Burmese Officials Order Closure of Chin Church

Government punishes pastor for refusing to wear campaign T-shirt, amid other election abuses.

DUBLIN, November 18 (CDN) — Officials in Mergui Region, Burma, ordered a Baptist church to cease holding worship services after the pastor refused to wear an election campaign T-shirt supporting the military government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The election commission summoned 47-year-old Pastor Mang Tling of Dawdin village, Gangaw township, Mergui Region on Nov. 9, two days after the election and ordered him to stop holding services and discontinue the church nursery program, the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported yesterday.

The CHRO works against human rights abuses, including religious discrimination, for the Chin people, a minority group in Burma’s northwest estimated to be 90 percent Christian.

Village headman U Than Chaung had given the pastor a campaign T-shirt to wear in support of the USDP, and when he refused to wear it, the headman filed a report with local authorities accusing him of persuading Christian voters to vote in favor of an opposing party.

Under Burmese law, religious leaders can be penalized for “engaging in politics,” giving the pastor a solid legal reason to decline the T-shirt. The law also bans leaders of religious groups from voting in national elections, according to the CHRO, although lay members of those groups are able to vote.

“The election law is quite vague,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass today. “One of the things we were watching out for during the election was to see if church elders or council members might be excluded from voting. But these people were able to vote. The law seems to apply only to pastors, monks and imams.”

Officials interrogated Mang Tling in Gangaw until Sunday (Nov. 14), when he was allowed to return home.

Meantime, the USDP won the election amid widespread evidence of “advance” voting and other forms of voter manipulation throughout Burma.

Previously known as the Union Solidarity and Development Association, and before that the State Peace and Development Council, the USDP was formed by a ruling junta composed largely of army generals. The junta has ruled Burma without a constitution or parliament since 1998, although in 2008 they pushed through support for a new constitution that will take effect following this month’s elections, according to the 2010 International Religious Freedom report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

The new constitution forbids “abuse of religion for political purposes,” the report stated. Election laws published in March also banned members of religious orders from voting for or joining political parties and reserved 25 percent of seats in the new parliament for members of the military.

The 2008 constitution “technically guarantees a degree of religious freedom. But then, it’s Burma,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass.


Voter Intimidation

The Chin National Party defeated the USDP in three electorates in Chin state despite reports of widespread voting anomalies, some of which were outlined in a CHRO press release on Nov. 7.

In Tedim township northern Chin state, for example, USDP agent Go Lun Mang went to the home of a local resident at 5 p.m. the day before the election and told the family that he had already voted on their behalf in favor of the USDP. He added that soldiers in a nearby camp were ready to arrest them if they complained.

On Nov. 5, the local government had already ordered village officials to instruct residents to vote for the USDP. On Nov. 7, the day of the election, USDP agents in campaign uniforms stood at the gate of the polling station in Tedim and asked voters if they intended to vote for the USDP. Those who said yes were allowed into the station, while those who said no were refused entrance.

USDP agents also warned Chin voters in Thantlang town that they should vote for the USDP “while the door was open” or they would regret it, Burma News International reported on Nov. 5.

David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the intimidation indicated that the junta and the USDP knew how unpopular they were.

Reports by the CHRO show a long history of discrimination against the majority Christian Chin, including the destruction of crosses and other Christian monuments, state-sponsored efforts to expand Buddhism, forced contributions of finance and labor to Buddhist construction projects, arrest and detention, torture and particularly harsh treatment of pastors. In addition, officials have refused construction for all new church building projects since 2003.

A report issued by HRW in January confirmed serious and ongoing abuses against Chin Christians.

One Chin pastor interviewed by HRW described how soldiers held him at gunpoint, forced him to pray in a Buddhist pagoda and told him that Burma was a Buddhist country where Christianity should not be practiced. (See “Report Documents Abuse of Chin Christians,” Feb. 20.)



Suu Kyi’s Release Stirs Guarded Hope among Burma’s Christians

NEW DELHI, November 18 (Compass Direct News) – The release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in Burma on Saturday (Nov. 13) has sparked cautious optimism about human rights among Christians and the country’s ethnic minorities even as the junta does battle with armed resistance groups.

Freeing her six days after elections, the military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar) kept 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi from running in the country’s first election in 20 years, but ethnic minorities are still “very happy” and “enthused with hope and anticipation,” said Plato Van Rung Mang, who heads the India chapter of Chin Human Rights Organization.

Suu Kyi is the only leader from the majority Burmese community – predominantly Buddhist – who is trusted by the ethnic minorities, said Mang, an India-based Christian originally from Burma’s Chin state, which borders India.

“We have faith in Suu Kyi’s honesty and leadership, and she has been our hope,” he added.

The ethnic Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni people – many of whom are Christian – as well as mostly Buddhist ethnic Shan, Mon and Arakanese (some of them Muslim) people have been fighting for self-determination in their respective states and opposing the military junta’s policy of centralized control and Burmese dominion.

“We trust that Suu Kyi can fulfill her father’s ideal and political principles which have been subverted by the Burmese military junta’s Burmanization policy,” said Mang. Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was the nation’s leader at the time of independence and favored autonomy for ethnic minorities.

“Just as her father was trusted and held in high esteem by the ethnic people, Aung San Suu Kyi also has the ability to work together with the minorities to build a better, peaceful Burma where the human rights of all citizens are respected and protected,” said Garrett Kostin, a U.S. citizen who runs the Best Friend Library, built by a Buddhist monk in support of Suu Kyi, in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

While sections of the ethnic communities have been involved in armed resistance against the junta’s rule, many local residents in the region remain unarmed but are also at risk of being killed in the post-election conflict.

In the wake of the Nov. 7 election, as expected (See “Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election, Oct. 22), clashes between armed ethnic groups and the Burmese army erupted in three of the seven ethnic states – Karen, Shan and Mon – mainly along Thailand and China border, reported Thailand-based Burma News International. The violence has resulted in an influx of over 20,000 people into Thailand – the largest flow in the last five years.

According to US-based Refugees International, the Thai government forced many of the asylum seekers back.

There are also tensions in Kachin and Karenni states, which could erupt at any time, between the Burmese army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army-North, and the Karenni National Progressive Party.

Rights advocates, however, were still heartened by Suu Kyi’s release.

It’s “a wonderful opportunity for the ethnic minorities of Burma to unify in support of each other’s rights and desires,” said Kostin.

In September 2007, many Buddhist monks joined democracy activists in street protests against the military regime’s decision to cut fuel subsidies, leading to a sharp rise in gas and diesel prices. Known as the Saffron Revolution, the protests resulted in hundreds of deaths as government security personnel resisted it militarily.

In numerous clashes between the repressive military regime and political opponents and ethnic minorities, over 3.5 million Burmese have been displaced and thousands killed over the years.

Suu Kyi will continue to enjoy the trust of ethnic minorities because “she has been working so hard since the beginning [of her political career] to speak out about the plight of ethnic people with an honest and sincere commitment,” said Bangkok-based Soe Aung, deputy secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Forum for Democracy in Burma.

Chiang Mai-based Christian relief group Free Burma Rangers (FBR) recalled that Suu Kyi, the general secretary of the National League for Democracy, along with allies won more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament “in Burma’s only truly democratic election” in 1990. “The military regime, however, did not recognize the results and continued to hold power,” it said in a statement.

Last week’s election was “neither free nor fair,” FBR said, adding that “thousands of political prisoners [estimated at 2,200] are still in jail, ethnic minorities are attacked [on a regular basis], and the people of Burma remain under oppression.

“Still, we are grateful for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi as she is a leader who gives real hope to the people of Burma.”

An FBR team leader who spoke on condition of anonymity recalled Suu Kyi requesting his prayers when he met with her during a brief period when she was not under house arrest in 1996.

“The Global Day of Prayer for Burma and the ethnic unity efforts we are involved in are a direct result of that meeting,” the leader said. “As she told me then, one of her favorite quotes is, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”

Some Christians, however, remained cautious.

“Although San Suu Kyi wants Burma to be a true federal country, there is no certainty in the hearts of the Karen people because they have suffered for very long, and the so-called Burmese have turned their backs on them several times,” said a Karen Christian from Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph.

La Rip, a Burmese activist in China, also said that while Suu Kyi deserved to enjoy freedom, she and her party “do not seem to have a clear idea on how to solve the long-standing issues” related to ethnic minorities.

For her part, Suu Kyi spelled out a plan to hold a nationwide, multi-ethnic conference soon after she was freed. Her father held a similar meeting, known as the Panglong Conference, in 1947. Aung San, then representing the Burmese government, reached an agreement with leaders from the Shan, Kachin and Chin states to accept full autonomy in internal administration for the ethnic controlled frontier areas after independence from Britain.

Suu Kyi’s planned conference is seen as the second Panglong Conference, but it remains uncertain if the new Burmese regime, which is likely to be as opposed to ethnic minorities as the junta, will allow her plan to succeed.

In the awaited election results, the junta’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is likely to have majority in parliament to form the next government. Suu Kyi’s party had been disbanded by the military regime, and only a small splinter group ran in the election.

It is also feared that Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for nearly 15 years since 1990 until her release last weekend, could face assassination attempts or fresh charges followed by another term under arrest.

Burma has a population of around 50 million, out of which around 2.1 million are estimated to be Christian.

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslims Force Expat Christian Teacher to Flee Maldives

Mistaking compass she drew for a cross, parents of students threatened to expel her.

NEW DELHI, October 5 (CDN) — Authorities in the Maldives last week had to transport a Christian teacher from India off one of the Islamic nation’s islands after Muslim parents of her students threatened to expel her for “preaching Christianity.”

On Wednesday night (Sept. 29) a group of angry Muslim parents stormed the government school on the island of Foakaindhoo, in Shaviyani Atoll, accusing Geethamma George of drawing a cross in her class, a source at Foakaindhoo School told Compass.

“There were only 10 teachers to defend Geethamma George when a huge crowd gathered outside the school,” the source said by telephone. “Numerous local residents of the island also joined the parents’ protest.”

The school administration promptly sought the help of officials from the education ministry.

“Fearing that the teacher would be physically attacked, the officials took her out of the island right away,” the source said. “She will never be able to come back to the island, and nor is she willing to do so. She will be given a job in another island.”

A few days earlier, George, a social studies teacher, had drawn a compass to teach directions to Class VI students. But the students, who knew little English, mistook the drawing to be a cross and thought she was trying to preach Christianity, the source said. The students complained to their parents, who in turn issued a warning to the school.

Administrators at the school set up a committee to investigate the allegation and called for a meeting with parents on Thursday (Sept. 30) to present their findings. The committee found that George had drawn a compass as part of a geography lesson.

“However, the parents arrived the previous night to settle the matter outside the school,” said the source.

According to local newspaper Haveeru, authorities transferred George to the nearby island of Funadhoo “after the parents threatened to tie and drag her off of the island.”

The teacher, who worked at the school for three years, is originally from the south Indian coastal state of Kerala. Many Christians from Kerala and neighboring Tamil Nadu state in India are working as teachers and doctors in the Maldives.

Preaching or practicing a non-Muslim faith is forbidden under Maldivian law, which does not recognize any faith other than Islam. The more than 300,000 citizens of the Maldives are all Sunni Muslims.

A string of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean off Sri Lanka in South Asia, the Maldives is the only country after Saudi Arabia that claims to have a 100 percent Muslim population. As per its constitution, only a Muslim can be a citizen of the country. Importing any literature that contradicts Islam is against the law.

Many of the more than 70,000 expatriate workers in the Maldives are Christian, but they are allowed to practice their faith only inside their respective homes. They cannot even get together for prayer or worship in each other’s houses – doing so has resulted in the arrest and deportation of expatriates in the past.

The Maldives was ruled by an authoritarian, conservative Muslim president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, for 30 years. The nation became a multi-party democracy in 2008 with Mohamed Nasheed – from the largely liberal Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – as the new president.

Gayoom’s right-wing party, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), however, managed to win a simple majority in the People’s Majlis – as the parliament is known in the Maldives – in the 2009 parliamentary election. The Maldives follows the presidential system.

The DRP-led opposition often criticizes Nasheed’s government, accusing it of being liberal in cultural and religious matters, which DRP leaders claim will have a bearing on the country’s sovereignty and identity.

A key ally of the MDP, the Adhaalath Party, also holds conservative views on religion and culture.

Many in Maldivian society, along with religious and political leaders, believe religious freedom is not healthy for the nation’s survival, although the Maldives does not perceive any threat from nearby countries.

Report from Compass Direct News

Spike in Anti-Christian Violence Feared before Burma Elections

Attacks on Christians seen as politically expedient in majority-Buddhist nation.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, January 21 (CDN) — As Burma’s military junta gears up for its first parliamentary election in two decades this year, observers fear attacks on the Christian minority could intensify.

Mungpi Suangtak, assistant editor of a New Delhi-based news agency run by exiled Burmese journalists, the Mizzima News, said the Burmese junta has “one of the world’s worst human rights records” and will “definitely” attack religious and ethnic minorities more forcefully in the run-up to the election.

The military regime, officially known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), pledged to hold the election this year, and analysts believe polls will be held after July in the country, also known as Myanmar.

Suangtak told Compass that the Buddhist nationalist junta would target Christians particularly in Karen state, bordering Thailand, and in Chin State, bordering India and Bangladesh.

Many Christians are part of the Karen National Union and the Chin National Front, armed resistance groups that have been demanding freedom or autonomy for their respective states for decades, and therefore the junta sees the Christian minority as a threat, said Suangtak.

There are over 100,000 Christian Chin refugees in India who have fled the junta’s attacks in the past two decades, according to Human Rights Watch.

Christians in Karen state are not safe. A Karen Christian worker living in the Mae La refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border told Compass that ethnic Christians were facing human rights abuses by the junta “on a daily basis.” Most recently, Burma army soldiers attacked a church, murdered a local farmer and injured others in Nawng Mi village on Dec. 19, 2009, reported Burma Campaign UK.

Parts of Karen state fall under the “Black Zone” – identified by the Burma army as an area under the control of armed resistance groups where its soldiers are free to open fire on anyone on sight – and the junta has been launching indiscriminate attacks to take control of village after village, said the Karen Christian.

“Those who are not able to flee across the border during such attacks are either killed or forcibly relocated in and confined to temporary camps set up by the junta,” the Christian said. “Since the army litters surrounding areas with landmines, many local people die or get injured while trying to run away from or coming to the camps to look for their relatives.”

Over 150,000 refugees from Karen and neighboring Karenni states of Burma are living along the Thai side of the border, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of them are Christian.

A representative of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), which trains and sends teams of local people to help victims of the junta’s attacks inside Burma, said youths have been forced to become Buddhists in Chin state, where over 80 percent of the people are Christian.

Printing of Bibles is restricted, and churches are destroyed on a regular basis in the state, the source told Compass on condition of anonymity.

Access for foreign visitors to Chin state is, with some exceptions, prohibited, and the state is widely acknowledged to be the poorest part of the country, said Rogers.

“According to one Chin, the reason Chin state is denied resources, and foreigners are denied access, is specifically because the overwhelming majority of Chins are Christian,” stated a 2009 report by London-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “The SPDC has, it is believed, taken a deliberate decision to discriminate against Chin Christians.”

The report cited a Chin Christian man who had served in the Burma army who faced discrimination.

“I had a colleague who was a Chin who became a Buddhist and he was promoted,” the Christian says in the report. “I was told to change my religion if I wanted to get promotion. I refused to convert.”

The report also quoted a Chin Christian as saying that students from a Christian youth fellowship at a university in Kalaymyo, in Chin state’s Sagaing Division, collected funds among their own community to construct a small church.

“However, in 2008 and again in 2009, ‘extremist Buddhists’ destroyed the church building, and when the students reported the incident to the local authorities, the youth fellowship leaders were arrested, detained and then released with a warning,” he said.

Religious Pretext

Suangtak said successive governments in Burma have promoted Buddhism since General Ne Win took power in 1962, leaving Christians insecure.

“There is a general feeling in Burma that the state represents Buddhism, and most Christians, particularly from conservative sections, cannot trust the regime,” said Suangtak.

Benedict Rogers of CSW said the junta doesn’t differentiate between individual Christians involved in armed struggle and ordinary Christians who have not taken up arms.

“And when it attacks villages in conflict zones, churches and pastors are often among the first to be attacked,” Rogers said.

A Christian worker from Burma’s Mandalay city, however, told Compass that thus far he has heard no reports of any major anti-Christian incidents there. He said he was hoping the junta would try to woo people with peace rather than violence.

“But nothing can be said about the unpredictable junta,” he said, adding that it was difficult to receive or send information in Burma. “Even in cities, the information infrastructure is limited and expensive, phones are tapped and e-mails are monitored. And the press is owned by the state.”

Rogers, deputy chairman of the human rights commission for the U.K.’s Conservative Party, said the Buddhist nationalist regime “distorts and perverts Buddhism for political purposes and is intolerant of non-Burman and non-Buddhist ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims.”

Of the 56 million people in Burma, around 89 percent are Buddhist, with only 4 percent Christian.

Given that the junta merely uses religion for political power, it doesn’t target Christians alone, Suangtak said.

“The junta has no respect for any religion, be it Christians or Buddhists, and anyone who opposes its rule is dealt with harshly.”

Burma was ruled by military regimes from 1962 to 1990; at that point the National League for Democracy party, led by Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won the parliamentary election. But the regime seized power again by imprisoning members of parliament after the election.

Rogers, who has co-authored a soon-to-be-published biography of SPDC chairman Senior General Than Shwe, said that while the armed groups are not perfect, they are essentially fighting to defend their people against a “brutal regime” and are “not in any way terrorists.”

“The armed groups have sometimes launched pre-emptive attacks on the military, but they have never attacked non-military targets and have never engaged in indiscriminate acts of violence,” he said. “Even the pre-emptive acts are conducted for defensive, rather than offensive, purposes.”

Rogers added that resistance groups were fighting to defend their people.

“Individual Christians who have joined the armed ethnic groups do so out of a perfectly biblical concept of just war, the right to defend your people from gross injustice.”

Added an FBR source, “In Burma, no one protects except the pro-democracy resistance groups, and all relief inside the country is only possible because of them.”

International Disrepute

The 2009 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states that Burma’s military junta had “one of the world’s worst human rights records.”

“Burma’s Christian populations face forced promotion of Buddhism and other hardships in ethnic minority areas where low-intensity conflict has been waged for decades,” the report states. “In addition, a new law passed in early 2009 essentially bans independent ‘house church’ religious venues, many of which operate because permission to build church buildings is regularly denied.”

The report also pointed out that in January 2009, authorities in Rangoon ordered at least 100 churches to stop holding services and forced them to sign pledges to that effect. Burma, which the ruling junta describes as “The Golden Land” on its official website, has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. Department of State since 1999.

Even after the 2010 election, little is expected to change.

The FBR source said the election was not likely to be free and fair, pointing out that the new constitution the junta adopted after an apparently rigged referendum in 2008 virtually enshrined military power.

“However, having an election is better than not having one at all,” the source said.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Two female Christian students of Fatima Memorial Hospital’s nursing school in the Pakistani city of Lahore, have been accused of desecrating verses of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, days after their Muslim roommates desecrated a picture of Jesus Christ which they had hung in a shared hostel room, reports Dan Wooding and Sheraz Khurram Khan, special to ASSIST News Service.

ANS has learnt that some days back the Muslim nursing students took a strong exception to the hanging of Jesus’ picture on the wall.

Islamic tradition explicitly prohibits images of Allah, Muhammad and all the major figures of the Christian and Jewish traditions.

Muslim students desecrated the picture by tearing it up and hurling it down after the Christian students refused to remove it voluntarily.

The administration of the Nursing School allegedly took no action against the Muslim students, who committed the alleged profanity.

Christian-Muslim tension among students of the nursing school escalated on Feb. 13 when the Muslim students, who still harbored acrimony against their Christian roommates, accused them of desecrating Quranic verses.

The National Director of Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), Mr. Joseph Francis, and Chief Coordinator of the Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan, Mr. Sohail Johnson, visited scene of the incident after a Christian woman Fouzia informed Sohail by phone about the incident on Saturday morning (Feb. 14).

Talking to ANS by phone, Mr. Sohail Johnson, pointed out a dichotomy between the versions of the Muslim Medical Superintendent, Ayesha Nouman, and the Christian hostel warden, Martha.

In an apparent bid to cover up the matter, Ayesha told the visiting activists that things had returned to normal and the Christian girls who were accused of blasphemy were at the hostel.

Martha, the Christian hostel warden, however, disputed her superior’s version, claiming that the Christian girls accused of blasphemy were not currently staying at the hostel, Sohail told ANS.

“She expressed ignorance about the whereabouts of the nursing students and would not speak any further on the subject for fear of getting into possible trouble herself,” said Sohail Johnson, whose ministry primarily works for Christian prisoners.

ANS further learnt that an “anti-blasphemy” demonstration was staged in front of Iqbal Avenue Hostel near Shaukat Khanum Cancer Memorial Hospital in Lahore on Feb. 13. The demonstrators included Muslim nursing students and people, who were not students of the Nursing School. The angry protesters demanded stringent legal action against the Christian nursing students, one of whom has been identified as Sitar.

Giving out statistics, Sohail said the Fatima Memorial Hospital Nursing School enrolled some 160 nursing students for year 2009.

“I regret that the two Christian students have to face blasphemy accusation. Of course, they managed to get enrolment at the nursing school after a cut-throat competition with Muslim students,” said Sohail Johnson. “The nursing school, Sohail said received some 1400 applications for 2009 session.”

In May 2007, four female Christian Nursing students of Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) in the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad, were accused of blasphemy. The blasphemy charges were dropped as the committee that was constituted to probe into the blasphemy allegations found the Christian girls innocent.

Sohail Johnson expressed concern over recent abuse of the law by educated people.

He stated, “One could see why ignorant or illiterate people could abuse the law but the misuse of the law by the educated people is a cause of serious concern and has made non-Muslims more vulnerable to the rampant abuse of the law.”

He hailed Christian nurses’ services in the medical sector.

“By implicating Christian nurses in blasphemy cases, it appears some elements want to discourage Christian women from entering medical sector,” he feared. He underscored the need for drawing up a strategy to deal with blasphemy complaints.

Asked how one could expect the police to exercise their duties in an impartial manner while handling blasphemy-accused or blasphemy-related complaints, the human rights activist suggested that workshops should be offered to them (Police) with a view to reform their attitude towards people accused of blasphemy.

“The police often play in the hands of the influential people that also include politicians,” alleged Sohail.

Asked how the international community could influence the Pakistan government to scrap laws perceived as discriminatory by minorities, Sohail Johnson said it could do a number of things. The concerned people, he said, could write letters to the ambassadors of Pakistan in their respective countries.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Previously beaten in a mosque, evangelist has faced opposition for more than a year.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, January 6 (Compass Direct News) – The torture and harassment that a Christian pastor in Meherpur district has faced for more than a year loomed anew last month when a 4,000-strong crowd of Muslims celebrating Islam’s largest festival accused him of “misleading” Muslims.

Jhontu Biswas, 31, said residents of Fulbaria town, 270 kilometers (168 miles) west of Dhaka, accused him of misleading Muslims by distributing Christian booklets. They confronted him en masse on Dec. 9 as they gathered for the Islamic Eid al-Adha festival of sacrifice.

“They also accused me of converting poor people by offering money,” said Biswas. “They called several local journalists in that massive assembly to publish news against me and my activities. They took my photograph and interviewed me but did not publish anything in their respective newspapers.”

Biswas denied the accusations against him, and the Muslims threatened to harm him and others who converted from Islam to Christianity, especially in the event of a hard-line Islamic government coming to power following Dec. 29 elections, he said.

“They said, ‘You will be in great trouble at that time,’” Biswas said.

Fortunately for Biswas, the left-leaning Awami League-led Grand Alliance won a landslide victory in the election, and it does not include Islamic fundamentalist parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami. Prior to Bangladesh’s national election on Dec. 29, the country was ruled for two years by an army-backed, caretaker government that imposed a countrywide state of emergency.

Had the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party coalition government including Jamaat-e-Islami come to power, area Christians said they would be in even greater danger.

“We hope that we can work our religious activities properly during the tenure of this government, and also hope that this government will ensure all of our constitutional rights regarding religious activities,” Biswas said.


Beaten in Mosque

The pastor has been under continuous pressure to give up his faith and not spread Christianity since he was baptized on Feb. 14, 2007, he said. He was in a meeting with members of his church on Dec. 31, 2007, he said, when police suddenly surrounded the building and dragged him out.

A drug peddler, a 36-year-old woman named Fulwara Begum, had left a bag full of illegal drugs behind his church in accordance with a plan hatched by area Muslims, he said. They informed police, and officers arrested him for drug possession and sale – but instead of taking him to the police station, they took him to a nearby mosque.

“It was a trick to arrest me and slander my reputation so that I cannot do evangelical activities here,” said Biswas. “They told me, ‘If you accept Islam after confessing to Christianity and ask forgiveness of Allah, we will not do anything against you and release you.’ They beat me with sticks in the mosque after my vehement denial to their proposal.”

Police called on a Muslim cleric to encourage Biswas to seek forgiveness for embracing Christianity.

The following day, Jan. 1, 2008, police sent him to Meherpur central jail on drug charges, but the jailer would not admit him because of his battered condition. Police took him to a nearby hospital, where he was treated for five to six hours. He was subsequently put into jail.

“Whenever I did not agree with them, police beat me inhumanely in the police station,” he said. “They tried to brainwash me into accepting Islam throughout almost the whole night. But I did not agree with them. Then they tortured me.”

After 20 days in jail, Biswas was released on bail.


Elderly Shop Owner Struck

On Aug. 16, Muslim extremists had vandalized a grocery store near Biswas’ church. The 78-year-old owner of the shop, Abdus Sobhan, told Compass that he was beaten and his shop was looted. They also hurled stones and bricks at the nearby church.

“My angry Muslim neighbors did it,” Sobhan said. “Around seven to eight people came on that night and vandalized the shop. I am a poor man. That shop was my only source of living. They demolished it and looted stuffs of around 30,000 taka [US$443].”

Area Muslims put a sign near the shop that designated it as that of a Christian and stating, “Do not buy anything from here.”

Sobhan went to police to file a case. Instead, officers asked him barrage of questions about why he became a Christian. Resigned, he left the police station.

The father of nine daughters and two sons, Sobhan said he became a Christian on Feb. 24, 2007 along with his wife.

The president of the Assembly of God church in southern Khulna division, Jonathan Litu Munshi, told Compass that Biswas was the first Christian in the area. Through him 200 to 230 people have received Christ as their redeemer in the predominantly Muslim area within the past year and a half.

“Local people filed a false case against him to torture him so that he does not continue his religious activities,” said Munshi. “Unfortunately a septuagenarian convert was also beaten in that area for his faith in Christ.”

The Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami is influencing the area residents, Christians said, adding that party workers have persuaded Muslims not to hire Christian converts, who are largely day-laborers eking out a living.  

Report from Compass Direct News


I have been saying it for some time now – both on and off this Blog – the Australian test cricket team is in decline and coming back to the field. The recent test series results against India, New Zealand and now South Africa seem to show that it is indeed so. It had to happen – just as it happened to the world dominating West Indian team of yesteryear. Teams rise to the top and come back to the mix as another rises to the top.

Which is the top team now? Is it South Africa or is it India? England pretended to make a claim for the top ranking a little while back, but these two teams seem far more serious in their respective attempts. A test series between these two teams will perhaps show us the answer.

In the mean time it is likely that South Africa will defeat Australia in the current test series in Australia to the tune of 3 – 0. That is my prediction.

The ridiculous inclusion of Andrew Symonds while injured in the last test match came home to bite Australia when Brett Lee went down injured. Lee now appears to be out injured for some time and will join Stuart Clark on the sidelines – as will Andrew Symonds belatedly. Shane Watson will also be on the sidelines and his inclusion in the last team is as bewildering as that of Symonds, given that Watson was also injured and requires surgery.

It seems incredible to me that the replacements coming into the Australian team are simply those replacing injured players. The inclusion of Doug Bollinger is one that I have thought logical for some time, while Ben Hilfenhaus and Andrew McDonald are unexpected in my view.

If the selectors are going to keep Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle (which I suspect is a given), then I would also include Bollinger and Hilfenhaus, as well as McDonald. Who would go to make room for these three? Lee and Symonds (as well as Watson) have already been forced out due to injury. I would put Hilfenhaus in ahead of Nathan Hauritz. We just don’t have a spinner that currently cuts it at international level.

The selection that really bothers me is that of keeping Matthew Hayden in the side – if the selectors don’t know that it is time for him to go then surely Matthew Hayden must know! Even if he scores a reasonable or big score in the final test it is time for Hayden to make way for Phillip Hughes. Hayden has done little to justify his continual selection in the test team for some time and it is now becoming a sad tragedy to see this former great test opener heap embarrassment upon himself and the national team with each failure. It seems any big scores are now punctuated by a plethora of insignificant contributions with the bat from Hayden.

And one other thing – the attempt by Mike Hussey to take that skier in the last test – if you can’t see it in the sun there is little he can do about it. It looked embarrassing but there was little Hussey could do to change what was. The bigger concern for Hussey is his own poor form in the batting department. He must begin to contribute more soon too or he also could face the chop.

BELOW: The Michael Hussey attempted catch

BELOW: Graeme Smith speaks to Mark Taylor after South Africa won the second test and the series


International pressure sought against mandatory death penalty for ‘apostates.’

LOS ANGELES, September 23 (Compass Direct News) – Without international pressure there is little to stop the Iranian government from ratifying a bill that will make “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, a capital crime, say human rights groups and experts.

On Sept. 9 the Iranian parliament approved a new penal code by a vote of 196-7 calling for a mandatory death sentence for apostates, or those who leave Islam. The Christian and Baha’i communities of Iran are most likely to be affected by this decision.

“Unless there is a coordinated and very strong effort from the international community to place pressure on Iran for this, I don’t think there will be anything stopping the Iranian government from passing this legislation,” Joseph Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, told Compass.

The bill still has to make its way through Iran’s policy-making process before it becomes law. Parliament is reviewing it article by article, after which it will be sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which will rule on it.

The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament. This body has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

In the case of the new penal code, however, which appears to be a return to a strict adherence of sharia (Islamic law), sources said they do not expect the Guardian Council to reject the penal code.

The timing of the debate on the penal code is not coincidental, said Grieboski. While the international community is focused on Iran’s nuclear activities, he said, the Iranian government appears to be taunting the West with deliberate human rights violations.

“Because of the nuclear issues, ones like these get put on the backburner, which means that the regime can move with great liberty to install legislation like this with impunity, because the nuclear issue gives them cover,” said Grieboski.

Iran has been criticized for its treatment of Baha’is, Zoroastrians and Christians, who have all suffered under the current regime.

“The Baha’is and the Christians are the ones being used as pawns by the regime in its dance with the West,” said Grieboski. “Iran is a human rights black hole in the middle of the world.”

A source told Compass that when he discussed the apostasy article in the penal code with some of the reformists in Iran’s parliament, they responded by saying they were not aware of the apostasy bill. The source argued that the Iranian government was trying to bury the apostasy article in the 113-page penal code.

“I am not sure there is an adequate means of underscoring how serious this law is in terms of violation of international law and a violation of the fundamental freedom of religion or belief,” said Kit Bigelow of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States.

She urged people to write their representatives in their respective governments.

International pressure is crucial if the apostasy bill is to be countered, agreed a Christian source. He recalled how in 2005 Christian convert Hamid Pourmand was acquitted of apostasy as a direct result of international pressure.

“I don’t know who you are, but apparently the rest of the world does,” the presiding judge had told Pourmand, according to media sources. “You must be an important person, because many people from government have called me, saying to cancel your case.”

The news of parliament approving the bill comes on the heels of two Christians being officially charged with apostasy this summer. Mahmood Matin Azad, 52, and Arash Basirat, 44, have been in prison since May 15 and now await their court date.

Although their future and that of other non-Muslims looks grim, some believe this bill is the act of a government desperately trying to hang onto power.

“I have to say the Iranian regime is tightening severely its control over as many aspects of the lives of Iranian people as they possibly can,” said Grieboski. “And that, I think, is the sign of a weakening regime.”

The original penal code was passed into law in 1991 and last amended in 1996.

Report from Compass Direct News