Muslims in Bangladesh Seize Land Used by Church

Bengali-speaking settlers file case against Christians; one threatens, ‘I will finish your life.’

DHAKA, Bangladesh, September 1 (CDN) — Bengali-speaking, Muslim settlers have seized five acres of abandoned government property used by a church and falsedly charged Christians with damaging the land in southeastern Bangladesh’s Khagrachari hill district, Christian leaders said.

Kiron Joti Chakma, field director of Grace Baptist Church in Khagrachari district, told Compass that the settlers had taken over the church building and the five acres of land in Reservechara village in June and filed a case on Aug. 4 against five tribal Christians. The Bengali-speaking Muslims had come from other areas of Bangladesh in a government resettlement program that began in 1980.

“In the case, the settlers mentioned that the Christians had cut the trees and damaged the crops on their land and that they should pay 250,000 taka [US$3,690] as compensation,” said Chakma. “We cultivated pineapple in the land around the church. But the settlers damaged all of our pineapple trees and built two houses there.”

The government has allowed the Christians to use the land. Tribal leaders said that land-grabbing in the area hill tracts, undulating landscape under Dighinala police jurisdiction 300 kilometers (186 miles) southeast of the Dhaka, began again during the army-backed interim government of 2007-2008.

“It is still continuing, and our demands to stop land-grabbing do not rate very high with the administration and law enforcement agencies,” said one of the accused, 32-year-old Mintu Chakma.

When he went to the police station regarding the false case filed against the Christians, he said, the leader of the Bengali settlers was there and threatened him in front of officers, telling him, “I can devour dozens of people like you – I will finish your life.”

Church leaders have informed a nearby army camp of the seizure. Military officers said they would take action, but they have done nothing so far, Christians said.

“Our leaders informed the army zone commander, and he assured us they would take necessary action, but nothing has happened so far against those land grabbers and arsonists,” said 25-year-old Liton Chakma (Chakma is the name of the tribe), one of the Christians accused in the Grace Baptist case.

The Muslim settlers had burned a Seventh-day Adventist Church building in 2008 in Boachara village, close to the Grace Baptist Christians’ village, in an effort to frighten tribal people away from becoming Christian, said Liton Chakma. He told Compass that Bengali settlers had also hindered their attempt to construct the church building in August in 2007.

“Many new believers saw nothing had happened to the arsonists, and many of them reverted to their previous Buddhism,” he said. “The army and local administration allowed them to run wild. They always threaten to beat us and file cases against us.”

Mintu Chakma said that Muslim settlers seized a garden next to his house in 2007.

“They not only destroyed my pineapple garden, but they built a mosque there,” he said.

Land Ownership

Local police inspector Suvas Pal told Compass that neither tribal people nor Bengali settlers were the owners of that land. It is government-owned, abandoned land, he said.

“The Bengali settlers claim that the land was assigned to lease to them, but we did not find any copy of lease in the deputy commissioner’s office,” said Pal. “On the other hand, the tribal people could not show any papers of their possession of the land.”

Investigating Officer Omar Faruque told Compass that the Muslim settlers had built two houses there, though they did not live there or nearby.

“I told the Bengali settlers that if they [tribal Christians] worship in the church there, then do not disturb them,” said Faruque.

Dipankar Dewan, headman of the tribal community, told Compass that the tribal Christians have an historical claim to the land.

“The land belonged to the forefathers of tribal Christians, so they can lay claim to the property by inheritance,” said Dewan.

During conflict between tribal people and Bengali people in the hill tracts, the tribal people left the country and took shelter in neighboring India, leaving much of their land abandoned. Bengali settlers took over some of the land, while the government leased other tracts to Bengali settlers, Dewan said.

“Many lands of the tribal people were grabbed in the hill tracts in the two years of state-of-emergency period of the previous army-backed, interim government,” he said. “Those Bengali settlers tried to grab the land during the tenure of the army-backed, interim government.”

Members of the Shanti Bahini, tribal guerrillas who fought for autonomy in the hill tracts, ended a 25-years revolt in the Chittagong Hill Tracts area in 1997 under a peace treaty in which the government was to withdraw troops and restore land acquired by settlers to local tribesmen.

Some 2,000 Shanti Bahini guerrillas surrendered their weapons following the 1997 treaty. But the tribal people say many aspects of the treaty remain unfulfilled, including restoration of rights and assigning jobs to them.

The guerrillas had fought for autonomy in the hill and forest region bordering India and Burma (Myanmar) in a campaign that left nearly 8,500 troops, rebels and civilians killed.

Recently the Awami League government ordered one army brigade of nearly 2,500 troops to pull out from the hill tract, and the withdrawal that began early last month is expected to be completed soon. Four brigades of army are still deployed in the hill tracts comprising three districts – Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Four other Christians arrested as apparent crackdown continues.

LOS ANGELES, September 10 (Compass Direct News) – Five arrests in three cities across Iran in August suggest a continued crackdown on Iranian Christians by authorities, sources told Compass.

The most recent of the arrests took place on Aug. 21, when Ramtin Soodmand, son of martyred Assemblies of God pastor Hossein Soodmand, turned himself in after repeated calls from the Ministry of Information in Tehran. His father was executed by the state in 1990 for leaving Islam.

Sources told Compass that for weeks Soodmand had received repeated calls from authorities telling him to travel from Mashhad, where he lives, to Tehran. Yielding to pressure, Soodmand surrendered himself to the media center of the Ministry of Information at 9 a.m. on Aug. 21 but was not heard of until 3 p.m. of the next day. He has remained in detention since then.

Shortly after his detention, Soodmand’s wife, Mitra, tried to visit her husband and was told to come back later. “Your husband is going to be in jail for a very long time,” sources reported that authorities told her.

Soodmand has been able to make only one phone call – to his mother, who is blind, on Aug. 23. He told her that he was fine, but authorities did not allow him to call his wife, sources said.

Last week Soodmand’s wife and two young children were finally allowed to visit him in Tehran. When they arrived, however, they found that they could only speak with him through a phone receiver and never saw him.

In the two-minute conversation, Soodmand told his wife several times, “I am fine, don’t worry,” sources reported. No other family members or friends have been allowed to see or speak to Soodmand. Neither his condition nor where he is being held were clear.

Sources said that authorities have also not informed his family of the charges against him.

His father, the last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government, was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then six more Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.

The week before Ramtin Soodmand turned himself in, another Christian in Mashhad, Iman Rashidi, was arrested. Rashidi’s whereabouts and condition are unknown. Rooz, a Farsi news website, reported him as under 18 years old.


Kurdish Christian Awaits Trial

A Christian member of Iran’s Kurdish community, Shahin Zanboori, was arrested on Aug. 9 in the southwestern city of Arak, located in the Central Province of Iran, bordering Iraq.

Secret police detained Zanboori while he was evangelizing, sources told Compass. He was tortured during interrogation and suffered a broken arm and leg.

While in jail he told sources that he “felt God’s presence in spite of the horrific treatment he received.” He described being handcuffed and suspended from the ceiling while police severely beat the soles of his feet to get him to confess to crimes and give the names of all the believers he knew, according to sources.

Authorities also confiscated Zanboori’s computer and cell phone.

Zanboori was released on Aug. 31 to his father, who lives in Kermanshah. His trial date had been set for Monday (Sept. 8), but sources have yet to learn the outcome of the hearing. He is expected to be charged with spying for foreign powers – a less serious offense than “apostasy” (leaving Islam).

In the city of Kerman in south central Iran, a couple identified as Darioush and Shirin were reportedly arrested on Aug. 8. At press time nothing more was known about their case.

Under the past three decades of Iran’s Islamist regime, hundreds of citizens who have left Islam and become Christians have been arrested for weeks or months, held in unknown locations and subjected to mental and physical torture.


Possible Reasons for Crackdown

One source who works closely with Iranian refugees believes that politics are one reason for Iran’s crackdown on Christians.

“Christians are viewed as potential spies allied with Israel or America,” he said, adding that the overwhelming number of Iranian Christians he counsels have been visited and intimidated by police, leading them to flee from Iran.

He also believes that the apparent explosion in the number of house churches frightens Iran’s government.

“They see it as something they cannot control, so they are afraid of house churches,” he said.

Another expert on Iran believes Christians outside of Iran who exaggerate the number of conversions and house churches are partly responsible for the growth of persecution. When Christians claim there are thousands of house churches throughout the country, he said, Iranian authorities feel threatened .

“They [the police] are obligated to crack down on Christian activities when these activities become too public,” one Iranian Christian said.  

Report from Compass Direct News