Human Rights Watch shows systematic, officially sanctioned religious freedom violations.

DUBLIN, February 20 (Compass Direct News) – A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in January details serious and ongoing abuses against the Chin people, a minority group in Burma’s northwest who claim to be 90 percent Christian.

HRW’s research echoes a 2004 report by the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) that described targeted abuse of Christians in Chin state, with the Burmese army subjecting pastors and church members to forced labor, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and sometimes death.

While religious oppression is extreme in Chin state, restrictions also apply elsewhere in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Most recently, officials in January forced the closure of more than 100 churches in Rangoon and ordered owners of apartment buildings and conference facilities not to rent their properties to religious groups.

Based on interviews with Chin refugees in India and Malaysia between 2003 and 2008, HRW’s report describes how an increasing number of army battalions stationed in Chin state since 1988 have inflicted forced labor and arbitrary fines on the Chin people, as well as bullied them away from Christianity toward Buddhism.

“When we meet the army, we are shaking,” a Chin refugee pastor told HRW. “Whatever they want is law.”

The HRW report, entitled “We Are Like Forgotten People,” notes that soldiers frequently forced Christians to donate finances and labor to pagoda construction projects in areas where there were few or no Buddhist residents.

They also occasionally forced Christians to worship in Buddhist pagodas. One Chin pastor described how Burmese soldiers brought him to a pagoda and prodded him with their guns, commanding him to pray as a Buddhist.

“They said that this is a Buddhist country and that I should not practice Christianity,” he told HRW.

The military forced village headmen to present “volunteers” for military training or army construction projects and secured “donations” such as food or finance for army battalions. Soldiers severely beat or detained headmen if a village failed to meet quotas, seizing livestock or property in retribution.

Pastors often faced similar treatment, particularly if church members were accused – often without proof – of involvement with the Chin National Front insurgency group. HRW listed arrest, detention and torture as methods used against those accused of being part of the Chin National Front, based across the border in northeast India. Torture included beatings with sticks or guns and electric shocks via metal clips attached to high-voltage batteries. Such measures were also used to crush dissent against army policies such as failure to pay extortionate and arbitrary fees.

The military government promoted Buddhism over all other religions in Chin state through threats and inducements, destroying churches and other religious symbols, and restricting the printing and importing of Bibles and other Christian literature, HRW reported.

A judge in 1999 sentenced one man from Falam township to three years in prison for bringing Chin language Bibles into Burma, contravening Burma’s 1965 Censor Law. Authorities also burned 16,000 copies of Chin and other ethnic language Bibles brought into neighboring Sagaing Division, another Chin majority area, in 2000.


‘Campaign of Ethnocide’

CHRO’s 2004 report, “Religious Persecution: A Campaign of Ethnocide Against Chin Christians in Burma,” explained that Christianity had become inseparable from Chin culture following the arrival of American Baptist missionaries in 1899.

The report, based on information gathered in Chin state, gave numerous examples of the destruction of churches and crosses, the burning of Bibles and restrictions on other religious publications and activities between 1993 and 2004 – including the extrajudicial killings of four Chin Christians in 1993.

Burmese authorities routinely denied permission for the construction of new churches and required permits for large church gatherings, although lengthy bureaucratic processes meant that most of these gatherings were eventually postponed or cancelled.

A September 2008 U.S. Department of State report confirmed that Chin state authorities have not granted permission to build a new church since 2003.

As recently as last November, a government official ordered residents of Tayawaddy village in neighboring Sagaing Division to destroy the foundations of a new church building erected by members of a Chin Christian student fellowship. A report in the Chinland Guardian claimed villagers were subsequently ordered not to rent their homes to Chin students or the homes would be destroyed.


Enticement to Convert

CHRO’s report gave clear evidence of government support for coerced conversions. For example, the government offered free secular education to several children from impoverished families, only to place them as novice monks in Buddhist monasteries in Rangoon.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs has also sent Buddhist monks to villages and towns throughout Chin state under the Hill Regions Buddhist Mission program, one of several Buddhist missionary initiatives highlighted on the ministry’s website. Chin residents who spoke to CHRO likened these monks to “military intelligence” operatives who worked in partnership with Burmese soldiers to control the Chin people.

According to one Chin resident, “Anyone who doesn’t abide by the monks’ orders is reported to the State Peace and Development Council [Burmese government officials] and punished by the army.”

Another Chin man from Matupi township attended a government-sponsored “social welfare” training session only to discover that it was a propaganda session led by a Buddhist monk.

“In the training we were taught the 17 facts of how to attack and disfigure Christians,” he explained.

The 17-point method encouraged converts to criticize Christian ways of life as corrupting culture in Burma, to point out weaknesses in Christianity, and to attack Christians by both violent and non-violent means.

“We were promised that 1,200 kyats per month [US$190] would be provided to those families who became Buddhist,” the training participant added. That amount of money is significant in the Burmese economy.

The instructor also ensured participants that they would be exempt from “portering” and other forms of forced labor and compulsory “donations” if they converted, and that the government would provide education for their children.

“I became a Buddhist because of such privileges rather than because I think Buddhism is better than Christianity,” the Chin participant told CHRO.


Religious Policy Elsewhere

According to CHRO, both the Burmese army and the monks are pursuing an unofficial government policy summed up in three words; “Amyo, Batha, Thathana,” which translates as “One race, one language, one religion” – or Burman, Burmese and Buddhist.

This policy was exemplified by the forced closure in January of more than 100 churches in the capital, Rangoon.

Officials on Jan. 5 invited pastors from more than 100 Rangoon churches to a meeting where they were ordered to sign documents pledging to cease operation of their churches or face imprisonment. About 50 pastors attended, according to Burmese news agency Mizzima.

A CHRO spokesman told Compass yesterday that a significant number of these churches were ethnic rather than majority Burman churches.

In mid-January, officials ordered several other major Rangoon churches to close, including Wather Hope Church, Emmanuel Church and an Assemblies of God Church. (See Compass Direct News, “Burma Clamps Down on Christians,” Jan. 21.)

Officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs in January summoned the owners of buildings where churches met and ordered them not to rent their properties to religious groups, according to another local online news source, the Democratic Voice of Burma.

In the late 1990s, Burma stopped issuing permits for land purchase or the construction of new churches in Rangoon and elsewhere, leading many Burmese Christians to conduct services in rented apartments or office buildings.

The church closure orders may simply be an extension of Burma’s existing religious policies, which elevate Buddhism in an effort to solidify national identity. The country’s population is 82 percent Buddhist, 9 percent Christian and 4 percent Muslim, with traditional ethnic, Chinese and Hindu religions accounting for the rest.

In a 2007 report describing religious persecution throughout Burma, including Chin state, Christian Solidarity Worldwide cited the “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” a 17-point document that had circulated widely in Rangoon. Allegedly authorized by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the program’s first point declared that, “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced.”

The Ministry of Religious Affairs subsequently pressured religious organizations to publicly condemn CSW’s report and deny all claims of religious discrimination in Burma.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Churches ordered to cease services, stop meeting in ‘unauthorized’ venues.

DUBLIN, January 21 (Compass Direct News) – Burmese authorities last week increased restrictions on Christian activity in the capital city of Rangoon and surrounding areas, including the closure of several churches, Compass sources confirmed yesterday.

Orders issued on Jan. 5 had already forced many Christians meeting in residential homes or apartments to cease gathering for worship. Officials last week ordered several major Rangoon churches, including Wather Hope Church, Emmanuel Church and the Assemblies of God Church, to cease holding services and continued enforcing the Jan. 5 ban on meetings held in unauthorized facilities.

In the late 1990s authorities stopped issuing permits for land purchase or the construction of new churches, leading many Burmese Christians to conduct services in rented apartments or office buildings, according to the Burmese news agency Mizzima.

The Kyauktada Township Peace and Development Council on Jan. 5 invited pastors from more than 100 Rangoon churches to a meeting where they were told to sign documents pledging to cease operation of their churches. About 50 pastors attended, according to Mizzima.

The documents threatened punishment, including potential jail terms and the sealing of church facilities, for pastors who refused to obey the closure orders.

Another local online news source, the Democratic Voice of Burma, claimed officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs had summoned the owners of buildings where churches met and ordered them not to rent their properties to religious groups.

Mizzima quoted an unnamed Burmese Christian who claimed that 80 percent of churches in Rangoon were affected by the order.


History of Religious Repression

Some local Christians and international observers say the crackdown is related to Christian involvement in relief efforts for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma in May 2008.

Despite widespread devastation and loss of life, Burma’s reclusive government initially banned foreign aid but finally accepted it on condition that Burmese officials would distribute it. Christians, however, had responded immediately to the crisis, gathering relief supplies and transporting them to the Irrawaddy Delta region. Police or army officials stopped some groups, but many were allowed to proceed. At least one such group told Compass that officials likely feared the conversion of Buddhists who accepted aid from Christians.

The military junta ruling Burma promotes Buddhism at the expense of other minority religions, according to Paul A. Marshall’s 2008 Religious Freedom in the World. The country’s population is 82 percent Buddhist, 9 percent Christian and 4 percent Muslim, with traditional ethnic, Chinese and Hindu religions accounting for the rest.

The church closure orders may simply be an extension of Burma’s existing religious policies, which elevate Buddhism in an effort to solidify national identity. Burma ranks high on lists of religious and human rights violators at several watch organizations, including the U.S. State Department, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Open Doors.

Documents declaring the government’s intention to “stamp out” Christianity have circulated for some time. Rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide drew attention to one such document in a 2007 report entitled, “Carrying the Cross: The military regime’s campaign of restriction, discrimination and persecution against Christians in Burma.” The report summarized a 17-point document allegedly produced by an organization affiliated with the Ministry of Religious Affairs entitled, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma.”

The first point in this document declared that, “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced.”

A military dictatorship has ruled Burma since 1962. Following the takeover, the government renamed Burma as the Union of Myanmar and the capital city as Yangon, but many news agencies and government bodies continue to use the original names. When elections were held in 1988, with the opposing National League for Democracy clearly in the majority, the generals rejected the popular vote and used brute military force to cement their power throughout Burma. A similar show of force met hundreds of Buddhist monks who initiated mass anti-government protest rallies on the streets of Rangoon in September 2007.

While almost all Burmese citizens suffer under the regime, Christians are often singled out for specific attack or repression because of their perceived connections with the West.

Reports from various mission groups suggest Christianity is flourishing under the regime, but believers must be creative with their worship – particularly in rural areas. In reports confirmed by Compass, Christians in one state began photocopying Bibles to overcome restrictions on religious publications. Others baptized new Christians during the annual water festival, where citizens douse each other with buckets of water, ceremonially washing away the “sins” of the past year.


Heightened Security, Control

Rangoon residents say a much heavier security presence has been evident in the city since early January, when political activists began distributing anti-government leaflets, The Irrawaddy newspaper reported on Jan. 13. The leaflet drops may have contributed to the current crackdown on church gatherings, as generals suspect all organized groups of having a political agenda.

At a graduation of military students in Rangoon on Jan. 9, Vice-Senior Gen. Maung Aye, who is commander-in-chief of the army and deputy commander-in-chief of Defense Services, warned students to steadfastly uphold the country’s “Three Main National Causes” to prevent “recurrences of past bitter experiences.” The causes were listed as non-disintegration of the Union of Myanmar, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty.

The New Light of Myanmar, a government newspaper, reported the general as saying that, “You will have learned bitter lessons from a number of world events, in which certain States have become weaker … owing to external intervention in their conflicts.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Family members say Shi Weihan is nearly ‘unrecognizable’ due to weight loss.

DUBLIN, September 5 (Compass Direct News) – Beijing Christian bookstore owner Shi Weihan is awaiting the outcome of an August 19 court appearance and may be back in court within 10 days, according to Compass sources.

Denied proper medication and diet for his diabetes, Shi is almost “unrecognizable” due to severe weight loss, according to family members.

Public Security Bureau (PSB) officers initially arrested Shi on November 28, charging him with “illegal business practices” after he allegedly published Christian literature without authorization for distribution to house churches. Court officials ordered his release on January 4, citing insufficient evidence.

Officers arrested him again on March 19 and reportedly forced him to sign a “confession” convicting him of engaging in the printing and distribution of a large number of illegal publications.

They also forced Shi’s Antioch Eternal Life Church to close in June.

Shi’s bookstore, located near the Olympic Village, continued to operate during the Games.


Secretive Legal Process

Initially the Beijing PSB denied having Shi in custody, with officials claiming they did not know his whereabouts.

After Shi’s attorney Zhang Xingshui applied pressure, officers finally admitted having him and allowed a single visit with his attorney. They also labeled Shi a “dangerous religious element.”

Shi’s family and friends expected a trial would take place on June 19, the date that marked the end of three months of detention without charges. Chinese law prohibits the PSB from holding Chinese citizens for more than two months without formal charges, and Shi’s family and friends thought the three-month mark might have been significant. (See Compass Direct News, “Christian Bookstore Owner Still Without Trial,” June 20.)

No trial, however, took place on that day.

Authorities recently moved Shi from the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau back to the Haidian District Detention Center where he was held after his first arrest in November 2007.

Shi may have been held virtually “incommunicado” during the Games because of fears that he would use foreign connections to embarrass China during the event, one source who preferred to go unnamed told Compass. Shi has many foreign clients and friends.

“Perhaps the government regarded him as a potential organizer of public dissent, although many who know Shi affirm that he is a peaceful, patriotic and gentle man, not given to drawing attention to himself,” the source added.

Shi’s store operated legally and sold only books for which he had obtained government permission. Under his Holy Spirit Trading Co., however, Shi printed Bibles and Christian literature without authorization for distribution to local house churches, according to Asia Times Online.

Shi’s wife and two daughters are under great strain as a result of his arrest. Sources have asked for prayer that the family’s “strength and faith will not falter.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Latest incident in crackdown meant to keep him from meeting with foreign officials.

DUBLIN, August 5 (Compass Direct News) – As U.S. President George W. Bush attends Olympic events in Beijing this week and a church service in the capital next Sunday, Chinese authorities have banished house church pastor Zhang Mingxuan from the city for the duration of the Games. Several other Christians remain in detention or face ongoing harassment.

Plainclothes police officers forcibly removed Zhang and his wife Xie Fenglan from a guesthouse in Beijing on July 18 and took them toYanjiao, Hebei province, to prevent them from meeting foreign officials visiting Beijing for the Games, according to Friday’s (August 1) South China Morning Post (SCMP).

The couple had moved from one guesthouse to another at least six times prior to the raid to escape police harassment. They have since moved from Yanjiao to another remote town in Hebei to await the completion of the Games.

Zhang told reporters that constant police crackdowns had reduced the number of house churches he has established over the past decade from more than 10 to just three.

Thousands of Christians throughout China belong to similar house churches, which have refused to register with official government agencies in order to avoid legal restrictions on the size of their gatherings, appointment of clergy and sermon content.


History of Arrests

Zhang, a Christian for 22 years, traveled as an itinerant evangelist throughout China before moving to Beijing in 1998. He is co-founder and president of the China House Church Alliance, established in April 2005 to defend the rights of house church Christians.

In 2005, President Bush invited Zhang to a meeting during an official visit to China. The meeting never took place, however, as officials detained Zhang before he could attend.

In June Zhang met with U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf and Rep. Christopher Smith during a visit to Beijing, but officials placed him under house arrest the following night, according to SCMP. Also in June, officials detained Zhang when he attempted to meet with Bastiann Belder, a rapporteur of the European Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs.

When police tried to persuade Zhang and his ailing wife to leave Beijing prior to the Games, Zhang refused.

“A police officer even suggested paying us 5,000 yuan [US$730] if we would leave Beijing for three months,” Zhang told reporters. “We’ve been praying for a successful Olympic Games for eight years. We didn’t do anything wrong, so why are they doing this to us?”

Officials are perhaps aggravated by the activities of the China House Church Alliance, backed by a team of Christian lawyers who file cases against local authorities when Christians are jailed or sent to labor camps. To date some 30 cases have been filed, and six have been successful, Zhang said. Prior to the formation of the alliance, Christians rarely took such cases to court.

One of the lawyers, Li Baiguang, said it was extremely difficult to win such cases, but that when they ended at least officials stopped harassing these Christians.

Baiguang was scheduled to meet with members of the U.S. Congress in Beijing in June, but officials detained him and one other lawyer to prevent them from attending the meeting. Several other lawyers were warned not to attend or they would face severe consequences.


Bookstore Owner’s Health Worsens

Christian bookstore owner Shi Weihan, detained without charges by authorities on March 19, has suffered a rapid deterioration in health. In addition, officials have reportedly convinced Shi to sign a “confession” convicting him of engaging in the printing and distribution of a large number of illegal publications.

China Aid Association (CAA) reported on Thursday (July 31) that Shi’s weight had dropped by more than 10 kilograms (22 pounds). Shi suffers from diabetes, a condition exacerbated by a poor diet and restricted access to appropriate medication.

Shi’s bookstore continues to operate in its prime location near the Olympic Village, according to Compass sources.

The bookstore is registered with authorities, and Shi had permission to sell Bibles and other Christian materials. Officials objected, however, when Shi printed some Bibles and Christian literature without authorization for distribution to local house churches, according to Asia Times Online.

Despite a law restricting detention without charges to a maximum of two months, officials in June stated they would delay action on the case indefinitely. By late June, they had granted only one visit by Shi’s lawyer, Zhang Xingshui.


Elsewhere in China

Officials also evicted Christian rights activist Hua Huiqi from his home in Beijing on July 2. After using a heavy hammer to break down the doors and locks of his apartment, they beat Hua’s brother and forced the entire family, including Hua’s 90-year-old father, onto the street with their furniture, CAA reported.

On July 6, officials moved Pastor Zhang Zhongxin of Jiaxiang county, Shandong province to a labor camp to begin two years of re-education through labor. With the help of a lawyer, Zhang’s wife Wang Guiyun has since submitted an appeal to the Jining City district court asking it to withdraw the labor camp sentence, CAA reported last month.

On July 14, police raided the home of Lu Xiaoai, a fellow church member of Zhang and Wang, seizing Bibles and Christian materials. They also investigated church member Lian Dehai, seizing Christian material from his home and placing him in criminal detention.

Police then proceeded to carry out several other raids on the homes of house church members in Jiaxiang county.

CAA reported on other incidents in Beijing municipality, Gansu and Henan provinces during June and July.

At Olympic venues however, China has presented a different face, with clergy from the five accepted religious groups providing official religious services to athletes and other visitors. The Chinese Olympic committee has granted athletes permission to bring personal religious articles into the Olympic village and permission for well-known evangelist Luis Palau to distribute his evangelistic book, “A Friendly Dialogue Between an Atheist and a Christian,” to athletes and coaches during the Games.

In June, Chinese authorities announced they would print 50,000 gospel booklets – including 10,000 Chinese-English complete Bibles – for distribution during the Games.

In July, the state newspaper Xinhua published a visitors’ guide to churches in Beijing. The article gave a brief history of the Catholic and Protestant streams of Christianity but made only a brief mention of four Catholic churches in the capital.

Xinhua also noted that “since the Chinese constitution was amended in 1982 to allow freedom of religion,” the number of Christians in China had “surpassed 16 million,” an official figure given by the China Christian Council, an agency representing government-approved Protestant churches.

Compass sources, however, estimate there are at least 60 million evangelical Christians in China: 10 million in major house church networks, 35 million in independent rural house churches and 15 million in independent urban house churches. In addition, there are 15 million Catholics and 15 million members of the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement church.

Report from Compass Direct News