BURMA: REPORT DOCUMENTS ABUSE OF CHIN CHRISTIANS


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

‘Campaign of Ethnocide’

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

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

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

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

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

 

Enticement to Convert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Religious Policy Elsewhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News

ERITREA: CHRISTIAN DEATHS MOUNT IN PRISONS


Three more believers die in military confinement centers in past four months.

LOS ANGELES, January 21 (Compass Direct News) – Three Christians incarcerated in military prisons for their faith have died in the past four months in Eritrea, including the death on Friday (Jan. 16) of a 42-year-old man in solitary confinement, according to a Christian support organization.

Sources told Open Doors that Mehari Gebreneguse Asgedom died at the Mitire Military Confinement center from torture and complications from diabetes. Asgedom was a member of the Church of the Living God in Mendefera.

His death followed the revelation this month of another death in the same prison. Mogos Hagos Kiflom, 37, was said to have died as a result of torture he endured for refusing to recant his faith, according to Open Doors, but the exact date of his death was unknown. A member of Rhema Church, Kiflom is survived by his wife, child and mother.

Incarcerated Christians from throughout Eritrea have been transferred to the Mitire prison in the country’s northeast. In 2002 the Eritrean regime outlawed religious activity except that of the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim religions.

In October Open Doors learned of the death of Teklesenbet Gebreab Kiflom, 36, who died while imprisoned for his faith at the Wi’a Military Confinement center. He was reported to have died after prison commanders refused to give him medical attention for malaria.

In June 2008, 37-year-old Azib Simon died from untreated malaria as well. Weakened by torture, sources told Compass, Simon contracted malaria only a week before she died.

Together with the deaths this month, the confirmed number of Christians who have died while imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea now totals eight.

 

Mass Arrests

At the same time, the government of President Isaias Afwerki has stepped up its campaign against churches it has outlawed, earning it a spot on the U.S. Department of State’s list of worst violators of religious freedom.

The government arrested 15 members of the Kale-Hiwot Church in Keren on Jan. 11, and before Christmas at least 49 leaders of unregistered churches in Asmara were rounded up over two weeks, Open Doors reported. Last November, 34 members of the Kale-Hiwot Church in Dekemhare were arrested.

Those arrested included members of the Church of the Living God, Medhaniel Alem Revival Group and the Philadelphia, Kale-Hiwot, Rhema, Full Gospel and Salvation by Christ churches, according to Open Doors. The church leaders’ names appeared on a government list of 180 people who were taken from their homes and work places.

In the November sweep, authorities arrested 65 members of the Kale-Hiwot Church in the towns of Barentu and Dekemhare, including 17 women. In Keren and Mendefera, 25 members of the Full Gospel Church were arrested, and 20 Christians belonging to the Church of the Living God in Mendefera and Adi-Kuala were arrested.

Church leaders in Eritrea told Open Doors that by mid-December, a total of 2,891 Christians, including 101 women, had been incarcerated for their faith.

On June 8, 2008 Compass learned that eight Christians held at the Adi-Quala prison were taken to medical emergency facilities as a result of torture by military personnel at the camp. Eritrean officials have routinely denied religious oppression exists in the country, saying the government is only enforcing laws against unregistered churches.

The government has denied all efforts by independent Protestant churches to register, and people caught worshipping outside the four recognized religious institutions, even in private homes, suffer arrest, torture and severe pressure to deny their faith. The Eritrean Orthodox Church and its flourishing renewal movement has also been subject to government raids.  

Report from Compass Direct News

COMOROS: CHRISTIANS OPPRESSED ON INDIAN OCEAN ISLANDS


Muslim rule on isles east of Africa effectively criminalizes faith in Christ.

ZANZIBAR, Tanzania, Dec. 5 (Compass Direct News) – Christians on the predominantly Muslim islands of Pemba and the Comoros archipelago are beaten, detained and banished for their faith, according to church leaders who travel regularly to the Indian Ocean isles off the east coast of Africa.

These violations of religious freedom, the church leaders said, threaten the survival of Christianity on Pemba and the Comoros, with fewer than 300 Christians in a combined population of 1.1 million people. Pemba, with about 300,000 people, is part of Tanzania, while the Union of the Comoros is a nation unto itself of about 800,000.

Leaving Islam for Christianity accounts for most of the harm done to Christians, and this year saw an increase in such abuse as already-strained relations between the two communities deteriorated after the conversion in August of Sheikh Hijah Mohammed, leader of a key mosque in Chake-Chake, capital of Pemba.

News of Mohammed’s conversion spread, and zealous Muslims began hunting for him as leaving Islam warrants death under sharia (Islamic law). An Assemblies of God Church in Pemba swiftly moved him to a hideout in the village of Chuini, 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the airport.

Word of the hideout eventually leaked to Muslims, however, forcing the church to move Mohammed to an undisclosed destination. This time, church elders never revealed where they had taken him. Compass was not given access to him.

A Christian from the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar who recently visited the Comoros said those suspected to have converted from Islam to Christianity face travel restrictions and confiscation of travel documents. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he noted that security officers who had been monitoring the ministries of a 25-year-old Christian confiscated his passport at the airport in July.

The Christian deprived of his passport was still looking for a way to leave the country to pursue theological studies in Tanzania.

In the early part of this year, authorities expelled a missionary from the Comoros when they discovered he was conducting Friday prayer meetings.

“The police broke into the prayer meeting, ransacked the house and found the Bibles which we had hidden before arresting us,” said a source who requested anonymity. “We were detained for three months.”

Law student Musa Kim, who left Islam to receive Christ nine months ago, has suffered at the hands of his kin on the Comoros. Family members beat him with sticks and blows and even burned his clothes, he said.

Kind neighbors rescued him, and Christian friends rented him a house at a secret location while his wounds healed. On Oct. 15, however, Muslim islanders discovered his hideout and razed the house he was renting.

Asked if he reported the case to the police, Kim was emphatic.

“No – reporting these people will get you into more trouble.”

Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf first settled in this region early in the 10th century, after monsoon winds propelled them through the Gulf of Aden and Somalia.

Pemba and the Comoros are part of the Zanzibar archipelago, which united with Tanganyika to form the present day Tanzania in 1964. This uneasy merger, with island Muslims seeing Christianity as the means by which mainland Tanzania would dominate them, has stoked tensions ever since.

A large Arab community in the Comoros, the world’s largest producer of cloves, originally came from Oman. The population consists of Arabs and native Waswahili inhabitants.

The Comorian constitution provides for freedom of religion, though it is routinely violated. Islam is the legal religion for the Comoros people, and anyone found to be practicing a different religion faces persecution.

The Zanzibar Christian who spoke on condition of anonymity termed the Comoros a “horrifying environment for one to practice Christianity,” adding that it was not long after his arrival to the main island that he realized he was being monitored. He cut short his trip early last month.

“I planned to take three different taxis to the airport” to evade authorities, he said. “But thank God on that day I met a Catholic priest who gave me a lift together with some Tanzanian soldiers to the airport.”

The Christian left the island quickly even though he had been issued a professional visa for 45 days. In late October, a contact had warned him that Comoros authorities were looking for him as one of the island’s “most wanted” persons.

In May 2006 four men in the Comoros were sentenced to prison for three months for involvement with Christianity. There has long been widespread societal discrimination against Christians, but this level of persecution had not been reported in the Comoros since the late 1990s.  

Report from Compass Direct News