgiven his attackers. A local pastor told Compass that on Dec. 12, the Pastors’ Fellowship of Adilabad presented a memorandum to the superintendent of police requesting security for pastors of the district.

Madhya Pradesh – Nearly 20 Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Dec. 5 beat pastors Pangala Bhai and Limba Bhai in Palasapara village in Meghasah Tehsil. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that at about 3 p.m. extremists surrounded Pangala and Lima of Indian Evangelical Team as they were returning home from a prayer meeting. Using foul, abusive language, the extremists falsely accused them of forceful conversion, beat them and robbed a mobile phone and cash. The village council chief took the injured pastors to a private hospital. The pastors have not filed a case against the attackers, saying they have decided to forgive them, EFI reported.

Punjab – Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal on Dec. 2 attacked two Operation Mobilization (OM) workers in Sangur. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that the extremists attacked Pani Garhi and Kiran Bhai as they were distributing gospel tracts in the area. OM men’s team leader Imocha Naorem told Compass that the extremists took the Christians to the police station after verbally abusing and slapping them. Police refused to file a complaint but gave a stern warning to the extremists not to disturb the Christians again.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Nov. 26 accused pastor Vantakesh Nayak of forceful conversion and beat him along with four other Christians in Davanagere. The All India Christian Council reported that the Christians had gone to a nearby village to open up a new shop with prayer when the extremists stormed in and assaulted them, tearing their shirts. The intolerant Hindus filed a police complaint of forceful conversion against the pastor in Honnalli police station. Investigating Officer Jai Laxman told Compass that the Christians were detained only as a preventative measure, that they have been released and that the case is closed.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists on Nov. 25 attacked a pastor, accused him of forceful conversion and vandalized his vehicle in Devarakonda, Telangana. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that pastor Srinivas Naik and two Christians, K. Raju and one identified only as Naresh, were screening the Jesus film at DNT government hostel with prior permission of the hostel warden. As the Christian team was about to leave the extremists surrounded them and pulled them down from their vehicle. The police arrived at the scene and managed to stop the extremists from burning the vehicle. The team members were arrested under Section 295(A) of the Indian penal code for “hurting religious feelings” and were later released on bail.

Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists on Nov. 24 attacked and abducted a pastor in Mandla district. Gospel for Asia (GFA) missionary pastor Nandiram Chauhan had gone to conduct a prayer service in the morning when 10 Hindu extremists on bikes began harassing him, a GFA representative told Compass. They snatched the pastor’s bicycle from him, as well as his mobile phone and gospel tracts, forced him onto one of their bikes and headed towards a forest where about 150 extremists waited. They locked him in the room of a structure there. At 8 p.m. about 20 Hindu extremists entered his room and assaulted him, and he was dragged to a waiting jeep. After asking permission to relieve himself, he fled, managing to escape to a Christian’s home in a nearby village with the attackers in hot pursuit. Christians escorted him to his village. A GFA representative told Compass that a police complaint has been filed, and officers assured the Christians that stringent action would be taken against the culprits. At press time, no arrests had been made.

Orissa – Orissa police on Nov. 22 arrested three Christians on false charges of “attempting to rape and murder” in Guntaput, Koraput district. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that the coordinator of Good Shepherd Community Church (GSCC), the Rev. Abiram Singh, said that a worker from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh identified only as Nanda filed a police complaint against three believers from GSCC, Rajat Kuldip, Saliman Kondhpan and Gokul Kondhpan, for “attempting to rape and murder” a tribal woman. The woman, Radha Pangi, told Rev. Singh she had not been attacked and had no idea why the Christians were accused. The Christians were released on bail on Nov. 28. Police are now searching for another three Christians from the GSCC for questioning, according to EFI.

Karnataka – Police disrupted a Sunday worship service on Nov. 2 in Bagalkot, halted it and warned a pastor not to conduct future services, according to the Christian Legal Association. Officers told pastor Basappa Adapur of Shalom Full Gospel Association not to conduct another worship meeting without obtaining prior permission from the Deputy Commissioner. Hindu nationalists in the area have been known to harm Christians who did not inform police that they were meeting for worship, according to police, so for their own security Christians must get permission to meet. Police also collected information on the 25 Christians attending the church.

Report from Compass Direct News


Hindu extremists move to stop yuletide celebrations as suffering in Kandhamal continues.

NEW DELHI, December 3 (Compass Direct News) – Christians in Orissa state are anticipating Christmas with fear as Hindu extremists have called for a state-wide bandh, or forced shut-down on all sectors of society, on Dec. 25 – a move that could provide Hindu extremists the pretext for attacking anyone publicly celebrating the birth of Christ.

Last year one of the area’s worst spates of violence came during the Christmas season.

The state’s chief minister has said there should be no such shut-down but stopped short of prohibiting the Hindu extremists’ plan. The federal government has expressed its disapproval of the proposal, but the Hindu extremist umbrella organization Sangh Parivar has vowed to press ahead with the shut-down, reported newspaper Outlook India on Nov. 20.

Though such shut-downs were declared illegal by India’s Supreme Court in 1998, the president of the Laxmanananda Saraswati Condolence Society (SLSSS) sent a threatening notice to the Orissa government on Nov. 15, warning that the Hindu extremist group would impose a bandh on Christmas unless the state government arrested those who murdered Hindu leader Laxmanananda Sararawati on Aug. 23.

A Maoist group on Sept. 1 admitted killing Saraswati and four of his aides, and police on Oct. 6 confirmed that Maoists killed them, but the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) has continued to blame local Christians for the assassinations, stoking anti-Christian sentiment that led to a wave of violent attacks for more than two months. At least 500 people, mostly Christians, were estimated to have been killed, according to a report by a Communist Party fact-finding team, and at least 4,500 houses and churches in Orissa’s Kandhamal district were destroyed.

Ratnakar Chaini, president of the SLSSS, has demanded the release of Hindu leaders arrested in connection with the killing of Christians in the violence following the assassination of Saraswati.

In a massive rally in Delhi on Nov. 15, Chaini called for the shut-down in order to ensure “a completely peaceful Christmas.”

The general secretary of the Christian Legal Association (CLA) took the Hindu extremist’s comment as sarcasm.

“How can they have a peaceful Christmas if there is a bandh?” Tehmina Arora told Compass. “There can be no celebration, no going out the house also. So there can be no question of peace.”

Inflammatory speeches at the rally by Chaini and other Hindu extremists against Christianity and its leaders in India led Christians to believe the shut-down would serve as the pretext for another spate of violence against those publicly celebrating the holiday.

The Hindu extremists’ rally also included pledges that all Christian converts would be “re-converted” to Hinduism.

“If Hindus decided to take on anyone to protect our religion and culture, then nothing can stop us,” Chaini said. “Unchecked conversions by churches would be opposed with tooth and nail.”

The Sangh Parivar, including the state unit of the VHP, said in a press statement that the government has been shielding those guilty of murdering Saraswati.


Prohibition Demanded

Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Raphael Cheenath told Compass that the intention of the Hindu nationalists in calling the shut-down was malicious and done for political advantage – a way of garnering tribal peoples’ support for Hindu nationalist candidates by setting up Christians as disobedient trouble-makers.

“If the government allows the bandh to take place on Christmas Day, it will mean that they are allowing more attacks and violence against the Christians,” said Archbishop Cheenath.

Violence has broken out against Christians on previous shut-downs in Kandhamal district.

“There is a great deal of apprehension, because it was on previous bandhs that there have been attacks against the Christian community,” said Arora of the CLA. “The district collector informed us that they were taking strong steps to ensure that the bandh would not be taking place. Unless the district collector and state administrator take serious steps to see that it is not enforced, it would again be a violent attack against the Christian community.”

Orissa church authorities headed by Archbishop Cheenath met a team of visiting government ministers on Nov. 19. Subsequently Christian leaders delivered a memorandum demanding the proposed shut-down be prohibited as illegal. The memorandum demanded the state punish the people and organizations involved in such activities.

The team of central government ministers visiting riot-hit areas on Nov. 19 advised the state chief minister to ensure that there be no shut-down on Christmas Day. Finding the Kandhamal situation tense and Christians fearful, the team leader, Union Agriculture Minister Sharah Pawar, said they requested Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to see that the shut-down on Christmas Day does not take place.

“We don’t understand why Christmas was chosen for calling the bandh,” Pawar told Outlook India. “Agitation should not be allowed on major festival days like Diwali [a Hindu festival], Christmas and Chhath [a Muslim festival].”

Stating that the minority community is under tremendous pressure because of such a threat, Pawar reportedly said the need of the hour is to restore normalcy in the riot-affected areas.

“We have requested Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to make efforts to stop such a bandh on Dec. 25, a major festival day,” Pawar told reporters after meeting with Patnaik.

Patnaik later said, “There should not be a bandh on Dec. 25,” but he made no appeal to the Sangh Parivar to refrain from the Christmas Day shut-down.

Church leaders also requested the ministers pressure the state government to put a halt to Hindu extremists forcing Christians, under threat of death, to convert to Hinduism. Christians are allowed to live in the district only if they became Hindu, they said.


Deaths Continue in Orissa

A Christian woman who had fled Hindu extremist violence was killed on Nov. 25 after leaving a relief camp to harvest her paddy.

Lalita Digal, 45, was murdered in Dobali village, Kandhamal district, where she was staying with a friend, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI). She had returned to the village on Nov. 21. On Nov. 25 she was allegedly dragged from the house and murdered. No arrest had been made at press time, according to EFI.

The state administration has forced people to leave relief camps even though they have no homes to return to, according to a local Christian body. Representatives of the Kandhamal Christian Jankalyan Samaj (KCJS) said at a press conference this week that threats continue from Hindu nationalists demanding that frightened Christians “re-convert” to Hinduism.

Conditions at the camps remain poor. At Daringbadi camp, Leunsio Digal died on Nov. 24 due to lack of proper medication, EFI reported. He had been suffering a fever for a week without access to medications to alleviate it. Digal had served as catechist for 25 years at Simonbadi parish, in the archdiocese of Cuttack- Bhubaneswar.

On Nov. 22, Orissa police fired at two Christians in Kandhamal’s border village of Kutunniganda, killing one and severely injuring another, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).

Junesh Badaraita died on the spot. The injured Karnel Badaraita later told a television station that they were searching for lost cattle with a flashlight when police fired at them.

Police were combing the area in their hunt for a Naxalite (Maoists or Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries) Training Camp. Under Inspector-in-Charge Narbada Kiro, they reportedly fired at the two Christians from a distance of 350 meters.

Police claimed that the two Christians were Naxalites, though villagers refuted this assertion. In protest, the agitated villagers blocked a public road and kept government officials from arriving at their offices in the area.

At press time, the district administrator promised compensation to the family of the deceased and suspended the squad in charge, said the GCIC.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Frustrated Muslim demand for larger autonomous region in Mindanao could lead to war.

DUBLIN, October 6 (Compass Direct News) – Militant Islamists in the southern island of Mindanao have stepped up their attacks on majority-Christian villages following the failure of a peace agreement that would have enlarged an existing Muslim autonomous region there.

With Muslim commanders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the southern Philippines yesterday saying ongoing support from the international community was necessary to prevent a full-scale war breaking out in Mindanao, both Muslim and Christian residents in the disputed territories were fearful of what the future might hold.

“The problem is that many people living in these areas don’t want to be part of a Muslim autonomous region,” a source in Mindanao who preferred to remain anonymous told Compass.

“The closer you get to these zones, the more nervous people are,” he said. “The town of Kolambugan, where most of the fighting took place in mid-August, became a virtual ghost town for a while. It had a population of 25,000. But people are slowly returning to their homes.”

A Christian family from the area said many people were afraid to sleep at night because they kept hearing reports that they would be attacked at midnight.

“When MILF forces attack Christian villages, Muslim neighbors are afraid that Christians will retaliate against them, even though they have nothing to do with the violence,” the source added. “This has happened in the past.”

He also explained that some moderate Muslims are drawn to support the MILF because the rebels claim the Christians have stolen their ancestral homelands. Communities in Mindanao often struggle with extreme poverty.

“If MILF is successful in gaining control over these lands, the people assume that their economic situation will improve,” he said. “So although they want the fighting to stop, they sympathize with the MILF.”

While the conflict is primarily political, religion plays a significant role. As a member of the Moro Youth League stated in an Aug. 5 national television interview in the Philippines, “As a Muslim, in order to live in a righteous way, you need to be living under sharia [Islamic] law and with an Islamic government. We believe we have the right to fight for this.”

Other Youth League members on the program agreed that sharia was a primary objective of autonomy, and that Islam was the only “real path of doing anything in this world.”


Violence Erupts

Some 2,000 MILF supporters yesterday held a protest march in Marawi city, Lanao del Sur, appealing to the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to compel the Philippine government to revive the aborted peace agreement that would have enlarged the existing Muslim autonomous region in the south.

Breakaway MILF commanders on Aug. 18 attacked several majority-Christian villages after the Supreme Court prevented the Aug. 5 signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD). The agreement potentially would have given the MILF power to establish an Islamic state governed by sharia law.

Christian leaders in Mindanao appealed to the Supreme Court when they realized that if they voted against inclusion in the proposed Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE), their majority-Christian villages would become small islands in the midst of MILF-administered territory. As a result, they feared, they would be forced to move elsewhere.

Incensed by the 11th-hour stalling of the agreement, three MILF commanders on their own initiative led attacks against towns in North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte provinces on Aug. 18, burning homes, seizing livestock and killing at least 37 people. Another 44,000 residents immediately fled the area.

When some Christian residents armed themselves in defense, Secretary of Interior Ronaldo Puno warned that anyone carrying weapons would be disarmed.

The MILF has only 11,000 active fighting men, according to local estimates. But by Aug. 20, the National Disaster Coordinating Council had reported a total of 159,000 people displaced by the rebel attacks.

The Philippine army quickly retaliated, sweeping villages in an attempt to seize the rebel commanders.

After two weeks of violent clashes, the Philippine government officially abandoned the MOA-AD. Spokeswoman Lorelei Fajardo said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would seek a new agreement based on consultation with legislators and local politicians rather than negotiations with the MILF.

Furthermore, the government would concentrate on the “disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation” of MILF cadres, Fajardo said.

In response, MILF leaders rejected any renegotiation of the peace deal with Arroyo’s administration.


Overcoming Prejudice

An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on Aug. 7 stated that the MOA-AD would only reinforce prejudices between Christian and Muslim communities.

Under the agreement, WSJ claimed, the government would further divide Mindanao into Muslim and Christian enclaves, increasing the likelihood of territorial disputes. Separating Muslims from the rest of Philippine society, it stated, would encourage a vision already held by MILF to help create a pan-Islamic state covering several countries in the region, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

Finally, the WSJ said, less Philippine control of Mindanao would “invite even more terrorist activity in an area that already has strong ties to al Qaeda.”

While there are proven terrorist leanings in groups such as the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf, not all area Muslims approve of or engage in such activities.

Camilo Montesa, a key figure in peace negotiations, in his blog on Aug. 30 described an encounter with a young man who believed that Muslim residents would readily seize property from Christians once the BJE were formed.

Others told Montesa that, “Muslims were scouting and marking the big houses of Christians in Cotabato and staking a claim over them in anticipation of the signing of the peace agreement.”

“The hearts and minds of the people are the battlefields, and not some hill or base camp,” Montesa concluded. “There is a limit to what arms and war can produce … It is unfortunate that we are so divided as a people at this point in our national life.”


Reclaiming ‘Ancestral Domains’

As Islamic identity strengthened in the Middle East after World War II – and as many Philippine Muslims traveled to study in Middle Eastern countries – certain sectors of the Bangsamoro population became committed to reclaiming “ancestral domains.”

Their claims dated back to the rule of the Sultanate of Sulu, which existed prior to Spanish colonial rule in the 1500s, and the establishment of the Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1935. When the last sultan died in 1936, the fledgling Philippine government refused to recognize his heir, effectively eradicating the traditional Bangsamoro power base.

When the Philippines became a republic in 1946, its constitution allowed for the establishment of an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao. Initially the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fought alone for this autonomous territory; in 1977, however, MNLF member Hashim Salamat – who had studied in Saudi Arabia – and his followers seceded from the movement and founded the rival MILF.

The Philippine government signed an agreement with the MNLF in January 1987, and territories were added to the resulting Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) through a series of plebiscites or referendums in 1989, 2001, 2002 and 2006.

MILF commanders later laid claim to a further 712 villages outside the ARMM.

Negotiations between the government and the MILF began in earnest in June 2001. Both parties were to formally sign the resulting MOA-AD on Aug. 5, a deal which could have led to the creation of the separate Bangsamoro Juridical Entity, or fully-functioning state, replacing the ARMM by 2010.

When details of the agreement were leaked to the press, however, Christian politicians in regions of Mindanao affected by the agreement appealed to the Supreme Court, which in turn issued a temporary restraining order on the signing of the agreement on Aug. 4.

Report from Compass Direct News