Christians’ fears little allayed; armed outfits mushrooming.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, September 10 (CDN) — Pastor John Vanlalhriata was reading the Bible at his home in Kathmandu valley Sunday afternoon (Sept. 6) when a friend called to give him the news that electrified the Christian community.
“Ram Prasad Mainali has been arrested by police along with three more accomplices,” the friend said. “Finally, our prayers have been answered.”
The 36-year-old Mainali, who claims to have worked in the national army, became a household name in May after the little-known underground organization he headed, the Nepal Defense Army (NDA), claimed responsibility for placing a bomb in one of Nepal’s oldest churches during mass, killing two women and a schoolgirl and injuring more than a dozen people.
Though police claimed a breakthrough in less than a fortnight, saying they had arrested a 27-year-old woman who planted the bomb in the prayer hall of the Catholic Assumption Church on May 23, the suspected mastermind remained elusive. Despite a red alert for Mainali’s arrest, he remained at large in the former Hindu kingdom, continuing to intimidate Christians by ordering them to leave the country or face further violence. He was arrested on Saturday (Sept. 5) in Biratnagar.
The NDA, founded in 2006 after Nepal deposed King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah and became a secular republic, claimed to be grooming an army of suicide bombers in a bid to turn Nepal into a Hindu state again. Since last year, it began to strike in earnest in eastern Nepal, Mainali’s home region.
In March 2008, the NDA bombed a mosque in eastern Nepal, killing two people at prayer, and four months later it gunned down a Catholic priest, the Rev. John Prakash Moyalan, at his residence.
“The Christian community is relieved that Mainali has been arrested,” Pastor Vanlalhriata of the Believers’ Church in Kathmandu told Compass. “They feel Mainali would now learn that it was not good to persecute the church and threaten God’s people. But they are also apprehensive that he might be released soon.”
After the initial joy, that thought is the prospect haunting Nepal’s Christian community – that Mainali and his accomplices could be released soon, either because of legal loopholes or the culture of impunity pervading Nepal since 1996, when Maoist guerrillas began an armed revolt and triggered grave human rights violations for a decade.
“We will have to wait and watch what happens now,” said Balan Joseph, a 42-year-old garment factory employee who lost his teenage daughter, Celeste, in the bombing; eight days later, his wife Buddha Laxmi succumbed to an internal hemorrhage from the blast. “Mainali’s arrest doesn’t mean his gang has been wiped out. Unless the government takes tough action, the morale of all potential killers will rise, and recruits will continue to flock to these gangs.”
Christians have been further anguished by the revelation that Mainali had been arrested previously for an explosion. There were no casualties, and a court granted him bail. On being freed, he promptly went underground, resurfacing Saturday (Sept. 5) in the tea garden district of Jhapa, in eastern Nepal, when police arrested him on a tipoff.
Chirendra Satyal, spokesperson at the Assumption Church, said the possibility of release is the overriding concern. He said a priest told him, only half-jokingly, “I hope the authorities don’t release him again.”
Satyal said he also feels that the threat to Christians has not ended.
“There is a culture of impunity in Nepal,” he told Compass. “This government may fall, and the new one that replaces it may decide to release Mainali. Or he can have a successor stepping into his shoes.”
A sense of insecurity still pervades the Assumption Church, which has not relaxed safety measures even after the arrest. Cars are not allowed inside the compound, and handbags have to be left at the gate. Professional security guards have been employed, reinforced by policemen deployed by the government.
The arrests have also failed to erase the terror from the hearts of those who were present in the church on that fatal day, especially the children. While widower Joseph said God has given him strength to bear his loss, his surviving children – Chelsea, 11, and Sylvester, 9, are still traumatized.
“My friends told me about the arrest,” Chelsea told Compass. “But I am still afraid. So is my brother. And though he too knows about the arrest, he has not talked about it with us.”
On Tuesday, authorities brought Mainali to Kathmandu valley, and he appeared before the chief district officer, who gave police permission to hold him in remand for 10 days for further investigation.
“We feel the threat of religious attacks has ended,” said Police Superintendent Devendra Subedi, whose team arrested Mainali. “A day later, we also arrested Vinod Pandey, who headed another underground organization, the Ranavir Sena, which too was demanding the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion. With the heads in the police net, the outfits are bound to collapse.”
Pandey, also arrested from eastern Nepal with an aide, was reportedly planning a series of bomb attacks in the capital and three other major towns: Pokhara, a popular tourist destination, and Biratnagar and Birgunj, two key trade hubs.
Dr. K.B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Nepal (NCCN), said the arrests of the militant group leaders will not resolve the problems of violence in Nepal.
“There are over 100 armed groups in Nepal that are engaged in extortion, abductions and killings,” said Rokaya, who is also a member of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission. “Nepal passed through a decade of armed conflict to reach a transitional period where there is still political instability due to the weak government. Many armed groups are trying to take advantage of the vacuum. It’s not only Christians who are suffering, the entire nation is.”
In the Terai, lowlands in southern Nepal running across the open border with neighboring India, armed gangs have mushroomed since the fall of the royal government three years ago. The Believers’ Church is concentrated there. It is part of Christian Unity, an umbrella of churches of different denominations on the plains that the NDA has repeatedly threatened.
The NCCN is putting its hope in a new constitution being drafted by a 601-member Constituent Assembly in consultation with different political parties, organizations and communities. It is scheduled to be presented in May 2010. The NCCN has submitted its recommendations for protection of religious minorities to the Constituent Assembly, as well as to Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal and President Ram Baran Yadav.
The NCCN’s Rokaya said the recommendations can be summed up in four points: freedom to practice the religion of choice; freedom to change it (a tacit reference to past laws that made conversion a punishable offence); freedom not to practice any religion; and the state not interfering in religious matters.
Report from Compass Direct News
Beating of field worker leads to hatchet attack on his family, then on all village Christians.
LAHORE, Pakistan, July 3 (Compass Direct News) – After a Muslim beat a Christian field worker for asking him to let him pass on Tuesday (June 30), a cleric in a village near here used a mosque loudspeaker to announce a call to attack Christians that resulted in more than 500 Muslims ransacking and looting at least 110 houses.
With the mosque falsely broadcasting the accusation that the Christian had blasphemed Islam, the Muslim recruits rampaged through Kasur district’s Bahmaniwala village, breaking down gates, wrecking and plundering homes and in some cases beating Christian women. They set various items ablaze including vehicles, though Compass found fire damage to homes was minimal.
“We don’t even have potable water, as they have damaged the turbine,” villager Zareena Bibi told Compass. “We knew about the incident, but could never imagine that they would wreak such devastation. They have not spared a single house here.”
Outraged that the lower-class Christian field worker on his tractor had asked the Muslim to move out of his way, 15 to 20 Muslims had previously mounted a hatchet attack on the family of the field worker, 37-year-old Sardar Masih, wounding his brother’s head, family members told Compass.
Masih told Compass that after his family members had sought treatment at a local hospital – where medical staff members denied them local anesthesia for their stitches because they were Christians – they learned that a call to gather had been issued from a local mosque regarding the altercation.
“We were told that in that meeting they decided to blame Christians for blasphemy of their Islamic religion,” Masih told Compass. The Muslims in the meeting, he added, then schemed with Muslim cleric Muhammad Latif of Maanwala, who appealed from the mosque loudspeaker for villagers to gather to “teach Christians an exemplary lesson.”
Latif, who heads a vigilante group called Sunni Force, also managed to recruit Muslims from other hamlets, Masih said. Soon the number of Muslims swelled to 500 to 800, according to the eyewitnesses.
The ensuing attack began with the breaking of electricity meters at 110 homes, cutting their power, area Christians said.
Damages and Threats
Masih told Compass the triggering incident began when he and his 10-year-old son, Waqas Masih, were returning from the fields on a tractor at 7 p.m.
“When we entered the village, Muhammad Hussein and his nephew had parked their motorbike in the middle of the road,” Masih said. “I requested them to get it aside, and Hussein said that he did not know how a ‘sweeper’ [chuhra, a derogatory term designating lower-class Christians] could order him. I was with my son, and I only requested them to let us go as we are getting late.”
He said Hussein was drunk from a nearby wedding celebration.
“I only made the request, and then they got up on the tractor and dragged me down and began beating me,” Masih said. “Then my son ran home and told my family members.”
Masih’s brother, 32-year-old Ashraf Masih, told Compass that he was at home when Waqat arrived out of breath saying that two men were beating his father. Ashraf Masih and brothers Mushtaq Masih, 35, Tariq Masih, 25, and Shahbaz Masih, along with their cousins Shafiq and Vikram Masih and 65-year-old father Chanan Masih, rushed to the site. By the time they arrived, Ashraf Masih said, a large crowd had gathered, but they were only exchanging harsh words and the conflict was cooling down.
“I told Muhammad Hussein that whoever he is, he has no right to lord it over them,” Ashraf Masih told Compass, adding that as they were leaving Hussein asked how could chuhras talk to them that way.
After the brief encounter, Ashraf Masih said, they went home back, not knowing that Hussein and his cohorts were planning to attack them. After half an hour, he said, Hussein and 15 to 20 other men armed with sticks and hatchets launched their assault on their house.
“They broke the door and smaller walls, and they beat my father, my mother and paternal uncle,” he said.
An assailant delivered a blow with hatchet to the head of his brother Mushtaq Masih, Ashraf Masih said, and blood gushed out. Other brothers also received hatchet wounds.
“When we realized that our life was in danger, we recklessly fought and made them flee,” he said. “Three of their men were also injured, but I don’t know their names.”
Afterward village official Muhammad Shafiq went to the family and warned them not to go to police, he said.
“We followed his advice, but he cheated on us,” Ashraf Masih said. “He took the Muslim party to the police station, where they got an FIR [First Information Report] registered, and then Shafiq and Manawala Deputy Mayor [Zulfiqar Ali] Bhutto took them to a hospital to get a medico-legal report.”
The family learned 90 minutes after the altercation that the Muslim assailants had gone to the police station, he said.
“Then we also rushed to the Sadar police station, but the police told us that an FIR had already been registered of the incident so they could not write another report,” Ashraf Masih said. “Then we went to Kasur Civil Hospital to obtain medical treatment, but when we entered the hospital they were already sitting there, and with them were Muhammad Shafiq and Dr. Bhutto.”
The injured Masih family members were shocked, he said, to learn that Shafiq had brought the assailants to the hospital but had told them not to go to the police station or the hospital for treatment.
After waiting for hours for medical treatment with no one paying them any attention, he said, at 5 a.m. their wounds were stitched without local anesthesia.
“The medical staff treated us like animals, and even made us sit outside all night,” Ashraf Masih said.
After the received basic first-aid treatment, Ashraf Masih said, his brother Sardar Masih suggested that they not go home for a few days, as the police had filed the Muslim assailants’ FIR. “Only our women were at home when our house was attacked the next day,” he said.
In spite of the assault on the family the day of the triggering incident, local Christians said no one foresaw the attack on the community on Wednesday (July 1).
“We thought that it was just an ordinary clash and would settle down with the passage of time, but they not only came back and attacked us, they then did havoc to all Christian families,” said Chanan Masih, the brothers’ father, adding that there was no justification for the attack on all the Christian villagers. “We used to visit their houses and even respected their Muslim call to prayer.”
On that day most of the men were away harvesting crops and others had gone to the Lahore Vegetable Market to sell them, while still others were busy getting Christians bailed out in the case filed against them. Area Christians said that most of their homes were therefore defenseless.
The Muslim mobs entered homes where mostly women and children were present and in some instances beat the women, local Christians said. In other instances, they said, women ran up to their roofs or to nearby fields and hid themselves to save their honor and lives.
“In one sad instance, a young girl who was taking bath got so nervous that she ran to the fields stark naked,” said one local Christian. “Such was the perilous state after 15 to 20 men entered each Christian house after breaking down gates.”
Throughout the violence that began about 7:30 p.m. and lasted two hours, area Christians said, the assailants threatened to throw all Christians out of the village.
Local resident Zareena Bibi told Compass that the looters stole from her son, Vikram Bashir, money from recent crop sales – 200,000 rupees (US$2,470) – along with 70,000 rupees (US$865) in cash gathered at his marriage the previous week. The attackers also stole a gold ornament from his bride worth 30,000 rupees (US$370).
Naseem Masih told Compass that her family had gold and more than 200,000 rupees looted. Amid broken glass, she pointed toward damages to two doors, a window grill, a fan, crockery and kitchen utensils that could no longer be used. Her mother-in-law said that they made her remove her gold earrings.
“My son got married only three months ago,” said one area Christian. “They took out new clothes from trunks and threw them on the floor so that they may not remain useful. They also gathered such articles and put them on fire. They were shouting that they would throw out these ‘sweepers’ from here.”
Sardar Masih said that his family’s house was especially hard-hit during the violence and looting. The attackers not only damaged his tractor, he said, but they put sandy soil in its engine that rendered it nonfunctional. The tractor was the main source of income for the family, he added, and without it they were left virtually unemployed.
“They have tried to make us completely poor and without any home,” he said.
Expel and Ostracize
Similarly, Naseem Masih told Compass that the assailants had burned their 10 donkey carts. And a few area Christians also reported that some families had been deprived of the dowries they had accumulated over the years for their daughters yet to be given in marriage.
Local resident Allah Ditta told Compass that he had gone to Lahore Market to sell crops.
“We were informed over the phone that Muslims had attacked us,” he said, adding that the assailants beat his wife and children and also looted 100,000 rupees (US$1,235) from his home.
Local Christians said that on Wednesday (July 1), at about 2 p.m. several young Muslims gathered and began chanting slogans calling for the expulsion of Christians, saying, “We will not let them live here.” By 2:30 p.m., the area mosque was announcing that no shop should provide anything to Christians and that they should totally ostracize them.
“This announcement was made by Maulvi Latif,” one Christian said. Maulvi is an honorific referring to an expert in Islamic law.
Another Christian said that Latif had twice before created problems for Christians, though on a smaller scale. Area Christians and Muslims have lived next to each other peaceably for more than a century and had good relations, village Christians said.
“There has never been any such incident before,” said one Christian.
When Compass entered the village and asked about the conflicts this week, Muslims claimed complete ignorance of them.
Talks and Restoration
The Community Development Initiative (CDI) advocacy group is facilitating talks between the two sides, though mistrust still runs high in the area, said CDI Research Officer Napoleon Qayyum. He said the CDI requested that Water and Power and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) Managing Director Tahir Basharat Cheema ensure that electricity be restored to the houses of Christians.
After the request, electricity was provisionally restored to several Christian families until new electricity meters are installed, he said, adding that WAPDA has begun installing new electricity meters at no cost as well. Qayyum said that Mushtaq Masih had requested that the CDI take up the case of the brothers, and that the organization would provide legal assistance to others who were injured with the help of the American Center of Law and Justice (ACLJ).
CDI is also providing meals to all 110 families, he said.
“Our partner, ACLJ, is constantly monitoring the situation and is providing its full support in this difficult time,” Qayyum said. Several Christian organizations were visiting the area and providing help to the injured, he said, adding that the only area church building was unaffected by the assault.
Muslim Leaders Appalled
Among Muslim leaders, Pakistan Peoples Party Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) Chaudhry Ahmed Ali Tohlu told Compass that the culprits must be brought to justice. Tohlu asserted that Muslims would be able to repeat such violence only over his dead body and those of other like-minded Muslim leaders.
“I am born in a Muslim family, but today I am feeling bad because of what my fellow Muslims have done,” he said.
Member of National Assembly Sheikh Wasim of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz said, “Christians are our brothers and sisters, and what has been done to them is very unjust, and being a Muslim I apologize to the Christian community in my capacity.”
Divisional Police Officer Kasur Sultan said the violence “is a shameful incident,” and Union Council Nazim Sardar Fakhir said, “We all are ashamed, and those who instigated the matter should be brought to book.”
Human Rights and Minority Affairs Provincial Minister Kamran Michael said that Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had told him over the phone to go to the village and express solidarity with the Christian community. He pledged that all damages would be covered by the government.
“Our religion teaches peace, so we should forgive the culprits, but the government will take action against the culprits,” Michael said.
MPA Joel Amir Sahotra condemned the looting that characterized the attack.
In the aftermath of the violence, police, civil administration, politicians and Christians of the area met, CDI’s Qayyum said, and established a 12-member committee to keep watch and inform authorities of any wrongdoing.
“Till the time things are normalized, anyone found fueling the matter would be punished, and the committee is responsible for informing the police,” he said. “After the meeting, Deputy Mayor Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and I went together in the mosque and Bhutto made a public announcement on the loudspeaker.”
The deputy mayor announced from the mosque that what took place was shameful and that all the shops must resume selling everything to the Christian community, he said.
Area Christians, however, said they remained fearful of new outbreaks of violence.
Report from Compass Direct News