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

Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law

Already suppressed Christians say bill is designed to control growth.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, July 21 (CDN) — Christians in this Himalayan nation who are still longing to openly practice their faith were disheartened this month when the government proposed the kind of “anti-conversion” law that other nations have used as a pretext for falsely accusing Christians of “coercion.”

The amendment bill would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement” – vaguely enough worded, Christians fear, that vigilantes could use it to jail them for following the commands of Christ to feed, clothe and otherwise care for the poor.

“Now, under section 463 [of the Penal Code of Bhutan], a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytization if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” reported the government-run Kuensel newspaper on July 9.

“There was always a virtual anti-conversion law in place, but now it is on paper too,” said a senior pastor from Thimphu on condition of anonymity. “Seemingly it is aimed at controlling the growth of Christianity.”

Kuenlay Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s Parliament and the chairperson of its Legislative Council, told Compass that the new section is consonant with Article 7(4) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which states, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

He said that the National Council had proposed that offenses under the proposal be classified as misdemeanors, punishable by one to less than three years in prison.

Tshering said that the amendment bill “may be passed during the next session of Parliament, after the National Assembly deliberates on it in the winter session.”

Asked if he was aware that similar “anti-conversion” laws in neighboring India had been misused to harass Christians through vague terms of “inducement,” he said he was not.

Authorities usually act on complaints by local residents against Christian workers, so frivolous complaints can lead to their arrest, said another pastor who requested anonymity.

Of the 683,407 people in Bhutan, over 75 percent are Buddhist, mainly from the west and the east. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

There are around 6,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Nepalese, but there is neither a church building nor a registered Christian institution. The Bible, however, has been translated into the national language, Dzongkha, as well as into Nepali.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has not officially recognized the presence of Christians, whose practice of faith remains confined to their homes.

The Drukpa Kagyue school of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion, with Hinduism dominant in the south, according to Bhutan’s official website, which adds, “Some residues of Bon, animism and shamanism still exist in some pockets of the country,” but makes no mention of Christianity.

Still, since Bhutan became a democracy in 2008 after its first-ever elections – following more than 100 years of absolute monarchy – people have increasingly exercised their freedom, including religious choice.


‘Why More Religions?’

Home and Culture Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji told Compass that Bhutan’s government had “no problems” with Christianity or any other faith.

“But Bhutan is a small country, with a little more than 600,000 people, and a majority of them are Buddhist,” Dorji said. “We have Hindus, also mainly in southern parts. So why do we need more religions?”

Buddhism is closely linked with political and social life in Bhutan. Dorji’s office sits in a gigantic monastery in Thimphu known as Tashichho Dzong. Buddhism unites and brings people together, Dorji said, explaining that the social life of a village revolves around its dzong (monastery).

Dorji said India’s multi-religious society had led to tensions and bloodshed.

“India can survive riots and unrest,” he said, “but Bhutan may not, because it is a small country between two giants [India and China].”

With leaders who have been proud that they have not allowed it to be colonized, Bhutan historically has been keenly concerned about its survival. Bhutan’s people see their distinct culture, rather than the military, as having protected the country’s sovereignty. And it is no coincidence that Dorji’s portfolio includes both internal security and preservation of culture.

The constitution, adopted in July 2008, also requires the state to protect Bhutan’s cultural heritage and declares that Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan.

A government official who requested anonymity said that, as Tibet went to China and Sikkim became a state in India, “now which of the two countries will get Bhutan?”

This concern is prevalent among the Bhutanese, he added.

Sikkim, now a state in India’s northeast, was a Buddhist kingdom with indigenous Bhotia and Lepcha people groups as its subjects. But Hindus from Nepal migrated to Sikkim for work and gradually outnumbered the local Buddhists. In 1975, a referendum was held to decide if Sikkim, then India’s protectorate, should become an official state of the country. Since over 75 percent of the people in Sikkim were Nepalese – who knew that democracy would mean majority-rule – they voted for its incorporation
into India.

Bhutan and India’s other smaller neighbors saw it as brazen annexation. And it is believed that Sikkim’s “annexation” made Bhutan wary of the influence of India.

In the 1980s, Bhutan’s king began a one-nation-one-people campaign to protect its sovereignty and cultural integrity, which was discriminatory to the ethnic Nepalese, who protested. Their non-compliance, however, resulted in a harsh crackdown by authorities, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

“Bhutan did not want to become another Sikkim,” said a local resident, explaining why the government did not tolerate the protests.

Bhutan is also rigorous in implementing its laws related to the use of the national language, the national dress code and the uniform architectural standards throughout the country to strengthen its cultural integrity. Bhutanese men are required to wear the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, when they go to work or attend a public function. Women have to wear the kira, an ankle-length dress clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. Non-compliance can lead to fine
and imprisonment.


Brighter Future

One hopeful pastor said he expects the government to officially acknowledge the existence of Christianity in Bhutan in the near future.

“Religious freedom will be good for both Christians and the government,” he said. “If Christians are not officially acknowledged, who will the government go to if it wants to implement an executive decision related to religious communities?”

Explaining the reason for his hope, he recalled an incident in the Punakha area in January, when a house under construction was demolished after rumors that it was used as a church.

“The house owner, a Christian, went to his majesty [King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck] and told him he was not constructing a church but would have worship with other believers on Sundays,” the pastor said. “The king allowed him to build the house.”

He also said that a delegation of Christians met with Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley in May 2009, who reassured them that there would be more freedom soon.

Christianity is gradually growing, but through word-of-mouth – testimonies of those who have received healing from sickness – and not public preaching, he said, adding that Christians needed to understand and be patient with the government, “which cannot and should not make changes or give freedom overnight.”



Christians’ Skulls, Bones Used for Buddhist Ritual

The ambiguity in Bhutan over the status of Christians has brought with it a new difficulty: A national daily recently reported that at least eight graves of Christians had been exhumed and the skulls and thigh bones extracted for a Buddhist ritual.

Although the report marked the first time the practice had made the news, Christian leaders said more than 100 graves have been dug up as the trade in human bones has been going on for more than five years.

A local resident of the Lamperi area, near Thimphu, identified as Namgay, told the Bhutan Observer that he found eight graves in a “secret forest graveyard” that had been exhumed by hunters of craniums and thigh bone.

“We saw skulls without craniums and a hand sticking out of a grave,” he was quoted as saying in the daily on May 27.

A human skull garners between 5,000 ngultrum (US$105) and 10,000 ngultrum (US$211) in Bhutan, with men’s skulls considered more valuable. The skull of a man affected by leprosy is not considered ideal for purification. Rather, such skulls are considered best for rituals to subdue evil spirits.

In a visit to the graveyard, the Bhutan Observer found at least eight graves freshly dug up. “Hand gloves, khaddar [a coarse homespun cotton cloth], a currency note, a wooden cross, and a wooden hammer lay scattered all over,” it reported.

The daily said the graveyard apparently belonged to the Christian community in Thimphu and nearby areas.

“Christians in the country say that there should be an official recognition that there are Christians in the country, and other things like burial rights will naturally follow,” the report noted.

A local pastor told Compass that since Christians did not have a burial ground, they buried their dead in forests.

“More than 100 bodies have been dug up, even though we have changed several locations for burial,” he said. “I wonder how the traders in human bones discover these locations. Where do we go now?”

Some local residents reportedly believe that a Christian grave brings bad luck.

Damcho Wangchu, a resident of Thinleygang area, told the daily that the area surrounding the graveyard was holy. He attributed all misfortune in the area – including storms, the death of three students and of four others – to the Christian cemetery.

“We never experienced such misfortunes in our gewog [cluster of villages] before,” he said.

The daily explained that the tradition of use of human skulls and thigh bones in Buddhist rituals was as old as Tantric Buddhism itself. “Thoepai Dagpa is a generic name for the text that illustrates the use and study of quality of skulls,” it reported.

Tantric Buddhism, widespread in Bhutan, involves rituals as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.

An editorial in the same newspaper noted, “Our hunt for the criminal will probably lead us from the unplanned graveyard to the sacred altar.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Shi Weihan also fined nearly $22,000; ‘illegal business’ printed Bibles for free distribution.



(Compass Direct News) – A Beijing court today found Christian bookstore owner Shi Weihan guilty of “illegal business operation” and sentenced him to three years in prison and a 150,000 yuan (US$21,975) fine.

Sources said Shi’s store operated legally and sold only books for which he had obtained government permission, and that his Holy Spirit Trading Co. printed Bibles and Christian literature without authorization but only for free distribution to local house churches.

The 38-year-old Shi had been released on Jan. 4, 2008 due to insufficient evidence for the same vague charge of “illegal business operation,” but he was arrested again two month later, on March 19, and held virtually incommunicado. Contrary to Chinese law, authorities have denied all but a few visits from his lawyer and family, held him without charges for most of his time in jail, and initially withheld medication for his diabetes.

The court ruling appears to have allowed time that Shi has spent in jail to count toward his sentence, a source said, as his prison term was described as running from Nov. 28, 2007, when he was initially arrested, to Nov. 27, 2010.

Others in a printing company who stood trial with Shi appeared to have received similar sentences. A written judgment is expected within 15 days to allow time for an appeal to be filed, said Ray Sharpe, a friend of Shi.

“Absent an appeal, it is also possible that Shi could be allowed a sort of medical parole, due to his diabetic condition,” Sharpe said. “Hopefully, he could then be allowed to stay in a hospital under a sort of house arrest.”

He said that Shi did not yet know whether he would appeal, adding that the process could take up to a year.

Friends and business acquaintances of Shi have described him as a model citizen of China, saying that he has inspired them to love China by his patriotism and love for his homeland. They said he is known for selfless sacrifice on behalf of poor and disenfranchised rural Christians and minority children.

For much of his incarceration, Shi’s wife Zhang Jing and their two daughters, 12-year-old Shi Jia and 8-year-old Shi En Mei, have not known where he was being held. The family has been under nearly continual surveillance, limiting their ability to make contact with people who could assist them.

Sources said Zhang has worried about her husband’s condition and that she has taken on leadership duties at their church, where Public Security Bureau officials have intimidated the congregation with regular visits. Some members have left the church because of the intimidation, sources said, and Zhang is said to have suffered anxiety and stress that have led to depression.

Their two daughters have been ostracized at school for being the children of a prisoner, sources said.

Shi has lost more than 44 pounds since his second incarceration, they said, dropping to less than 130 pounds. The sources added that he has suffered from blisters because of unsanitary conditions in prison, as well as tinnitus that at times causes his ears to ring so loudly that he cannot sleep.

Chinese officials claim that the Nanjing Amity Printing Co. (Amity Press), the only government-approved Bible publisher, produces enough Bibles to meet the needs of the Chinese church, which various religious freedom organizations dispute. The groups complain that Amity prints a large share of its Bibles for export, and those sold domestically are not available to many Christians.

Report from Compass Direct News


Local authorities complicit or turn blind eye to assaults on Christians.

LOS ANGELES, May 11 (Compass Direct News) – A Hmong man in Vietnam’s Northwest Mountainous Region who murdered his mother in February because she had become a Christian has assaulted another Christian, leaving him critically wounded, according to area Christian sources.

Lao Lia Po on April 25 allegedly attacked Koua Lo of Meo Vac district, Ha Giang Province because he had become a Christian, according to a local church leader. Koua sustained severe head injuries; according to witnesses, his head was split open in two places with parts of his brain visible.

Koua was taken to a hospital, but after three days doctors said they could do nothing more for him and sent him home. As his injuries were life-threatening, those close to Koua did not expect him to recover.

The alleged attacker, Lao, is still at large and has not been charged. The assault took place in Sung Can Village, Sung Tra Commune, Meo Vac district, Ha Giang Province.

In the same area two years ago, a 74-year-old woman became the first Christian in the village. Today there are about 100 families who follow Christ, but the cost has been high. Stories of harassment and abuse of Christians in Meo Vac district have circulated for several months, with local Christians saying government officials are either complicit or look the other way.

On Feb. 3, local Christians said, Lao murdered his mother in a similarly brutal fashion, smashing her head until she died. Police only held him overnight before releasing him without charge. The day he was released, local sources said, he again threatened Christians with death.

A Vietnamese pastor petitioned the government to investigate – with no result. Another leader informed U.S. diplomats of the details. Some Vietnamese Christians have complained to Vietnam diplomatic missions abroad, all to no avail.

Advocates of religious freedom in Vietnam say such impunity puts a serious blot on Vietnam’s slowly improving religious liberty record.

Following heavy international scrutiny of Vietnam’s oppression of religion in general and Protestantism in particular, Vietnam promulgated new religion legislation in 2004 and 2005. To date this has led to the legal recognition of six church/denominational organizations, raising the total to eight out of about 70. Additionally, a few hundred of Vietnam’s thousands of house church congregations have been given interim permission to carry on religious activities, and large-scale government campaigns to force ethnic minority Christians to recant their faith have ceased.

High hopes for improvement following the new religion legislation led the U.S. Department of State to take Vietnam off its blacklist of the worst violators of religious freedom in late 2006, which enabled the U.S. government to endorse Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization. And Christian support organization Open Doors this year dropped Vietnam to No. 23 on its World Watch List ranking of religion persecutors. In eight of the last 12 years, Vietnam had been placed among the organization’s top 10 worst religious persecutors.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), however, found exceptions to progress so widespread that it again recommended naming Vietnam a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) this year. The recommendation by USCIRF, responsible for monitoring state department compliance with the U.S. 1998 Law on International Religious Freedom, was announced on May 1.

The commission’s report recognizes progress but notes, “There continue to be far too many serious abuses and restrictions of religious freedom in the country. Individuals continue to be imprisoned or detained for reasons related to their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy; police and government officials are not held fully accountable for abuses; independent religious activity remains illegal; and legal protections for government-approved religious organizations are both vague and subject to arbitrary or discriminatory interpretations based on political factors.”

Given the uneven pace of religious freedom progress after removing Vietnam from the list of CPCs, continued detention of prisoners of conscience, and an overall deteriorating human rights situation, USCIRF recommended that Vietnam be re-designated as a CPC.

In Tra Vinh Province in the Mekong Delta Region of southern Vietnam, another Christian was murdered on April 5. Thugs ambushed Thach Thanh No, described as a young and enthusiastic church elder, on his way home from Sunday worship, according to local Christian sources. His family was unable to find him quickly, and he died from his injuries as he was transported to a hospital.

The congregation in Ngoc Bien Commune to which he belonged has long been harassed and threatened by local thugs supported by militant Buddhists, according to area Christians, who emphasized that authorities have done nothing to intervene.

Indeed, in Thach’s case, rather than prosecute the killers, the Ministry of Public Security’s World Security newspaper published an article on April 24 – concocted without any factual basis, according to area Christians – which portrayed him as dying from crashing his motorbike while drunk. His motorbike, however, was found entirely unmarked without any signs of a crash, and his body showed clear signs of a vicious beating, according to area Christians.

“In one case the law winks at the murder of a Christian and does nothing to punish the murderer – in another, authorities actively work to cover up a murder with elaborate lies,” said one long-time advocate for religious freedom in Vietnam. “Such behavior on the part of authorities convinces many Vietnamese Christians that their country’s top officials are still not sincere about improving religious freedom for all.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Pastor threatened with death, historic Methodist sanctuary ransacked, during Holy Week.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, April 16 (Compass Direct News) – Buddhist mobs attacked several churches in Sri Lanka last week, threatening to kill a pastor in the southern province of Hambanthota and ransacking a 150-year-old Methodist church building in the capital.

On April 8, four Buddhist extremists approached the home of pastor Pradeep Kumara in Weeraketiya, Hambanthota district, calling for him to come out and threatening to kill him. The pastor said his wife, at home alone with their two children, phoned him immediately but by the time he returned, the men had left.

Half an hour later, Kumar said, the leader of the group phoned him and again threatened to kill him if he did not leave the village by the following morning. Later that night the group leader returned to the house and ordered the pastor to come out, shouting, “I didn’t bring my gun tonight because if I had it with me, I would use it!”

“My children were frightened,” Kumara said. “I tried to reason with him to go away, but he continued to bang on the door and threaten us.”

Police soon arrived on the scene and arrested the instigator but released him the following day.

Subsequently the attacker gathered Buddhist monks and other villagers together and asked them to sign a petition against the church, Kumar said. Protestors then warned the pastor’s landlord that they would destroy the house if he did not evict the pastor’s family by the end of the month.

Fearing violence, Kumara said he canceled Good Friday and Easter Sunday services and evacuated his children to a safer location.


Methodist Building Ransacked

Earlier, on Palm Sunday (April 5), another group of men broke into the 150-year-old Pepiliyana Methodist Church in Colombo after congregants concluded an Easter procession.

The gang entered through the back door and windows of the building late that night; witnesses said they saw them load goods into a white van parked outside the church early the next morning.

“They removed everything, including valuable musical instruments, a computer, Bibles, hymn books and all the church records,” said the Rev. Surangika Fernando.

The church had no known enemies and enjoyed a good relationship with other villagers, Rev. Fernando said, adding that the break-in appeared to be more than a simple robbery.

“My desk was completely cleaned out,” he said. “They took important documents with details of parishioners such as baptism and marriage records, which are of no value to thieves. They even took what was in my wastepaper basket.”

Local police agreed that robbery was an unlikely motive and that opponents from outside the area were the most likely culprits. Investigations were continuing at press time.

Finally, anti-Christian mobs in Vakarai, eastern Batticaloa district, intimidated church members gathering for several worship services during Holy Week.

“What can we do?” pastor Kanagalingam Muraleetharan told Compass. “The authorities and the police say we have the right to worship, but the reality is that people are threatened.”

The Easter incidents are the latest in a long series of attacks against churches and Christian individuals in recent years, many of them instigated by Buddhist monks who decry the growth of Christianity in the country.

Members of Sri Lanka’s Parliament may soon enact an anti-conversion bill designed to restrict religious conversions. Human rights organizations and Christian groups have criticized the vague terminology of the legislation that, if passed, may invite misapplication against religious activity.

The draft “Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions” was referred to a consultative committee of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in February for further deliberation, prior to a final reading and vote. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Parliament to Vote on Anti-Conversion Laws,” Jan. 26.)

According to the most recent government census, Protestant Christians number less than 1 percent of the total population in Sri Lanka, but they remain the primary target of religiously motivated violence and intimidation.

Report from Compass News Direct


Case against two converts drags on; media already passed sentenced on Christianity.

ISTANBUL, November 12 (Compass Direct News) – Two years into a trial for “insulting Turkishness” that has been light on evidence and heavy on mud-slinging at Turkey’s Protestant community, a court proceeding last week brought no progress.

Another witness for the prosecution failed to appear in the trial of Turkish Christians Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan, charged with “insulting Turkishness” and spreading Christianity through illegal methods. Moreover, a Justice Ministry answer to the court about the viability of charges under Turkey’s controversial Article 301 had yet to arrive at the court last week.

In the last hearing in June, Silivri Criminal Court Judge Mehmet Ali Ozcan ordered a review of the two Christian converts’ alleged violations of the controversial article of the Turkish penal code on “insulting Turkishness.” But the court is still waiting for the Justice Ministry to decide whether they can be tried under Article 301 of the penal code.

The judge set the next hearing for Feb. 24, 2009 while the court awaits a response on whether the Christians can be charged under the controversial article.

Topal and Tastan are still charged with reviling Islam (Article 216) and compiling information files on private citizens (Article 135).

In what critics called “cosmetic” revisions of Article 301, the Turkish government amended it in May to require Justice Ministry permission to file such cases. Put into effect on May 8, the changes also redefined the vague offense of “insulting Turkishness” to read “insulting the Turkish nation.”

While the court awaited a decision on Article 301, in the hearing on Nov. 4 it did free the defendants from forced attendance at future hearings. This, according to defense lawyer Haydar Polat, was the only progress made by the court; he added that a witness or evidence would have been better. For lack of these, he said, the prosecution has needlessly dragged out the case.

“In both cases [against them], the only acceptable progress is the testimony of a witness,” said Polat. “Then again, the fact that the defendants are free from having to attend every trial is in a sense progress too.”


Lame Witnesses

The initial charges prepared by the Silivri state prosecutor 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.

Despite a court summons sent to the Silivri and Istanbul gendarme headquarters requesting six named gendarme soldiers to testify as prosecution witnesses in the case, none have stepped forward to testify.

“They will be called in the next hearing as well,” Polat told Compass.

At the June 24 hearing, two teenage witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses have failed to show up on various trial dates, and last week another witness called by prosecution, Fatih Kose, did not appear.

“There is no lack of witnesses, but as far as we are concerned, these characters’ accounts are irrelevant to the truth and full of contradictions,” said Polat. “I mean there is no believable and persuasive argument, nor a coherent witness.”

Last week a police officer from the precinct where Topal and Tastan were allegedly seen doing missionary activities was summoned to court to testify. He told the court that he indeed worked in the precinct but knew nothing about the activities of the two Christians.

Eleven months ago, the appointed prosecutor himself had demanded that the court acquit the two Christians, declaring there was “not a single concrete, credible piece of evidence” to support the accusations against them. This prosecutor was removed from the case, and two months later the judge hearing the case withdrew over prosecution complaints that he was not impartial.

Two key figures pressing the Article 301 charges and promoting sensational media coverage of the Silivri trial proceedings are now jailed themselves, unable to attend the hearings.

Both ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz and spokesperson Sevgi Erenerol of the Turkish Orthodox Church – a Turkish nationalist denomination with no significant following – are accused of playing leading roles in Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy.

Since mid-January, 47 people have been jailed and face trial for involvement in the alleged crime network, said to have orchestrated numerous killings and violence as part of a nationalist plot to overthrow the Turkish government by 2009.

Asked about the chances of closing the case that has made no progress for two years due to lack of evidence against the defendants, Polat said he was hopeful his clients would find justice in the Turkish legal labyrinth.

“As lawyers, we believe that both of our clients will be acquitted,” he said. “Come February we expect that the Justice Ministry will not approve the opening of a public case on the basis of ‘insulting Turkishness.’”


Slandering Christians

The trial of Topal and Tastan has included its share of mud-slinging at Turkish Protestants, estimated at 3,000 to 3,500 people in a country of 70 million, deepening the nation’s prejudices against them.

This legal battle has been less about guilt or innocence and more about tainting the community’s image, according to a member of the legal committee of the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey.

The Christian Turk from the legal committee told Compass that in 2006, when the charges against Topal and Tastan first came to light, there were news reports for days claiming that Christians tricked children in elementary schools, paid people to come to church and gave women away for sex, among other absurd assertions.

“The goal was to create disinformation, and they succeeded at portraying Christians in a negative light,” he said.

The source said that this was the primary goal of ultranationalist lawyer Kerincsiz’s team, which he believes is behind the cases brought against Topal and Tastan as well as the delay in the outcome.

“On the first day of the hearings, when the case opened, I told those around me that nothing would come of this case,” he said.

The legal committee member said media created a psychological war against Turkish Christians. Other members of the Protestant community believe another goal was to deter any evangelism or outreach by Turkish Christians.

“It was to discourage the whole Christian community and quash them and discourage evangelism,” said another source.

The member of the legal committee said he believes that eventually Topal and Tastan will be acquitted. But even if they win the court case, the damage from the publicity war on the church will not be as easy to repair.

“I think everything will stay the same, because the case won’t be reported in the news,” he said. “The issue was not about whether these two were guilty or not. When this first broke out it was in the news for days. When it is over it will barely make it to a newspaper corner, and we won’t be able to give a message for the public because we don’t wield media power. We comfortably carry our quiet voice, and we will until then.”  

Report from Compass Direct News