Pakistani Taliban Kills Three Foreign Christian Aid Workers


Kidnapped relief workers had come to provide aid to victims of massive flooding.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, August 27 (CDN) — Authorities on Wednesday (Aug. 25) recovered the bodies of three Christian relief workers who had been kidnapped and killed by members of the Pakistani Taliban in the flood-ravaged country, area officials said.

Swat District Coordination Officer Atif-ur-Rehman told Compass that the Pakistan Army recovered the bodies of the three foreign flood-relief workers at about 7 a.m. on Wednesday. An official at the international humanitarian organization that employed the workers withheld their names and requested that the agency remain unnamed for security reasons. Military sources who withheld news of the deaths from electronic and print media to avoid panicking other relief workers granted permission to Compass to publish it in limited form.

“The foreign aid workers have been working in Mingora and the surrounding areas,” Rehman said. “On Aug. 23 they were returning to their base at around 5:35 p.m. when a group of Taliban attacked their vehicle. They injured around five-six people and kidnapped three foreign humanitarian workers.”

Pakistan has been hit by its worst flooding in decades, with the United Nations now estimating more than 21.8 million people have been affected. Foreign aid workers are involved in relief activities across the country, including Swat district in Khyber-Paktunkhwa Province in northern Pakistan. At least 8 million people require emergency relief, with hundreds of thousands reportedly isolated from aid supplies.

An army Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) source said rangers have been deployed in Swat and other potential target areas to help provide security for relief workers.

“The Taliban had warned about attacks on foreigner aid workers and Christian organizations,” the ISPR source said. “All the international humanitarian organizations have been notified, and their security has also been increased.”

Rehman noted that the Taliban also has been trying to bring relief to flood victims.

“The Taliban are also trying to support the flood victims, and many other banned organizations have set up camps in southern Punjab to support the victims,” he said. “They intend to sympathize with the affected and gain their support.”

The president of advocacy organization Life for All, Rizwan Paul, said the bodies of the three relief workers had been sent to Islamabad under the supervision of the Pakistan Army.

“We strongly condemn the killing of the three humanitarian workers,” Paul said. “These aid workers came to support us, and we are thankful to the humanitarian organizations that came to help us in a time of need.”

Pointing to alleged discrimination against minorities in distribution of humanitarian aid, Paul added that Christians in severely flood-damaged areas in Punjab Province have been neglected. The majority of the effected Christians in Punjab are in Narowal, Shakargarh, Muzzafargarh, Rahim Yar Khan and Layyah, he said.

“The Christians living around Maralla, Narowal, and Shakargarh were shifted to the U.N.- administered camps, but they are facing problems in the camps,” he said. “There are reports that the Christians are not given tents, clean water and food. In most of the camps the Christians have totally been ignored.”

Life for All complained to U.N. agencies and the government of Pakistan regarding the discrimination, but no one has responded yet, he said.

“There have been reports from Muzzaffargarh and Layyah that the Christians are living on the damaged roads in temporary tents, as they were not allowed in the government camps,” he said.

In Sindh Province Thatta has been flooded, and around 300 Christian families who tried to move from there to Punjab were forbidden from doing so, a source said. Meteorologists are predicting more rains in coming days, with the already catastrophic flooding expected to get worse.

Kashif Mazhar, vice president of Life for All, said that in the northern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa conditions for Christians are better as there are Christian camps established, and Garrison Church in Risalpur is also providing aid to victims.

“It is discouraging to see that the Christian organizations are wholeheartedly supporting the victims regardless of the religion or race, but in most of the areas the Christians are totally ignored and not even allowed to stay,” Mazhar said.

Foreign targets are rarely attacked directly in Pakistan, despite chronic insecurity in the nuclear-armed state, which is a key ally in the U.S.-led war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. On March 10, however, suspected Islamic militants armed with guns and grenades stormed the offices of a Christian relief and development organization in northwest Pakistan, killing six aid workers and wounding seven others.

The gunmen besieged the offices of international humanitarian organization World Vision near Oghi, in Mansehra district, of the North West Frontier Province. Suicide and bomb attacks across Pakistan have killed more than 3,000 people since 2007. Blame has fallen on Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked militants bitterly opposed to the alliance with the United States.

The U.N. decided last year to relocate a limited number of its international staff from Pakistan because of security concerns. Its World Food Program office in Islamabad was attacked in October last year, with five aid workers killed in a suicide bombing.

Then on Feb. 3, a bomb attack in the NWFP district of Lower Dir killed three U.S. soldiers and five other people at the opening of a school just rebuilt with Western funding after an Islamist attack.

Report from Compass Direct News

Karen Christians pressed between Thailand and Myanmar


The Thai government and local military leaders want to force Karen Christians back into Myanmar, and they’re willing to use military force to clear refugee camps within the next two weeks, reports MNN.

The camps are full because the Burmese army is wiping out the Karen. Wes Flint with Vision Beyond Borders says, "I’m shocked that the free world is just allowing this to continue."

The ruling junta has been battling Christian-majority Karen rebels for decades. Similar army crackdowns forced thousands of villagers to flee their homes, and they found their way across the border to Thailand’s refugee camps.

Many of the more-recently displaced were forced to hide in the Burma jungle.

Human rights groups protested the Thai plan to repatriate the refugees in Burma over concern that once back in Myanmar, the refugees will be subject to "severe human rights violations, including forced labour and rape by soldiers of the Burma Army," according to a leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

No one expects the situation to improve, but VBB teams are trying to intervene. "We try to create a safe environment for them, to bring them in, to provide food for them, and medical care."

VBB’s Patrick Klein wrote this from Myanmar: "Due to rice fields and crops being destroyed and attacks on villagers by the Burmese army, we have a group of 100 children who are in urgent need of food. They are on the brink of starvation. Currently they are in hiding with their parents inside Burma. Our caretaker in our Shekinah children’s home in one of the official refugee camps asked if we can help those children with food and get them out of Burma."

It’s dangerous work, but there are friends of the ministry who are trying to get those 100 children to the VBB camp in the mountains.

Klein says, "If we are able to get them out, we will build housing for them. The parents are ready to die and give whatever food they find to their children for now. Please pray with us that God will make a way for these children and help our attempts to get them safely into one of the camps where we have a Children’s Home."

The VBB team delivered 45 bags of rice and medicines to partners who will take all the supplies to the Internally Displaced People inside Burma–those hiding from the Burmese Army.

It’s hard to imagine what is going unnoticed in front of so many international eyes. Flint explains, "There’s what they would call an ‘ethnic cleansing’ going on, but it seems that most of their targets are Christians."

Does their identity as a Christian mark them as Karen–or possibly something more? Flint says, "This persecution has really refined them. They have been great ambassadors to reach out to the Buddhist community–even to those that are persecuting them."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Lao Officials Force Christians from Worship at Gunpoint


Church members marched to open field, deprived of homes.

LOS ANGELES, February 8 (CDN) — About 100 local officials, police and villagers put guns to the heads of Christians during their Sunday morning service in a village in Laos last month, forcing them from their worship and homes, according to an advocacy organization.

Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reported that in Katin village of Ta-Oyl district, Saravan Province, Lao authorities including the village chief, a religious affairs’ official, three district police and a 15-man volunteer unit joined 15 village police officers to force all 48 Christian adults and children of the church to an open field. 

Afterward, the officials confiscated all personal belongings from 11 homes of Christians and destroyed six of the 11 homes. They also confiscated a pig – equal to six weeks’ salary to the villagers – that belonged to one of the members of the congregation, according to HRWLRF.

Unable to cajole the Christians into renouncing Christ with the illegal use of arms, the officials forced them to walk six kilometers (nearly four miles) and then left them on the side of a road.

“While being forced with guns to their heads, the believers took only the personal belongings they could grab,” according to an HRWLRF statement.

Since then, officials have posted local police at the entrance of Katin village in order to keep the Christians from returning. The men, women and children of the church have been sleeping on the ground in the woods with hardly enough food supplies, equipment, or tools to survive, according to HRWLRF.

“They are without light, food and clean water, except for a small stream nearby,” the organization reported.

Laos is a Communist country that is 1.5 percent Christian and 67 percent Buddhist, with the remainder unspecified. Article 6 and Article 30 of the Lao Constitution guarantee the right of Christians and other religious minorities to practice the religion of their choice without discrimination or penalty.

Around Jan. 18, a Saravan provincial religious affairs official identified only by his surname, Khampuey, and a Ta-Oyl district official identified only by the surname of Bounma tried to persuade the believers to renounce their Christian faith, according to the organization.

Why do you believe in it [the Bible]?” they asked the Christians. “It’s just a book.”

When the Christians responded that the Bible was no mere book but a gift from God, the officials pointed out that other poor villagers had received government assistance because they had not converted to Christianity. They asked the church if, being Christians, they were receiving such government aid.

HRWLRF reported that the Christians responded that regardless of what help they did or didn’t receive, they had received new life from God.

“Before, we were under the power of the spirits and had to sacrifice to them,” said one Christian. “Now, having believed in God, we no longer have to do any sacrifice.”

The officials further harangued them, saying, “See what happens to you because of your belief? You are now left in the middle of nowhere without any home, food, or help. You should deny your Christian belief and then you will be allowed back in your village.” The officials added, according to HRWLRF, that all 56 villages in Ta-Oyl district did not want them to continue in their Christian faith.

“These villages have said that they can accept lepers and demon-possessed persons living among them, but they cannot allow believers residing among them,” one official reportedly told the Christians. “If they do not want you, neither do we.”

Unable to persuade the believers to renounce Christ, the two officials prohibited them from returning to their home village to get their personal belongings, including tools and items needed to make a living and protect themselves.

Although Laos ratified the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights in 2009, thus asserting that it fully respects human rights and religious freedom, its mistreatment of Lao Christians in Katin village has continued beyond the confiscation and slaughter of pigs belonging to each of the nine Christian families on July 5, 2009 and the withdrawal of protection for Christian villagers on July 11, HRWLRF reported.

The Katin village leader has declared that spirit worship is the only acceptable form of worship in the community, HRWLRF reported. In the July 5 slaughter of one pig each from nine Christian families, officials said it was punishment for ignoring an order to abandon Christianity.

Local officials have a longer history of trying to eradicate Christianity in Katin village. On July 21, 2008, officials detained 80 Christians in the village after residents seized a Christian identified only as Pew and poured rice wine down his throat, killing him by asphyxiation.

When family members buried Pew and placed a wooden cross on his grave, officials accused them of “practicing the rituals of the enemy of the state” and seized a buffalo and pig from them as a fine.

On July 25, 2008, officials rounded up 17 of the 20 Christian families then living in the village – a total of 80 men, women and children – and detained them in a school compound, denying them food in an effort to force the adults to sign documents renouncing their faith. The other three Christian families in the village at that time had already signed the documents under duress.

As their children grew weaker, 10 families signed the documents and were permitted to return home. The remaining seven families were evicted from the village and settled in an open field nearby, surviving on whatever food sources they could find.

Suffering from the loss of their property and livelihoods, however, the seven families eventually recanted their faith and moved back into the village. But over time, some of the Christians began gathering again for prayer and worship.

On Sept. 8, 2008, provincial and district authorities called a meeting in Katin village and asked local officials and residents to respect the religious laws of the nation. Four days later, however, village officials seized a buffalo worth approximately US$350 from a Christian resident identified only as Bounchu, telling him the animal would be returned only if he renounced his faith. When he refused, they slaughtered the animal in the village square and distributed the meat to non-Christian residents.

“These tactics of starvation and destruction of personal properties as well as the use of force employed by the Lao officials in order to put pressure on the Katin believers to renounce their religious convictions should be condemned,” according to HRWLRF.

In spite of the hostilities, more households accepted Christ in Katin village last year, resulting in to the current total of 11 Christian households.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Ministry reports thousands of Karen deaths in Myanmar


Atrocities are mounting in Burma–the country now known as Myanmar. Thousands of people have been killed by the military-led government. And many human rights workers say there’s no end in sight, reports MNN.

President of Vision Beyond Borders Patrick Klein just returned from the border of Myanmar and Thailand and says the situation is desperate. "The government seems like it’s intent on genocide. 500,000 people have died already. They say it surpasses Darfur because they document more than 3,300 villages that have been completely burned to the ground."

According to Klein, this is a strategic political move. "The government is trying to get rid of everybody who is in opposition to this current military regime. So, it’s not just the Karen, but the Karen seem to be receiving the brunt of it."

The issue has been addressed by the Harvard Law School’s report, "Crimes in Burma," but the rest of the world is ignoring it. Klein says, "It’s baffling to us because we can’t figure it out. Nobody seems to know what’s going on. Nobody seems to be interested. When we talk, people in the States say, ‘Really? That’s happening in Burma? Well, we need to know that.’"

I asked Klein if he thinks it’s genocide. "I heard one of the Burmese generals say, ‘By the year 2010′ (which isn’t that far away) ‘there will be no more Karen people left. We’re going to wipe them off the face of the earth. The only ones you’ll see will be in the photographs in the museums.’"

Klein says the international media seems to be ignoring the situation.

He says the Myanmar military isn’t the only offender. Burmese orphans, refugees in bordering Thailand, are being threatened by Thai officials. "The Thai border police want to send them back into Burma. There are land mines everywhere. They’re killing these people. And they want to send these kids back because they’re kind of working with the government, underhandedly, to get money kickbacks from the government to send these kids back in, to slaughter them."

Klein says the stories of evil abound. "We heard a story about an eight-year-old boy who was told by the Burmese military, in front of his family, to climb a tree and climb as high as he could. They held him at gun point. He climbed as high as he could, and they told him to jump down, or they would shoot [his family]. So, he jumped to his death in front of his family."

Vision Beyond Borders was able to take in rice, medical supplies, toys for Christmas, and Bibles. Klein says, "Even in the midst of all these atrocities, many people are getting saved. So we want to keep providing Bibles."

Klein says nobody expects the situation to improve. "The elections are coming up in Burma in March. They believe 50,000 to 100,000 more refugees will come into Thailand before the election, and probably 150,000 more after the election."

Christian actor Kirk Cameron has agreed to be the narrator for a documentary on the situation in Burma. "We want to get that out around the nation," says Klein, "to call the churches to pray and ask God to intervene in the country to bring down this wicked government."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIANS BRACE FOR SHARIA IN SWAT VALLEY


Accepting Islamic law in exchange for peace leaves many uncertain, fearful.

ISTANBUL, March 27 (Compass Direct News) – Just over a month since Pakistan’s fertile Swat Valley turned into a Taliban stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) rules, the fate of the remaining Christians in the area is uncertain.

Last month, in an effort to end a bloody two-year battle, the Islamabad administration struck a deal with Taliban forces surrendering all governance of Swat Valley in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Sources told Compass that after the violence that has killed and displaced hundreds, an estimated 500 Christians remain in the area. Traditionally these have been low-skilled workers, but younger, more educated Christians work as nurses, teachers and in various other professions.

The sole Church of Pakistan congregation in Swat, consisting of 40 families, has been renting space for nearly 100 years. The government has never given them permission to buy land in order to build a church building.

An associate pastor of the church in central Swat told Yousaf Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace that with the bombing of girls schools at the end of last year, all Christian families migrated to nearby districts. After the peace deal and with guarded hope for normalcy and continued education for their children, most of the families have returned to their homes but are reluctant to attend church.

The associate pastor, who requested anonymity, today told sources that “people don’t come to the church as they used to come before.” He said that although the Taliban has made promises of peace, the Christian community has yet to believe the Muslim extremists will hold to them.

“The people don’t rely on Taliban assurances,” said Benjamin.

Last week the associate pastor met with the third in command of the main Taliban militant umbrella group in Pakistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Kari Abdullah, and requested land in order to build a church. Abdullah reportedly agreed, saying that Islam is a religion of peace and equality, and that his group intended to provide equal opportunities to the religious communities of Swat.

The Catholic Church in Swat is located in a school compound that was bombed late last year. Run by nuns and operated under the Catholic Church Peshawar Diocese, the church has been closed for the last two years since insurgents have been fighting government led forces, source said.

Parliamentarian Shahbaz Bhatti said Christians and the few Hindus in Swat valley have lived under terror and harassment by the Taliban since insurgents began efforts to seize control of the region. He met with a delegation of Christians from Swat last month who said they were concerned about their future, but Bhatti said only time will tell how the changes will affect Christians.

“The Christian delegation told me that they favor the peace pact if indeed it can bring peace, stability and security to the people living there,” he said. “But they also shared their concern that if there is enforcement of sharia, what will be their future? But we will see how it will be implemented.”

Although there have been no direct threats against Christians since the establishment of the peace accord, some advocates fear that it may only be a matter of time.

“These days, there are no reports of persecution in Swat,” Lahore-based reporter Felix Qaiser of Asia News told Compass by phone, noting the previous two years of threatening letters, kidnappings and aggression against Christians by Islamic extremists. “But even though since the implementation of sharia there have been no such reports, we are expecting them. We’re expecting this because other faiths won’t be tolerated.”

Qaiser also expressed concern about the treatment of women.

“They won’t be allowed to move freely and without veils,” he said. “And we’re very much concerned about their education there.”

In the past year, more than 200 girls schools in Swat were reported to have been burned down or bombed by Islamic extremists.

Remaining girls schools were closed down in January but have been re-opened since the peace agreement in mid-February. Girls under the age of 13 are allowed to attend.

Since the deal was struck, seven new sharia judges have been installed, and earlier this month lawyers were trained in the nuances of Islamic law. Those not trained are not permitted to exercise their profession. As of this week, Non-Governmental Organizations are no longer permitted in the area and vaccinations have been banned.

“These are the first fruits of Islamic law, and we’re expecting worse things – Islamic punishment such as cutting off hands, because no one can dictate to them,” Qaiser said. Everything is according to their will and their own interpretation of Islamic law.”

 

Launch Point for Taliban

Analysts and sources on the ground have expressed skepticism in the peace deal brokered by pro-Taliban religious leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad, who is also the leader of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi. The insurgent, who has long fought for implementation of sharia in the region, has also fought alongside the Taliban against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

He was imprisoned and released under a peace deal in April 2008 in an effort to restore normalcy in the Swat Valley. Taliban militants in the Swat area are under the leadership of his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah.

The agreement to implement sharia triggered alarm around the world that militants will be emboldened in the northwest of Pakistan, a hotbed for Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists fighting Western forces in Afghanistan and bent on overthrowing its government.

Joe Grieboski of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy said the peace deal makes Talibanization guaranteed by law, rendering it impossible to return to a liberal democracy or any guarantee of fundamental rights.

“The government in essence ceded the region to the Taliban,” said Grieboski. “Clerical rule over the region will fulfill the desires of the extremists, and we’ll see the region become a copy of what Afghanistan looked like under Taliban rule.”

This can only mean, he added, that the Taliban will have more power to promulgate their ideology and power even as the Pakistani administration continues to weaken.

“Unfortunately, this also creates a safe launching off point for Taliban forces to advance politically, militarily and ideologically into other areas of the country,” said Grieboski. “The peace deal further demonstrates the impotence of [Asif Ali] Zardari as president.”

Grieboski said the peace deal further demonstrates that Pakistani elites – and President Zardari in particular – are less concerned about fundamental rights, freedom and democracy than about establishing a false sense of security in the country.

“This peace deal will not last, as the extremists will demand more and more, and Zardari and the government have placed themselves in a weakened position and will once again have to give in,” said Grieboski.

Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of advocacy group Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan, said he fears that militants in Swat will now be able to freely create training centers and continue to attack the rest of Pakistan.

“They will become stronger, and this will be the greatest threat for Christians living in Pakistan,” said Johnson.

Thus far the government has not completely bowed to Taliban demands for establishment of full sharia courts, and it is feared that the insurgents may re-launch violent attacks on civilians until they have full judicial control.

“The question of the mode of implementation has not yet been decided, because the Taliban want their own qazis [sharia judges] and that the government appointed ones should quit,” said lawyer Khalid Mahmood, who practices in the NWFP.

Mahmood called the judiciary system in Swat “collapsed” and echoed the fear that violence would spread in the rest of the country.

“They will certainly attack on the neighboring districts,” he said.

Earlier today, close to the Swat Valley in Khyber, a suicide bomber demolished a mosque in Jamrud, killing at least 48 people and injuring more than 150 others during Friday prayers. Pakistani security officials reportedly said they suspected the attack was retaliation for attempts to get NATO supplies into Afghanistan to use against Taliban fighters and other Islamist militants.

Report from Compass Direct News

ANTI-CONVERSION BILL DEBATE IN SRI LANKA SUFFERS SETBACK


The controversial Anti-Conversion Bill in Sri Lanka has suffered a great setback with the recent suspension of the Bill by the Parliament as a result of intense opposition from the Christian population, reports Success Kanayo Uchime, special to ASSIST News Service.

In a report from the UK-based Release International (RI), a parliamentary committee comprised of Christian parliamentarians and leaders of political parties examined the Bill and agreed that it could have serious consequences on religious activities, spark inter-religious conflict and possibly violate the country’s constitution.

It stated that the Minister of Religious Affairs Pandu Bandaranayake, who confirmed that Christians have called for more clarity on some words in the Bill said that despite the opposition from the Buddhist-led party, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the Bill will be re-examined by the Ministry’s religious consultative committee.

RI report noted that a local media said that part of the Bill rejects the offer of a gift, cash or any other incentive to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another and is punishable with up to seven years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of 500,000 rupees (about £6,800).

“Christians fear that the wording is open to abuse, and may severely restrict Christian activities in Sri Lanka,” the report said.

In another report by the BBC, it said that it has gathered that the United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in Sri Lanka has reported that the conflict in Sri Lanka has killed hundreds of children and left many more injured.

It noted that thousands of children are at risk because of a critical lack of food, water and medicines and that the intense fighting is going on between Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger rebels in north-eastern Sri Lanka.

“The Tigers have been driven from most of the territory they held by the army. They are now cornered in a small patch of jungle and coastal area in Mullaitivu district,” UNICEF report said.

In his reaction, the UNICEF Executive Director, Ann Veneman, said the children and their families caught in the conflict zone are at risk of dying from disease and malnutrition.

“Regular, safe access for humanitarian agencies is urgently required, so that life-saving supplies can be provided, and civilians must be allowed to move to safe areas where essential humanitarian support is more readily available,” Veneman further said.

Sri Lanka is said to have a multi ethnic and multi religious population, while Buddhism constitutes the religious faith of about 70% of the population of the island, most of whom follow the Theravada school of Buddhism.

Further to that Sri Lanka also has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any predominately Buddhist nation, with the Sangha having existed in a largely unbroken lineage since its introduction in the 2nd century BCE.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

BURMA: AUTHORITIES CLAMP DOWN ON CHRISTIANS


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

History of Religious Repression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Heightened Security, Control

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News

GAZA CONFLICT TAKING TOLL ON BOTH SIDES OF BORDER


Christians normally permitted to leave Gaza for Bethlehem during Christmas found themselves unable to return home and separated from their families when fighting erupted between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza in late December, reports Baptist Press.

Isa,* a layman at Gaza Baptist Church, was one of those separated from his family. He returned to Gaza on Dec. 26 to take care of some church business. His family remained in Bethlehem, unaware the borders were about to close. “This is the worst it has ever been [in Gaza],” Isa told a Christian worker.

The Gaza Baptist Church building has sustained damage over the past two weeks. According to a Christian worker, the majority of the damage occurred Dec. 27 when a police station across the street took a direct hit.

Another Christian family found themselves separated when they tried to exit Gaza to find safety in Israel, the Christian worker said. The father and his two sons were allowed to go to Bethlehem, but the wife and two daughters were not. The man quickly returned to Gaza, despite the violence.

Residents of Israel are struggling, too.

One Israeli soldier asked a Christian worker to pray for him while he was at war. To the worker’s surprise, the soldier didn’t ask him to pray for his safety but rather that he wouldn’t have to use his gun.

Life must go on — even in scary situations, the Christian worker added.

A nurse in southern Israel was on her way to a hospital one morning when bomb sirens started blaring. “You can’t stay in your car, because the shrapnel will kill you,” a Christian worker in the area said. “You have to get out of your car and lie in the ditch beside the road.”

Schools in southern Israel have been closed because of bomb threats. Many kindergarten buildings have been hit directly by missile fire from Gaza, a worker said; however, no children or teachers were inside at the time.

“Pray that those who want peace will have the victory,” the worker said. “There’s a lot of praying [among Israeli believers], not only for the soldiers but for the believers in Gaza.”

The hope of Christian workers in Israel is that calm will be restored quickly and that the economy will recover.

Employment in Gaza has plummeted, the worker noted. Twenty years ago nearly 100,000 men went into Israel daily to work; before the latest conflict that number had decreased dramatically. Now, with the border closing, it is down to zero.

Flour has been scarce for more than a week in Gaza — in a culture where bread is served with every meal, the worker said. When a bakery does receive a shipment, it is not uncommon for more than 600 people to line up for the chance to get one piece of flatbread.

Even if families have flour, rotating blackouts make baking nearly impossible, the worker explained. They never know when electricity will be available. Some areas of Gaza haven’t seen power for five days.

Because food, water and electricity are limited in Gaza, Israel is promising to allow aid to reach Palestinian civilians during a three-hour period each day, according to news reports. Food, water, cooking oil and medicine are among the supplies expected to flow into the area.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

INDONESIA: VILLAGE TO BE REBUILT FOLLOWING ISLAMIC RAMPAGE


Officials question Christian teacher whose alleged comment was said to trigger violence.

AMBON, Indonesia, December 17 (Compass Direct News) – Government officials in Central Maluku, Indonesia, yesterday promised to reconstruct before Christmas two church buildings and a number of houses set ablaze last week during sectarian rioting in Letwaru village, Masohi district.

The promises came after hundreds of activists from a local youth organization protested in the streets of nearby Ambon on Monday (Dec. 15), holding these officials responsible for failing to maintain law and order, local media reported.

Also on Monday, police formally questioned a Christian elementary schoolteacher accused of making an anti-Islamic comment. Welhelmina Holle has been accused of insulting Islam while tutoring one of her students; following the Nov. 23 distribution of a flyer expressing the allegation against the schoolteacher, around 500 protestors gathered outside the education agency office and police headquarters on Dec. 9, and the protest quickly escalated into a full-scale riot.

Enraged Muslims destroyed 69 buildings, including two church buildings of a single congregation, 42 homes owned by Christians, four shops and a village hall. They also inadvertently struck 16 homes owned by Muslims.

Several people, including a police officer who attempted to stop the mob, were wounded during the rampage, according to Christian support organization Open Doors.

The time that lapsed between the Nov. 23 flyer and the Dec. 9 rioting shows that police were lax, said pastor Maureen Latuihamallo Ferdinandus, head of the Maluku Protestant Church (GPM) in Letwaru.

“The blasphemy issues had been spread since Nov. 23 – the time span until the day of the riot, Dec. 9, was long enough,” she said. “Yet police failed to anticipate the big protests and village rampage.”

 

Reconstruction, Relief Efforts

“We are committed to finishing the reconstruction of homes and churches before Christmas, so Christians won’t have to celebrate it in temporary shelters,” regency head Abdullah Tuasikal told The Jakarta Post yesterday.

Tuasikal had asked all construction workers in the area to participate in reconstruction efforts, while provincial and regency administrations allocated 2 billion rupiah (US$181,000) to the project.

The rebuilding of Syiloam Church began on Saturday (Dec. 13). Officials also promised to replace 200 chairs burned in the attack.

At press time, relief was trickling through to 1,764 people displaced by the riots, 1,523 Christians and 241 Muslims. The whereabouts of another 200 people are unknown.

Letwaru village, with a predominantly Christian population, borders a Muslim village with a narrow street separating both communities. When rioting broke out, the mob unknowingly attacked 16 homes occupied by Muslims on the Letwaru side of the street.

Critics say that government relief is far from adequate. Pastor Ferdinandus said displaced villagers desperately needed food and water, clothes, stoves and cooking utensils. Water was the first priority, as supplies were limited in the police station and prison that had provided temporary housing to some of the villagers.

Most of the displaced Christians took refuge in their relatives’ homes in neighboring villages, while Muslim victims opted to stay with relatives in the nearby town of Masohi.

“We’ve faced difficulties in identifying the needs of the displaced people since they are scattered,” Ferdinandus told Compass.

Last Friday (Dec. 12), three days after the riots, the streets of Letwaru were deserted. Few Christians dared venture out to the office or market; one resident told Compass that she had not yet returned to her office because “it’s not safe yet.” Life continued as normal, however, in downtown Masohi, an area where most residents are Muslims.

Maluku police chief Brig. Gen. Mudji Waluyo told The Jakarta Post that he would assign two-thirds of the Central Maluku police force to maintain security in the area during Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations, in addition to military troops.

Police have named Asmara Wasahua, Muhammad Patty – and Holle, the schoolteacher – as suspects in the riot. According to local media reports, police have accused Wasahua, a local candidate of the Islamic Justice and Welfare Party, of distributing hate flyers and mobilizing the protestors.

 

Discouraging Retaliation

Ferdinandus has urged her congregation in Letwaru not to retaliate, despite personal losses. “Up to now, none of our congregation has fought back,” she told Compass.

She said she believed that the riot was planned in advance.

“We were caught by surprise,” she said. “The assailants, on the other hand, looked as if they had carefully prepared for the attack.”

According to the pastor, the long-term education of Christian children who had until last week attended schools in Muslim neighborhoods would “definitely be disrupted” because of the riots.

When asked about the possibility of another large-scale religious conflict, Ferdinandus said the incident was not purely religious, but that certain groups had used the accusations against teacher Holle “as a political vehicle” to further their own interests. She added however, that “riots like these can start and end anytime. Things become very unpredictable.”

Ferdinandus also felt police should have dealt swiftly with the allegations against Holle before offended parties took to the streets.

According to Open Doors, in May a mob attacked another Christian village in Maluku, killing three people and destroying 116 homes.

These incidents, though isolated, suggest ongoing tension between Christian and Muslim communities in the Maluku islands, where violent religious conflict between 1999 and 2002 claimed at least 7,000 lives.  

Report from Compass Direct News

REBEL VIOLENCE IN CONGO AFFECTS CHRISTIAN OUTREACH


The European Union hasn’t ruled out the possibility of taking military action in the Democratic Republic of Congo as rebel troops have shattered peace in that beleaguered nation, reports MNN.

Rebels in the eastern part of the country say they’ll overthrow the government if it refuses direct talks to the Congolese government. Those loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda want one-on-one negotiations with the government over the protection of their Tutsi ethnic group.

Two months of army/rebel fighting has forced 250,000 people from their homes, according to the United Nations. Nkunda says he’s defending Congo’s Tutsi minority from a mainly Rwandan Hutu militia, whose leaders allegedly took part in neighboring Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

Pete Howard is the relief coordinator with Food for the Hungry. He says the city of Goma has been adversely affected. “Civilians have been having to flee out into the wilderness just to get away from the troops. The civilians are out of their homes and trying to forage for whatever they can find — grubs [and] berries.”

Food for the Hungry is doing all they can to help the victims. Howard says, “Food for the Hungry is currently in the process of shipping 275,000 family meals into Eastern Congo, just south of where the fighting is taking place.”

He says this kind of relief is important to seeing the Gospel spread. “Our staff [is] trained to work with people and share their faith and to bring the love of Christ, even as they’re bringing in food or doing agriculture training or health training. When people are in crisis, they’re much more open to hearing the Gospel.”

Food for the Hungry staff members have been evacuated several times, says Howard. “Right now our staff has been able to move back in. We’re doing a road building program to try to get supplies into areas where people have had to flee.”

Howard is asking Christians to pray “both for the international staff that are there as well as the national Congolese staff who are in fear both for their lives and the lives of their families. They’re working and trying to work as normal, but they have their bags backed so they can leave at a moment’s notice if the rebels get any closer.”

While prayer is needed for safety, Howard is also asking Christians to pray for the rebels. “It’s conflict between people over ethnic or political strife, and we believe that the principles of Christ and the love and compassion of the message that we have can help with that. And that’s one reason why we’re staying there even though there is conflict.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph