As responsible digital citizens, here’s how we can all reduce racism online



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No matter how innocent you think it is, what you type into search engines can shape how the internet behaves.
Hannah Wei / unsplash, CC BY

Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández, Queensland University of Technology

Have you ever considered that what you type into Google, or the ironic memes you laugh at on Facebook, might be building a more dangerous online environment?

Regulation of online spaces is starting to gather momentum, with governments, consumer groups, and even digital companies themselves calling for more control over what is posted and shared online.

Yet we often fail to recognise the role that you, me and all of us as ordinary citizens play in shaping the digital world.

The privilege of being online comes with rights and responsibilities, and we need to actively ask what kind of digital citizenship we want to encourage in Australia and beyond.




Read more:
How the use of emoji on Islamophobic Facebook pages amplifies racism


Beyond the knee-jerk

The Christchurch terror attack prompted policy change by governments in both New Zealand and Australia.

Australia recently passed a new law that will enforce penalties for social media platforms if they don’t remove violent content after it becomes available online.

Platforms may well be lagging behind in their content moderation responsibilities, and still need to do better in this regard. But this kind of “kneejerk” policy response won’t solve the spread of problematic content on social media.

Addressing hate online requires coordinated efforts. Platforms must improve the enforcement of their rules (not just announce tougher measures) to guarantee users’ safety. They may also reconsider a serious redesign, because the way they currently organise, select, and recommend information often amplifies systemic problems in society like racism.




Read more:
New livestreaming legislation fails to take into account how the internet actually works


Discrimination is entrenched

Of course, biased beliefs and content don’t just live online.

In Australia, racial discrimination has been perpetuated in public policy, and the country has an unreconciled history of Indigenous dispossession and oppression.

Today, Australia’s political mainstream is still lenient with bigots, and the media often contributes to fearmongering about immigration.

However, we can all play a part in reducing harm online.

There are three aspects we might reconsider when interacting online so as to deny oxygen to racist ideologies:

  • a better understanding of how platforms work
  • the development of empathy to identify differences in interpretation when engaging with media (rather than focusing on intent)
  • working towards a more productive anti-racism online.

Online lurkers and the amplification of harm

White supremacists and other reactionary pundits seek attention on mainstream and social media. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refused to name the Christchurch gunman to prevent fuelling his desired notoriety, and so did some media outlets.

The rest of us might draw comfort from not having contributed to amplifying the Christchurch attacker’s desired fame. It’s likely we didn’t watch his video or read his manifesto, let alone upload or share this content on social media.

But what about apparently less harmful practices, such as searching on Google and social media sites for keywords related to the gunman’s manifesto or his live video?

It’s not the intent behind these practices that should be the focus of this debate, but the consequences of it. Our everyday interactions on platforms influence search autocomplete algorithms and the hierarchical organisation and recommendation of information.

In the Christchurch tragedy, even if we didn’t share or upload the manifesto or the video, the zeal to access this information drove traffic to problematic content and amplified harm for the Muslim community.

Normalisation of hate through seemingly lighthearted humour

Reactionary groups know how to capitalise on memes and other jokey content that degrades and dehumanises.

By using irony to deny the racism in these jokes, these far-right groups connect and immerse new members in an online culture that deliberately uses memetic media to have fun at the expense of others.

The Christchurch terrorist attack showed this connection between online irony and the radicalisation of white men.

However, humour, irony and play – which are protected on platform policies – serve to cloak racism in more mundane and everyday contexts.




Read more:
Racism in a networked world: how groups and individuals spread racist hate online


Just as everyday racism shares discourses and vocabularies with white supremacy, lighthearted racist and sexist jokes are as harmful as online fascist irony.

Humour and satire should not be hiding places for ignorance and bigotry. As digital citizens we should be more careful about what kind of jokes we engage with and laugh at on social media.

What’s harmful and what’s a joke might not be apparent when interpreting content from a limited worldview. The development of empathy to others’ interpretations of the same content is a useful skill to minimise the amplification of racist ideologies online.

As scholar danah boyd argues:

The goal is to understand the multiple ways of making sense of the world and use that to interpret media.

Effective anti-racism on social media

A common practice in challenging racism on social media is to publicly call it out, and show support for those who are victims of it. But critics of social media’s callout culture and solidarity sustain that these tactics often do not work as an effective anti-racism tool, as they are performative rather than having an advocacy effect.

An alternative is to channel outrage into more productive forms of anti-racism. For example, you can report hateful online content either individually or through organisations that are already working on these issues, such as The Online Hate Prevention Institute and the Islamophobia Register Australia.

Most major social media platforms struggle to understand how hate articulates in non-US contexts. Reporting content can help platforms understand culturally specific coded words, expressions, and jokes (most of which are mediated through visual media) that moderators might not understand and algorithms can’t identify.

As digital citizens we can work together to deny attention to those that seek to discriminate and inflict harm online.

We can also learn how our everyday interactions might have unintended consequences and actually amplify hate.

However, these ideas do not diminish the responsibility of platforms to protect users, nor do they negate the role of governments to find effective ways to regulate platforms in collaboration and consultation with civil society and industry.The Conversation

Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández, Lecturer in Digital Media at the School of Communication, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Why the media needs to be more responsible for how it links Islam and Islamist terrorism



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Muslim protesters in India marching against the Islamic State after the 2015 terror attacks in Paris.
Divyakant Solanki/EPA

Audrey Courty, Griffith University and h.rane@griffith.edu.au, Griffith University

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US, Islam has become central to debates about social cohesion and national security in Australia.

Restrictions on Muslim immigration have been openly discussed – most recently by Senator Fraser Anning in his maiden speech to parliament – and many believe another terrorist attack in the name of “Islam” is inevitable.

Confronted with this reality, the media are playing an essential role in informing us about Islam and influencing how we respond. But, perhaps due to a limited understanding of Islam or a fear of antagonising Muslims, a fundamental point has largely been absent from reporting: the threat of terrorism does not stem from Islam. Rather, it stems from Islamism, a political ideology.

The two terms may sound similar, but Islam and Islamism are not the same thing. Islam is a faith observed by over 1.6 billion people, whereas Islamism is the political ideology of relatively small groups that borrow concepts like shariah and jihad from Islam and reinterpret them to gain legitimacy for their political goals.

How the media legitimises the aims of terrorists

Islamist groups like al Qaida and the Islamic State use violence against non-Muslims with the aim of establishing a political institution (“caliphate”) based on shariah law – neither of which have a basis in the Quran or hadith (Islamic prophetic traditions).

Part of the appeal of the Islamic State comes from its insidious ability to selectively use Islamic teachings and repackage them as legitimate religious obligations.

In particular, Islamists have appropriated the concept of jihad to legitimise an offensive “holy war” against non-Muslims. This interpretation, however, has been rejected by studies that have examined the Quran’s principles concerning war and peace.




Read more:
Defeated in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State is rebuilding in countries like Indonesia


Islamic teachings, for instance, prohibit terrorism and the use of violence against civilians. Further, Muslim leaders and scholars around the world have repeatedly condemned terrorism, issuing fatwas (Islamic legal rulings).

By reporting on this misleading interpretation of jihad and under-reporting Muslim condemnations, the Western news media reinforce the perceived connection between Islam and terrorism.

In some cases, media pundits explicitly make this link, pointing to the fact terrorists specifically refer to “Islam” as the basis for their actions.

This uncritical acceptance of terrorists’ claims and misrepresenting of Islam legitimises and unwittingly promotes the Islamist agenda.

In other words, the media plays into the hands of terrorists by allowing them to become the representatives for Islam and Muslims in general.

Islamic State recruiting tool

Islamist terrorists have a strategic interest in propagating the belief that Islam and the West are engaged in a civilisational war.

As the Islamic State outlined in its online magazine in February 2015:

Muslims in the West will soon find themselves between one of two choices.

The group explained that, as the threat of further terrorist attacks looms, Western Muslims will be treated with increased suspicion and distrust, forcing them to:

…either apostatize [convert] … or [migrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens.

The Islamic State’s divide-and-conquer strategy is crucial to its ability to replenish its ranks with foreign recruits. The group targets disaffected and marginalised Western Muslims and invokes an Islamist narrative with promises of brotherhood, security and belonging.

In turn, the Western news media indirectly advance the group’s interests by repeatedly linking Muslim communities to terrorism and failing to meaningfully distinguish the Islamic faith from Islamist political ideology.




Read more:
Explainer: ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State or Da’esh?


For example, as the first wave of Syrian refugees arrived in the UK in 2015, The Daily Mail warned of “the deadly threat of Britain’s enemy within” and associated refugees with the threat of “Muslim extremists”.

In the midst of the 2014 Sydney siege, The Daily Telegraph prematurely linked the Muslim hostage-taker with the Islamic State – a claim that was later dispelled by terrorism experts.

The impact of careless reporting

This kind of overly simplistic and sensationalist media coverage serves the Islamic State’s objective to pit Muslims and non-Muslims against one another.

As a study conducted at the University of Vienna in 2017 confirmed, media coverage that does not explicitly distinguish between Muslims and Islamist terrorists fuels hostile attitudes toward the general Muslim population.




Read more:
Islamic State wants Australians to attack Muslims: terror expert


With growing awareness of the impact this kind of reporting, some media outlets like CNN have tried to distinguish between “moderate Islam” and “radical Islam”, “Islam” and “Islamic extremism”. But this, too, is misleading because it focuses on presumed religious motivations and overlooks the central role of Islamist political ideology.

A survey of almost 1,200 foreigner fighters by the Combating Terrorism Center revealed that over 85% had no formal religious education and were not lifelong, strict adherents to Islam. The report suggests the Islamic State may prefer such recruits because they are:

less capable of critically scrutinising the jihadi narrative and ideology.

Islamism masquerades as religion, but is much more a post-colonial expression of political grievances than a manifestation of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings. While the establishment of a caliphate or shariah-based order is the expressed agenda of Islamist terrorists, this is not a religious obligation for Muslims.

And it is not an assault on Islam for non-Muslims to say so.

Political correctness, or a more nuanced discussion?

In an effort to strip the Islamic State of its legitimacy, some governments have advised news outlets in the UK and France to use the derogatory acronym “Da’esh” to refer to the group, although this is not always practised.

Malcolm Turnbull, also adopted the term “Islamist terrorism” in order to differentiate between those subscribing to the Islamist ideology and Muslim communities.

But many politicians, such as Donald Trump continue to blur the distinction by using rhetoric like “radical Islamic terrorism” instead.

Some argue that our “political correctness” inhibits us from tackling the problem head on.

But those who say the problem stems from Islam are are mistaken. We should be able to have a constructive conversation about the central concepts of Islam, including whether establishing a “caliphate” and committing violence against non-Muslims are indeed religious obligations or have legitimacy in Islam.

Given the extent to which concerns about Islam have impacted on our society, there is an ethical obligation to differentiate between Islam and Islamism – or at least present a counter to the Islamist perspective.The Conversation

Audrey Courty, PhD candidate, School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, Griffith University and h.rane@griffith.edu.au, , Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nigeria: Persecution News Update


The link below is to an article reporting on the arrest of a top Boko Haram commander in Nigeria. Boko Haram have been responsible for much of the persecution against Christians in that country.

For more visit:
http://www.ngrguardiannews.com/index.php/national-news/127486-jtf-vigilance-group-arrest-top-boko-haram-commander

Article: Social Apps Can Lead to Rape


The link below is to an article about a recent debate in which Newspepper.com founder Hermione Way claimed that social apps are responsible for some rapes that have occurred. A social app CEO responded with ‘more people have been harmed by the Catholic Church.’ Now that is difficult logic to argue against.

For more visit:
http://gigaom.com/2012/06/18/panelists-social-apps-can-lead-to-rape-catholic-church-worse-that-facebook/.

Pakistani Christian Falsely Accused of ‘Blasphemy’ Illegally Detained


Policeman says Arif Masih, held at an undisclosed location, is innocent.

LAHORE, Pakistan, April 15 (CDN) — Police in Punjab Province, Pakistan have illegally detained a Christian on a “blasphemy” accusation, even though one officer said he was certain an area Muslim falsely accused 40-year-old Arif Masih because of a property dispute.

On April 5 Shahid Yousuf Bajwa, Masih’s next-door neighbor, initially filed a First Information Report (FIR) against “an unidentified person” for desecrating the Quran after finding threatening letters and pages with quranic verses on the street outside his home in Village 129 RB-Tibbi, Chak Jhumra, Faisalabad district. Desecrating the Quran under Section 295-B of Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

“Some identified person has desecrated the Holy Quran and has tried to incite sentiments of the Muslims,” Bajwa wrote in the FIR. Clearly stating that he did not know who had done it, he wrote, “It is my humble submission to the higher authorities that those found guilty must be given exemplary punishment.”

Bajwa charges in the FIR that when he went outside his home at 9 p.m. and found the pages, he looked at them by the light of his cell phone and thought they were pages of the Quran. Masih’s uncle, Amjad Chaudhry, told Compass the pages look like those of a school textbook containing quranic verses.

Chaudhry said Bajwa and his two brothers are policemen. After Bajwa found the pages and the threatening letters, Chaudhry said, he arranged for an announcement to be made from the loudspeaker of the area mosque.

“The message urged all the Muslims of the village to gather there due to the urgency and sensitivity of the matter,” Chaudhry said.

He said initially local Muslims were very angry and suggested that Christian homes be set ablaze, but that others said the Christians should be first given a chance to explain whether they were responsible.

“Then some Muslims began saying that because Arif Masih lived on this street, he would be the person who could have done this crime,” he said. “However, most of the people who gathered there said that they knew Arif Masih well and they could not imagine he could do such a vile thing. But others insisted that because Masih was the only Christian who lived on the street, only he could be suspected of the crime.”

At about 10 p.m. on April 5, Chaudhry said, Bajwa’s brother Abdullah Bajwa called Masih to the Siyanwala police station, where he was arrested; Masih’s family members were unaware that he had been arrested.

According to Section 61 of Pakistan’s Criminal Procedure Code, an arrested person must be produced within 24 hours before a court; Masih has been detained at an undisclosed location without a court appearance since April 5, with police failing to register his arrest in any legal document, making his detention illegal. Investigating Officer Qaisar Younus denied that Masih was in police custody, but Superintendent of the Police Abdul Qadir told Compass that Masih had been detained for his own safety.

Younus told Compass that he was sure Masih was innocent, but that he had been falsely accused because of a land dispute.

 

Property Conflict

According to Chaudhry, about two years ago Masih bought a plot next to his house that another villager, Liaquat Ali Bajwa (no relation to Shahid Yousuf Bajwa) wanted to buy – and who despised Masih for it, telling the previous owner, “How come a Christian can buy the plot that I wanted to buy?”

The parcel owner had given Masih preference as he knew him well, and he understood that the homeowner adjacent to the property had the first rights to it anyway.

At the same time, Ali Bajwa was able to seize about five square feet of the house of a Christian named Ghulam Masih after the wall of his home was destroyed in last year’s flooding. Feeling he was not in position to challenge Ali Bajwa, Ghulam Masih sold the land to Arif Masih so that he could take charge, Chaudhry said.

Arif Masih subsequently filed a civil suit against Ali Bajwa to evict him from his property. Chaudhry said Arif Masih was about to win that case, and that Ali Bajwa thought he could retain that property and obtain the one Arif Masih had purchased by accusing him of blasphemy with the help of police officer Shahid Yousuf Bajwa.

Ali Bajwa had been threatening Masih, saying, “You will not only give me this plot, but I will even take your house,” Chaudhry said.

Chaudhry said he had learned that Shahid Yousuf Bajwa felt badly after villagers criticized him for falsely accusing an innocent man of blasphemy, but that Bajwa feared that if he withdrew the case he himself would be open to blasphemy charges.

 

Neighbors

Arif Masih’s family has remained steadfast throughout the case, refusing to flee the area in spite of the possibility of Muslim villagers being incited to attack them, Chaudhry said.

“It all became possible because of Muslim villagers who sided with us,” he said.

Chaudhry said that when police arrived at the scene of the Muslims who had gathered with the pages and the threatening letters, the villagers told officers that they had not seen who threw them on the street. He said that the letters included the threat, “You Muslims have failed in doing any harm to us, and now I order you all to convert to Christianity or else I will shoot you all.”

The letters did not bear the name of the person who wrote them, he added.

On Monday (April 11), Chaudhry managed to meet with Masih, though Masih’s wife has yet to see him. Chaudhry told Compass that the first thing Masih asked him was whether everyone was safe, as there are only three Christian families in the area of about 150 Muslim homes.

“If the mob had decided to harm our houses, then it would have been very devastating,” Chaudhry said.

After Masih was arrested, at midnight police came to his house and began beating on the main gate, Chaudhry said. When Masih’s wife, Razia Bibi opened the door, the officers rushed into the house and searched it.

“They were looking for some proof, but thank God they could not find anything that could even be remotely linked with the incident,” he said.

Chaudhry added that police have not mistreated Masih, but he said the matter has lingered so long that he feared police may involve him in the case, or that “things may go wrong like in most blasphemy cases.”

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Links between Murders in Turkey and ‘Masterminds’ Expected


Witnesses previously barred will be allowed to testify.

ISTANBUL, December 20 (CDN) — Attorneys prosecuting the murder of three Christians in southeastern Turkey are making progress linking the knifemen who slayed them to the masterminds who put them up to it, an attorney representing the family of one of the victims said Friday (Dec.17).

Two witnesses, Veysel Şahin and Ercan Gelni – whose testimony the court previously blocked – will be allowed to testify about the plans behind the killings in Malatya. The judge changed his previous ruling blocking their testimonies because of new evidence that recently became available.

The court will also protect a witness whose testimony would have possibly put him in danger. The latest court hearing was on Dec. 3.

On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya.

The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin.

 

Establishing Links

Prosecutors have contended that the killings were related to a larger conspiracy by the military and nationalists to destabilize the government by targeting minorities in Turkish society.

“The people responsible are not just confined to the young men caught at the crime scene,” said Orhan Cengiz, one of the attorneys representing the interests of the victim’s families in the case. “Everybody knows the youngsters have connections [to the nationalists].”

The new decision shows the court’s “willingness” to look into possible links between the killers and the gendarmerie, a special police force in Turkey that deals with internal security issues and is allegedly a key player in the destabilization plot, Cengiz said.

Suzanne Geske, widow of Tilmann Geske, said she wants the Malatya murder trial linked with the trial over the Cage Operation Action Plan, believed to be part of the Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.

“I want the Zirve Publishing House killings to be merged with the case into the Cage Operation Action Plan,” Geske told Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman. “I do not believe that those young men could have carried out the murders on their own. Some de facto links are evident. There are other influences behind these murders.”

Ergenekon is an alleged “deep state” operation referring to a group of retired generals, politicians and other key figures thought by some to be the true power brokers in Turkey.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found a year ago in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

Newspapers have reported that the Cage Plan, aimed at Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities, not only contained a list of names of Protestant Christians who would be targeted, but also named some of their children.

“I believe that there is an ulterior motive behind the killings,” Geske reportedly said. “This may be linked to Ergenekon or another criminal group. I believe that the young men who carried out the murders were directed by criminal elements. I want those criminal elements to be exposed. Otherwise, the lives of those young men will be wasted while the real criminals will go unpunished.”

The next Malatya hearing is scheduled for Jan. 20.

Report from Compass Direct News

Islamic Extremists Held for Church Blast in Bangladesh


Police believe militants from banned groups responsible for 2001 bombing that killed 10.

LOS ANGELES, December 11 (CDN) — Police in Bangladesh said they believe at least two Islamic extremists are responsible for a bomb blast in a Catholic church building that killed 10 young Christians and maimed dozens of others in 2001.

After a district court remanded the two extremists of the banned Harkat-ul-Jihad Al-Islami (HuJi) group, including its chief leader, to police for seven days on Dec. 7, Police Inspector Sheikh Mohammad Akhteruzzaman of the Criminal Investigation Department told Compass that they believe the militants are responsible for the long-unresolved case.

“We took Mufti Abdul Hannan and Arif Hassan Sumon on remand for interrogation for three days in the middle of November, and we found their involvement in the bombing inside the church,” Akhteruzzaman said. “We took them again on remand on Dec. 7 for seven days to verify their previous information found after interrogation. If the previous information matches this time’s interrogation, then we can be sure that they were involved in the bombing inside the church.”

A total of 14 Islamic extremists are suspected in the bombing, including three from the banned militant group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh and 11 from the HuJi.

The blast took place as about 70 Christians attended Sunday mass on June 3, 2001 in Baniarchar village in Gopalganj district, some 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of the capital, Dhaka.

Initial police reports suggested that the blast might have been the result of a dispute between two Christian groups in the area.

“The bomb blast did not happen because of any internal feud of church members that was previously suspected,” Akhteruzzaman said. “The magnitude of the blast indicates different motives. Apparently, it seems that they found Christians as their enemy for whatever they were doing against Islam. But the exact motive will come out soon.”

The late archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Bangladesh, Michael Rosario, had said after the blast that there was no report of any communal tension in that area.

The initial investigation faltered under the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led Islamic alliance in power from 2001 to 2006 but was revived after a landslide victory of the Awami League-led Grand Alliance government in December 2008. The chief priest of Baniarchar Catholic Church, the Rev. Jacob Gobbi, had urged the new administration to revisit the case.

The left-leaning Awami League-led government does not include Islamic fundamentalist parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami. Prior to the election, the country was ruled for two years by an army-backed, caretaker government that imposed a countrywide state of emergency.

Christians account for less than 1 percent of Bangladesh’s 164.4 million people, according to Operation World, but Baniarchar has a large number of Christian residents. Muslims make up nearly 90 percent of Bangladesh’s population, with Hinduism the second largest religious affiliation at 9.2 percent of the people.

The Bangladesh government banned HuJi and its activities in Bangladesh in 2005. An international Islamic militant group, HuJi’s Bangladesh chapter had been involved in carrying out terrorist activities in Bangladesh for more than five years.

It was responsible for several major bomb attacks, as well as assassination attempts in 2004 on leading intellectuals and on then-Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, who was ushered back into office in December 2008. An intelligence report in October 2003 had strongly recommended that HuJi be banned.

The Bangladesh chapter of HuJi was established in 1992 with an aim toward establishing Islamic rule in the country.

Report from Compass Direct News

Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election


Military hostilities against insurgents may result in Christian casualties and persecution.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, October 22 (CDN) — With Burma’s first election in over 20 years just two weeks away, Christians in ethnic minority states fear that afterward the military regime will try to “cleanse” the areas of Christianity, sources said.

The Burmese junta is showing restraint to woo voters in favor of its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but it is expected to launch a military offensive on insurgents in ethnic minority states after the Nov. 7 election, Burma watchers warned.

When Burma Army personnel attack, they do not discriminate between insurgents and unarmed residents, said a representative of the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers relief aid group in Chiang Mai, close to the Thai-Burma border. There is a large Christian population in Burma’s Kachin, Karen and Karenni states along the border that falls under the military’s target zone. Most of the slightly more than 2 million Christians in Burma (also called Myanmar) reside along the country’s border with Thailand, China and India.

The military seems to be preparing its air force for an offensive, said Aung Zaw, editor of the Chiang Mai-based magazine Irrawaddy, which covers Burma. The Burmese Air Force (BAF) bought 50 Mi-24 helicopters and 12 Mi-2 armored transport helicopters from Russia in September, added Zaw, a Buddhist.

Irrawaddy reported that the BAF had procured combat-equipped helicopters for the first time in its history. Air strikes will be conducted “most likely in Burma’s ethnic areas, where dozens of armed groups still exert control,” the magazine reported, quoting BAF sources.

“Armed conflicts between ethnic armies and the military can flare up any time,” said Zaw. “However, to boost the morale of its personnel, the military is expected to attack smaller ethnic groups first, and then the more powerful ones.”

Seven states of Burma have armed and unarmed groups demanding independence or autonomy from the regime: Shan, Karenni (also known as Kayah), Karen, Mon, Chin, Kachin, and Arakan (also Rakhine).

The junta has designated many areas in this region as “Black Zones” – entirely controlled by armed ethnic groups – and “Brown Zones,” where the military has partial control, said the source from FBR, which provides relief to internally displaced people in states across the Thai-Burma border.

“There are many unarmed Christian residents in these zones where Burmese military personnel attack and kill anyone on sight,” the source said.

A Karen state native in Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph, who fled Burma as a child, referred to the junta’s clandestine campaign to wipe out Christians from the country. At least four years ago a secret memo circulated in Karen state, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” that carried “point by point instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state,” reported the British daily Telegraph on Jan. 21, 2007.

“The text, which opens with the line, ‘There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced,’ calls for anyone caught evangelizing to be imprisoned,” the Telegraph reported. “It advises: ‘The Christian religion is very gentle – identify and utilize its weakness.’”

Persecution of Christians in Burma “is part of a wider campaign by the regime, also targeted at ethnic minority tribes, to create a uniform society in which the race and language is Burmese and the only accepted religion is Buddhism,” the daily noted.

The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the FBR. Three months ago, Burma Army’s Light Infantry Battalions 370 and 361 attacked a Christian village in Karen state, according to the FBR. In Tha Dah Der village on July 23, army personnel burned all houses, one of the state’s biggest churches – which was also a school – and all livestock and cattle, reported the FBR.

More than 900 people fled to save their lives.

 

Vague Religious Freedom

The Burmese regime projects that close to 70 percent of the country’s population is ethnic Burman. Ethnic minorities dispute the claim, saying the figure is inflated to make a case for Burman Buddhist nationalism.

The new constitution, which will come into force with the first session of parliament after the election, was passed through a referendum in May 2008 that was allegedly rigged. It provides for religious freedom but also empowers the military to curb it under various pretexts.

Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 360 (a), however, says this freedom “shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice,” apparently to bar religious groups from any lobbying or advocacy.

Further, Article 360 (b) goes on to say that the freedom “shall not debar the Union from enacting law for the purpose of public welfare and reform.”

Adds Article 364: “The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.”

Furthermore, Article 382 empowers “the Defense Forces personnel or members of the armed forces responsible to carry out peace and security” to “restrict or revoke” fundamental rights.

The Burmese junta is expected to remain at the helm of affairs after the election. The 2008 constitution reserves one-fourth of all seats in national as well as regional assemblies for military personnel.

A majority of people in Burma are not happy with the military’s USDP party, and military generals are expected to twist the results in its favor, said Htet Aung, chief election reporter at Irrawaddy.

Khonumtung News Group, an independent Burmese agency, reported on Oct. 2 that most educated young Burmese from Chin state were “disgusted” with the planned election, “which they believe to be a sham and not likely to be free and fair.”

They “are crossing the border to Mizoram in the northeast state of India from Chin state and Sagaing division to avoid participating,” Khonumtung reported. “On a regular basis at least five to 10 youths are crossing the border daily to avoid voting. If they stay in Burma, they will be coerced to cast votes.”

There is “utter confusion” among people, and they do not know if they should vote or not, said Aung of Irrawaddy. While the second largest party, the National Unity Party, is pro-military, there are few pro-democracy and ethnic minority parties.

“Many of the pro-democracy and ethnic minority candidates have little or no experience in politics,” Aung said. “All those who had some experience have been in jail as political prisoners for years.”

In some ethnic minority states, the USDP might face an embarrassing defeat. And this can deepen the military’s hostility towards minorities, including Christians, after the election, added Aung.

For now, an uneasy calm prevails in the Thai-Burma border region where most ethnic Christians live.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians in Turkey Acquitted of ‘Insulting Turkishness’


But court heavily fines them for dubious conviction of collecting personal data.

ISTANBUL, October 19 (CDN) — After four years of legal battle in a Turkish court, a judge acquitted two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge.

Four years ago this month, Turan Topal, 50, and Hakan Tastan, 41, started a legal battle after gendarmerie officers produced false witnesses to accuse them of spreading their faith and allegedly “insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.”

At the Silivri court an hour west of Istanbul, Judge Hayrettin Sevim on Thursday (Oct. 14) acquitted the defendants of two charges that they had insulted the Turkish state (Article 301) and that they had insulted its people (Article 216) by spreading Christianity. Sevim cited lack of evidence.

He found them guilty, however, of collecting information on citizens without permission (Article 135) and sentenced them to seven months of imprisonment each. The court ruled that the two men could each pay a 4,500 lira (US$3,170) fine instead of serving time, said their lawyer Haydar Polat.

Tastan expressed mixed feelings about the verdicts.

“For both Turan and I, being found innocent from the accusation that we insulted the Turkish people was the most important thing for us, because we’ve always said we’re proud to be Turks,” Tastan said by telephone. “But it is unjust that they are sentencing us for collecting people’s information.”

At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which has since acquired official association status and is now called The Association for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible. The two men had used contact information that individuals interested in Christianity had volunteered to provide on the association’s website.

Administrators of the association stated openly to local authorities that their goal was to disseminate information about Christianity.

The two men and their lawyer said they will be ready to appeal the unjust decision of the court when they have seen the official statement, which the court should issue within a month. Polat said the appeal process will take over a year.

“Why should we have to continue the legal battle and appeal this?” asked Tastan. “We are not responsible for the information that was collected. So why are they fining us for this? So, we continue our legal adventure.”

Still, he expressed qualified happiness.

“We are free from the charges that we have insulted the Turkish state and the people of Turkey and we’re glad for that, but we are sorry about the court’s sentence,” Tastan said. “We’re happy on one hand, and sorry on the other.”

The court hearing lasted just a few minutes, said Polat.

“The judges came to the court hearing ready with their decision,” Polat said. “Their file was complete, and there was neither other evidence nor witnesses.”

Polat was hesitant to comment on whether the decision to convict the men of collecting private data without permission was because they are Christians. He did underline, however, that the court’s decision to fine the men was unjust, and that they plan to appeal it after the court issues an official written verdict.

“This was the court’s decision,” said Polat, “but we believe this is not fair. This decision is inconsistent with the law.”

 

Christianity on Trial

The initial charges in 2006 against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that some Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and making insults against Turkishness, the military and Islam.

In March 2009 the Turkish Ministry of Justice issued a statement claiming that approval to try the two men’s case under the controversial Article 301came in response to the “original” statement by three young men that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Two of the three witnesses, however, stated in court that they didn’t even know Topal and Tastan. The third witness never appeared in court. Prosecutors were unable to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms. At the same time, they questioned their right to speak openly about Christianity with others.

Polat and his legal partners had based their defense on the premise that Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” Polat told Compass last year. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking, it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”

The lawyer and the defendants said that prosecuting lawyers gave political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light, claiming that missionary activities were carried out by imperialistic countries intending to harm Turkey.

Tastan and Topal became Christians more than 15 years ago and changed their religious identity from Muslim to Christian on their official ID cards.

Initially accompanied by heavy media hype, the case had been led by ultranationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz and a team of six other lawyers. Kerincsiz had filed or inspired dozens of Article 301 court cases against writers and intellectuals he accused of insulting the Turkish nation and Islam.

Because of Kerincsiz’s high-level national profile, the first few hearings drew several hundred young nationalist protestors surrounding the Silivri courthouse, under the eye of dozens of armed police. But the case has attracted almost no press attention since Kerincsiz was jailed in January 2008 as a suspect in the overarching conspiracy trials over Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals, politicians and other key figures. The lawyer is accused of an active role in the alleged Ergenekon plot to discredit and overthrow Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government.

Ergenekon has been implicated in the cases of murdered priest Andreas Santoro, Armenian editor Hrant Dink, and the three Christians in Malatya: Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and Tilmann Geske.

In a separate case, in March of 2009 Tastan and Topal were charged with “illegal collection of funds.” Each paid a fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in Istanbul. The verdict could not be appealed in the Turkish legal courts. This ruling referred to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local authorities.

Report from Compass Direct News