Myanmar cardinal wants dam project halted

December 10, 2015 by admin  
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Myitsone damMyanmar, December 3, 2015: Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon is urging Myanmar’s newly elected government to halt the controversial Myitsone dam project in Kachin state, which is widely viewed as environmentally and culturally destructive.

Cardinal Bo said Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy that won the Nov. 8 election, said before the poll that a government is elected by support from the people.

“So if she really wants to fulfill the desire of the people, she should try to end the project completely. And she should follow the desire of the ethnic Kachin people,” Cardinal Bo told

The US$3.8 billion dam is being built on the Irrawaddy River, Myanmar’s premier waterway for hydro electricity that will be used almost exclusively in neighboring China, providing 6,000 megawatts of electricity.

It will be the 15th largest hydroelectric power station in the world if completed as planned by 2017. It will be 1,310 meters long and 139.6 meters high.

By 2010, the dam’s construction caused at least 2,000 people to be relocated from their ancestral homes in Aung Myin Thar village.

The military-backed government of President Thein Sein suspended construction in September 2011, while China vigorously agitated for recommencing work on the project

“The Irrawaddy is our mother and our life-blood river so ending the project is not only the will of ethnic Kachins but also the people of Myanmar,” Cardinal Bo said.

He promised to speak out on the issue “when I get a chance to meet with Suu Kyi personally.”

Cardinal Bo told during an interview at his residence in Yangon’s St. Mary’s Cathedral compound that he also raised concerns on another China-backed project — a copper mine in central Myanmar — and questioned the outgoing government’s relationship with China and neighboring India.

“No matter how (much) we need good relationships with neighboring countries such as China, the Suu Kyi-led new government should consider the will of the people in Myanmar,” Cardinal Bo said.

He warned that an accident during the dam’s construction could destroy several villages, while environmental destruction caused by the dam will largely impact local people.

In his pre-election 10-point guide about choosing candidates, Cardinal Bo referred to the dam project, encouraging voters to choose candidates and parties that “safeguard the country’s nature and natural resources, protecting our forests and not selling our sacred rivers and resources to foreign powers.”

Khet Htain Nan, a Christian lawmaker from the Unity and Democracy Party in Kachin State, also said the new government should not let the massive dam project continue as people and experts have opposed it.

“In a democracy, the government should listen to the voices of the people so a new government also needs to listen to the voices and desire of the people in Myanmar,” Khet Htain Nan told

Suu Kyi toured Kachin State prior to the elections and during a meeting with Christian leaders on Oct. 2 promised she would try to address the dam project, which remains unpopular with many people in Kachin.

Critics have long accused Suu Kyi of dodging a strong commitment to Myanmar’s diverse ethnic groups that surround the more populous center of the country. In Kachin, critics say, she and her party have failed to speak out about fighting in the state, which erupted in June 2011 following the breakdown of a 17-year cease-fire between Myanmar’s military and Kachin rebels.

- ucan

Despite ISIS, American church still ignorant about christian persecution, expert says

December 8, 2015 by admin  
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ISISWashington, December 4, 2015: Americans remain largely ignorant and indifferent toward the plight of Christians overseas despite headlines featuring ISIS’ violence, argued an expert on religious liberty.

Timothy Samuel Shah, associate director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, argued as part of a panel held Friday afternoon in Washington, D.C. that American Christians are not as involved as they should be in fighting persecution abroad.

A practicing Catholic, Shah talked about how he was “struck by widespread apathy and indifference and ignorance concerning this issue among Christians, let alone others.”

“I don’t hear a lot of conversation in my very vibrant parish about this issue,” said Shah, who noted that aside from the Knights of Columbus chapter “the parish as a whole is pretty indifferent.”

“Maybe your churches are different; my sense is that they’re not. I don’t hear a lot of real outrage from Christian leaders about this issue on a regular consistent basis.”

Shah went on to ask critically about “where are the widespread demonstrations? Where are letters by thousands and thousands of pastors to appropriate leaders to do more about this?”

“Where are the spontaneous grassroots campaigns? I don’t see them,” continued Shah, “If one-tenth of 1 percent of Christians in America were really outraged and mobilized we would see political action across the board.”

Shah added that his opinions echoed those of former Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia, whose legislative efforts helped create the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Shah’s remarks came as part of a panel on Christian persecution abroad sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the National Review Institute.

Titled “Christian Martyrs Today: Help for the Persecuted,” the panel was held Friday afternoon at the Lehrman Auditorium and livestreamed online.

“A brutal persecution is happening, as Christians are being driven out of what was the very cradle of Christianity in Iraq and Syria,” read Heritage’s description of the event.

“Pope Francis has said that there are more Christian martyrs today than in the early days of Christianity. What are we doing about it? What can we do about it?”

In addition to Shah, other panelists were Patrick Kelly, executive director of St. John Paul II National Shrine of the Knights of Columbus and Nadine Maenza, chair of the religious liberty group Hardwired.

Kathryn Jean Lopez, senior fellow at the National Review Institute, served moderator for the panel which covered various topics related to religious persecution in the Middle East.

In his comments, Kelly mentioned how governments including the United States need to think about how to properly talk about religion and religious liberty.

“Generally speaking, at the U.S. State Department among the foreign service officers, there is, I would say, an illiteracy about religion and the language of religion,” said Kelly, a former State Department employee.

“They think of religion as a problem. If we could just do away with it, we’ll fix all these problems [but] they don’t understand that the majority of the world’s population is motivated by religion and these motivations are good.”

The panel comes as Congress continues to mull a resolution that calls on the federal government to recognize the recent uptick in persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East as genocide.

- christian post

Islamist groups send death threats to Bangladeshi Christian workers

December 6, 2015 by admin  
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bangladeshBangladesh, December 03, 2015: “You, the Christian leaders, will have to bid goodbye to this world very soon,” pastor Barnabas Hemrom was told in a letter sent to him last Wednesday (25 November) that listed the names of a further nine church pastors. Over 20 church leaders and Christian workers have received death threats in the past two months.

“We are going to finish off all, one by one, who are spreading Christianity in Bangladesh,” read the letter sent to pastor Hemron. One of the nine pastors whose names were listed in the letter is afraid for his safety. “I am not going out of the church campus at all,” he said. “I spoke to others who like me were targeted in that letter. They are all frightened.” Police have been posted at his church, he said.

Rev. Martin Adhikari, principal of the College of Christian Theology in capital city Dhaka, received a text message on 11 November telling him to “Eat your most favourite foods now. Only five days of your life are left. Not more than that.” Another text sent to him the next day read, “One day has gone by. Let us know if we have to arrange your burial as well. Or…will your family take care of your body?”

Those sending the threats claim they are part of Islamist groups Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Islamic State. Their agenda is clear: “This country will be ruled only by the (Islamic) Sharia law,” read the letter sent to Pastor Hemrom.

Although Bangladesh is a secular country and its legal system makes it one of the most tolerant Muslim-majority countries in the world, there are Islamist groups lobbying for the Islamisation of the country. The situation has become increasingly volatile in recent months, and Bangladeshi Christians, who make up just 1% of a population that is 90% Muslim, are vulnerable targets.

Last Saturday (28 November), a Christian worker managed to escape unharmed after six masked men stormed a church in Manikganj district. Ten days earlier, an Italian Christian worker was shot in the town of Dinajpur, in northern Bangladesh.

In the north-western Pabna district, Pastor Luke Sarker survived a knife attack in his home on 5 October when three men pretending they wanted to learn about Christianity attempted to slit his throat.

- barnabas team

Pakistani police investigate fire at Christian tv station

December 3, 2015 by admin  
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Gawahi TVPakistan, November 26, 2015: Police officials said Thursday that they were investigating a fire this week that destroyed the office of a Christian cable television station in this southern port city.

Employees of the station, Gawahi TV, said the fire at their office was deliberately set.

There have been a number of recent attacks on religious minorities in Pakistan. More than a dozen people were killed in two bombings outside churches in Lahore in March, and Christians in Pakistan are routinely targeted by sectarian militant groups and local criminals.

Last week, a factory was burned, and a mosque owned by the Ahmadis, a Muslim sect considered heretical by Pakistan’s Sunni majority, was attacked over allegations that a factory worker had burned pages of the Quran. Army troops were called in to calm the situation in Jhelum, a city in Punjab Province.

Such acts of violence have continued in Pakistan despite the government’s repeated pledges to safeguard religious minorities, prompting some advocates of religious rights to question the government’s commitment.

The fire at Gawahi TV’s office was reported around 3 a.m. on Tuesday and took nearly two hours to extinguish. By daybreak, the three-room office was a burned-out hulk.

On Thursday, employees who days before had been planning their Christmas broadcast schedule gingerly stepped around large piles of half-burned religious books as they walked through the office. A charred copy of the Bible sat atop the reception desk.

Javed William, whose brother, Pastor Sarfraz William, is the owner of Gawahi TV, said the fire appeared to be a planned attack. “The door locks were cut and the things were not where we had left them,” he said, adding that a security camera system had been destroyed in the fire.

Employees said computers were destroyed or stolen.

“The hard disks are missing,” said Irfan Daniel, an assistant manager. “Someone did this with a lot of thought.”

Javed William said he was not aware of any threats to the organization. “This is not an attack on us,” he said. “It is an attack on Christianity. Whoever did this does not want God’s work to happen.”

Gawahi TV’s religious programming includes recitations of the Bible, Christian hymns and music videos, and is shown on local cable networks in Karachi.

On Thursday, the channel broadcast images of its damaged office, with Pastor William sitting amid the rubble. “A lot of people called and said, ‘We’d protest at one call from you,’ ” Javed William said. “We said our God does not allow us to do this.”

- ny times

A silent church ignores a wave of executions in Pakistan

November 30, 2015 by admin  
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Pak MinioritiesKarachi, November 26, 2015: Pakistan is close to achieving a notorious new milestone of becoming one of the world’s top executioners, with almost 300 inmates already put to death this year and thousands more waiting.

According to figures from Pakistan’s independent Human Rights Commission, 295 people have been hanged in the country — a new record — since December last year.

Amnesty International, however, puts the toll of executed inmates at 299.

Abdul Basit, a paraplegic man who was convicted of murder, could have become the 300th, but his Nov. 25 execution was delayed at the eleventh hour after the Pakistani president intervened.

This was the third time that an execution warrant had been issued for Abdul Basit, who was first scheduled to be hanged on July 29.

Despite being unable to stand and being reliant on a wheelchair, jail authorities are adamant about carrying out his inhuman and unlawful hanging.

“The hanging of a wheelchair-bound prisoner simply cannot be conducted in a humane and dignified manner as required by Pakistani and international law. Proceeding with Abdul Basit’s execution in the circumstances will offend against all norms of civilized justice,” the rights group’s chairwoman, Zohra Yusuf, said in a statement.

The outspoken group has taken a principled approach to defending the rights of Pakistan’s death row prisoners. If only the local church would do the same.

Pakistan lifts moratorium

Pakistan’s record on executions this year is all the more astounding given that prior to December 2014, the country had not carried out any executions in six years.

But Islamabad lifted its moratorium on the death penalty shortly after Taliban militants stormed a school in Peshawar, killing 150 people — including 130 schoolchildren.

The horrific attack shocked the nation and triggered countrywide protests and demands to rein in the Taliban’s campaign of terror and violence.

As media and public pressure grew, the Pakistani military and political leadership rushed to restore capital punishment and announced the establishment of controversial military courts to fast-track the trials of terror suspects.

Initially, the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif opted to execute only terror convicts, but pressure from Islamist parties and clergy convinced authorities to order executions for all kinds of death row convicts — a move that drew condemnation from the United Nations, the European Union, Amnesty International and other groups.

Rights watchdogs say the government is ignoring its responsibilities to reform the legal system. They say that the circumstances that prompted the suspension of capital punishment in the first place have not changed after six years, and that the deeply flawed criminal justice system continues to pose the threat of wrongful convictions.

Rights groups also argue that there is no evidence to suggest any correlation between the death penalty and reducing crime rates.

When compared to 2014 statistics, Pakistan’s nearly 300 executions this year would put it near the top of an unfortunate list. This year, Saudi Arabia has executed at least 151 people, while Iran has put to death almost 700, according to Amnesty.

Death row

According to the Justice Project Pakistan, a Lahore-based nonprofit law firm that helps marginalized people in the legal system, more than 8,000 people are currently on death row. Pakistan’s government, on the other hand, says there are 6,000.

Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother of four, is among those who have been handed the death sentence after her disputed conviction for blasphemy. Bibi’s final appeal is pending before the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Among those who have already been executed are Aftab Bahadur Masih, a Christian man who was arrested in 1992 in a case involving the murder of a woman and her two sons.

According to the Justice Project Pakistan, Bahadur was only 15 years old at the time of his arrest — too young to face the death penalty. The Catholic Church in Pakistan had made an unsuccessful appeal for clemency to Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain.

In August, Pakistan executed Shafqat Hussain, convicted of killing a child in 2004. His lawyers claimed he was 14 when found guilty and his confession was extracted by torture, but officials say there is no proof he was a minor when convicted.

Church response disappointing

In September this year, Pope Francis called for the global abolition of the death penalty in his address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress.

“The golden rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” Francis said in his speech to Congress.

“This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred.”

Despite Pope Francis’ clear and unambiguous stance on capital punishment, the Catholic Church in Pakistan has failed to take a stand against the record numbers of executions in the country this year.

Apart from an appeal for clemency for Bahadur, neither the church nor the human rights arm of its bishops’ conference, the National Commission for Justice and Peace, has issued even a single statement on the death penalty.

In fact, two senior officials from the commission told that they personally supported the government’s move to resume capital punishment, reasoning it would help solve the country’s long-standing terrorism woes. The two officials, however, asked not to be named.

Although some clergymen individually opposed the executions in media interviews, there has been a muted and disappointing official response from the church, to say the least.

It is high time that the Catholic Church in Pakistan took a principled stance against capital punishment. It would be in line with international laws, and indeed in line with the views of Pope Francis himself.

Zahid Hussain is a Pakistani journalist covering human rights and issues affecting minorities.

- ucan

Remember hidden Catholics in North Korean parishes

November 29, 2015 by admin  
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North Korea ChristiansKorea, November 26, 2015: To mark the 70th anniversary of the division of Korea and the Year of Mercy, the Archdiocese of Seoul launched a prayer movement, “North Korean church in my heart.”

Seoul Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, who serves as apostolic administrator of Pyongyang, North Korea, said the people there “have always been in my prayers.”

Before a Mass at Myeongdong Cathedral Nov. 24, the cardinal said: “Pope Francis has announced the Jubilee of Mercy; I believe the Korean Peninsula is one of the regions that need most the mercy of God. I invite everyone to join me in this prayer movement, to bear in mind the Catholic Church of North Korea, and to show our love and concern with continuous prayers.”

After the liberation of Korea, there were 57 parishes and about 5,200 Catholics in North Korea. After the Korean War, however, the Catholic Church of North Korea faced persecution by the government. Only a few hidden Catholics are believed to be in North Korea now.

The archdiocese said “North Korean church in my heart” is open to anyone who wants to pray for the North Korean church.

- cns

International Commission of Jurists report slams Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

November 26, 2015 by admin  
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blasphemy lawsPakistan, November 19, 2015: According to the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) 187 Christians have been accused under Pakistan’s various  “blasphemy” laws since 1987. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has vigorously condemned these cruel laws, trials and punishments in a 60-page report published in early November.

“Blasphemy” laws

The report calls on the Pakistan government to “repeal all blasphemy laws … or amend them substantially so that they are consistent with international standards on freedom of expression; freedom of thought, conscience or religion; and equal protection of the law”.

This table put together by the ICJ includes all of the offences related to religion in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), popularly known as the “blasphemy” laws.

Abusing the blasphemy laws to falsely accuse

The “blasphemy laws” have frequently been misused to abuse the country’s Christians, who are often falsely accused of blasphemy by enemies who use it as a way of settling a personal grudge or to grab property. In a high-profile trial, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa said on 27 October that, “It is an unfortunate fact which cannot be disputed that in many cases registered in respect of the offence of blasphemy, false allegations are levelled for extraneous purposes.”

The NCJP reports that, as well as nearly 200 Christians, 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis and 21 Hindus have also been accused of ”blasphemy” offences since 1987. Given that the religious minorities account for an extremely small percentage of the Muslim-majority population, the number of Christians and members of other minority religions accused is massively disproportionate to the number of Muslims accused, although the number of accused Muslims is higher.

Death penalty

The ICJ vehemently urges the abolition of the mandatory death penalty that is included in Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code for “defiling the name” of Muhammad. Although the Code itself dictates two possible punishments for this offence (namely, life imprisonment or death), the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) in 1990 ruled that the government should remove the option for life imprisonment from 295-C. The government did not do so and the “life imprisonment” option remained in ink on the statute book. However, the influence and status of FSC rulings in Pakistan is such that this option ceased to be legally valid and since then everyone found guilty under Section 295-C has been sentenced to death. On the other hand, no one has actually been executed for this crime but are normally left languishing in prison as they await an appeal; their conviction is eventually overturned or their sentence commuted. So a kind of legal limbo has existed, in which the FSC’s 1990 ruling is followed in practice but not added to the statute books.

No deliberate intent to blaspheme necessary for a conviction

Another recommendation listed in the ICJ report is that the government “expressly include the requirement of proof of deliberate and malicious intent in all offences related to religion … particularly 295-C”.

Section 295-C excludes the need for mens rea (literally, “guilty mind”). This means that someone can commit an offence without any intention and without realising what they are doing.

The ICJ reviewed 25 cases of high court appeals for Section 295-C and discovered that in the majority of these cases (60%), the appellants were acquitted after the courts ruled that the accusations made against them had been “either fabricated, or made maliciously for personal or political reasons”.

Even after the acquittal of the accused, the ICJ discovered that no charges were made against those who made the false allegations, despite the fact that there are laws to criminalise perjury.

Extrajudicial murders common

A simple accusation is enough to make anyone accused of “blasphemy” vulnerable to extrajudicial murder as zealous Muslims take the law into their own hands: 53 people have been subject to such unlawful killings since 1986.

A Christian couple, Shehzad Masih and his pregnant wife Shama Bibi, were beaten and burned alive in a brick kiln by a Muslim mob in November 2014 after Shama was accused of burning pages of the Quran and throwing them in a rubbish bin. However, local reports said that Shama was illiterate and had no way of knowing what she was burning.

The ICJ noted that in many cases, those accused of “blasphemy” were attacked while being held, some of them killed. In some instances, it was the police themselves who were responsible for the attacks.

Fair trial

The report published by the ICJ condemns the lack of fair trial offered to those accused of “blasphemy”. It urges Pakistani authorities to allow anyone accused of a blasphemy offence to be able to apply for bail pending a trial. It also asks that the offences be made non-cognisable, meaning that instead of having free reign to arrest and investigate, police would need a warrant to arrest someone suspected of offending against the laws and that court permission would be required for an investigation.

The ICJ found that judges often show “demonstrable bias and prejudice against defendants”. According to the prevailing Pakistan Code of Criminal Procedure, “only a Muslim Presiding judge shall hear cases registered under Section 295-C of the Penal Code in the court of first instance”.

It also found that judges and lawyers acting in blasphemy cases face intimidation and harassment, hindering the process of fair trial for the accused.

Criticising the “blasphemy laws”

In a landmark statement for freedom of religion in Pakistan, the Pakistan Supreme Court said on Monday (5 October) that criticising the country’s notoriously harsh blasphemy laws is not blasphemy. Political figures in Pakistan’s recent history who opposed or attempted to amend the blasphemy laws have been violently pressured into backtracking, and several have been killed.

- barnabas team

Lahore: plant and three Ahmadi places of worship torched for “blasphemy”

November 25, 2015 by admin  
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churches burnedLahore, November 23, 2015: An Ahmadi-owned plant and three Ahmadi places of worship were torched in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

According to a preliminary police report, hundreds of people, acting on unfounded rumours that a copy of the Qur‘an had been burnt in the factory, stormed the site and set it on fire. They later did the same to three Ahmadi mosques.

“We live in difficult times in terms of intolerance. We must unite to combat the scourge of racism, discrimination, and terrorism,” said Fr Arif John, from the Diocese of Rawalpindi.

The Catholic Church and other Christian denominations agreed to hold a special prayer in Rawalpindi as well as Jhelum, where the incident took place, to show solidarity with the people attacked “in the name of religion”.

The first attack took place last Friday. A mob of hundreds of Muslims stormed a chipboard factory owned by Qamar Ahmed Tahir, an Ahmadi, who was also responsible for the factory’s security.

Following the violence, police arrested him on blasphemy charges. However, what actually happened remains unclear.

According to some, Mr Tahir ordered an employee to burn a copy of the Qur‘an. The day after the plant attack, a crowd stormed Ahmadi places of worship, torching three of them. Chaos spread across Jhelum and police were able to restore law and order in the city with great difficulty.

Investigation eventually showed that the allegations against the owner were false. It was determined that Tahir only supervised the burning of waste material. Nothing closely related to the Qur‘an, or religious material, was found in what was left of the site.

“Torching a place based on false information only leads to the loss of property,” said Fr John. “False charges like this one leads to complete chaos in the city.” For this reason, “we call on everyone to join hands to pray. We must pray more to send a message of peace in such sad times.”

Pakistan’s Ahmadi Muslim community has about four million members. Founded in the late 19th century by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in what was then British India, the Ahmadi faith is considered heretical by most Sunnis and Shias. Whilst claiming to be Islamic, it draws on the beliefs of other religions as well.

Within Pakistan, Ahmadis are not allowed to Islamic greetings and prayers, and cannot refer to their places of worship as mosques. However, like Pakistan’s Christians, they have often been victimised by the country’s blasphemy laws, which are used to persecute minorities.

- asianews

Bangladeshi Christians, Muslims and Hindus demand justice for Fr Parolari

November 24, 2015 by admin  
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minorities in bangladeshBangladesh, November 21, 2015: Some 200 people, from different faith groups, gathered in protest in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka, to demand justice for Fr Piero Parolari, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) who was badly wounded in an attack last Wednesday and is now recuperating in a military hospital in the capital.

Christians, Muslims and Hindus came together for the event. “Today I am very sad,” said Rana Dasgupta, a Hindu community leader who is also an International Crimes Tribunal Prosecutor.

“A priest who dedicated his whole life to charity was hurt by extremists,” he said. “It is a shame for us to be Bangladeshi.”

“I also heard that 12 other pastors received death threats,” he added. “If this situation goes on, democracy in our country will be destroyed soon.”

The protest was organised by the Bangladesh Christian Association (BCA) and other Christian groups. Some protesters carried banners saying ‘Do not kill for religion’, and ‘Foreigners are our friends’.

“We are persecuted more and more,” said BCA general secretary Nirmal Rozario. “The government is not paying attention to our situation. This emboldens the criminals who attack us.”

In fact, this is part of a broader problem. “Christians have been victims many times in the past. Yet, none of them has seen any justice. We want justice in Fr Piero’s case now!” the BCA secretary insisted.

And Catholics are not alone. A dozen Protestant clergymen received death threats via text messages in the last two weeks, Rozario noted.

“I don’t go out after I got this threat,” said one clergyman who chose not to give his name. “Eat whatever you like the most. Only five days are left. Not more than that,” said another citing a message he received. Dhaka Police is investigating the situation.

“PIME missionaries and many other clergymen selflessly serve the people. They do humanitarian work for people of every religion, but they are often victimised and persecuted,” said Benedict Alo D’Rozario, executive director of Caritas Bangladesh, who took part in the protest.

“We love and respect PIME missionaries for their charity and good work,” he added. “We are sad that some extremists are trying to harm them. Today we have come to demand justice and security for the priests.”

- asianews

In Vietnam, government losing battle against evangelism

November 23, 2015 by admin  
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Vietnam ChristiansVietnam, November 22, 2015: It’s a Saturday night in Ho Chi Minh City, and the kids are starting to gather at the Tan Thuan evangelical church in District 7. They pull up on shiny motorbikes, clothes neat, hair slicked back. They cast shy looks at strangers, greet friends exuberantly, and sprawl across the pews.

“Here, the brotherhood is close, I have a lot of friends,” said Tin, 24, who attends the church’s Saturday youth services regularly with his 27-year-old brother Dinh.

One night a week, services are just for youth. One night, they’re for new members. One night: the elderly. There are early morning prayers every day and several services on Sundays. During the week, there are scheduled missions to spread the word of God.

The experience is vastly different to what the brothers grew up with in Quang Ngai province in central Vietnam, where authorities routinely blocked access to church and cut off evangelizing trips.

“In the past, the local government wouldn’t let us gather in a group and wouldn’t let us attend our house church. There used to be one there, but after 1975, the government took it and turned it into a community center,” recalled Dinh.

For decades, local authorities refused to return it and it wasn’t until 2009 that they returned the land and allowed the house church to be rebuilt.

“Here, it’s more free,” he said.

Growing church

Protestantism is thriving in Vietnam. The government’s own census shows an increase from 410,000 in 1999 to 734,000 adherents a decade later. Today, the government puts that figure at around 1 million, while church officials insist it is closer to 2 million. Churches themselves report booming membership, with Sunday services often spilling out the doors as new members crowd in.

Despite the best efforts of the authorities, Protestantism has shown particular growth among Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. While reliable statistics don’t exist, the U.S. State Department wrote in its last religious freedom report that “based on adherents’ estimates, two-thirds of Protestants were members of ethnic minorities.”

But such growth has come in spite of major obstacles. While Protestantism is one of the 38 religions officially recognized by the Vietnamese government, its activities are frequently banned outright by local authorities. Most evangelism is considered illegal and members report their activities are monitored and curtailed. The government has put pressure to prevent a merger of the Northern and Southern evangelical churches, a move aimed at keeping the north (which is more heavily restricted and has not seen the growth of the south) under check.

In rural areas, particularly in the highlands, repression is rife. A report published in June by Human Rights Watch outlined a systemic persecution of ethnic minority Christians who “have been subjected to constant surveillance and other forms of intimidation, arbitrary arrest and mistreatment in security force custody.”

Even in the relatively open Ho Chi Minh City, Christians have faced pushback. Pastors and church members see their movements monitored and have been detained for handing out tracts. Those who are members of churches not officially recognized by the government have faced particular pressure. In January, a prominent Mennonite pastor who has long been a government target was brutally attacked and the perpetrators never arrested. The previous year, his Bible college was ransacked on seven different occasions.

Persecution problem

Open Doors, a Christian nongovernmental organization monitoring persecution, has ranked Vietnam one of the worst countries to be Christian on its World Watch List. The country is ranked 16 among 50 and given the tag of “severe persecution.”

Hoang *, a house church pastor, said despite a general atmosphere of openness in Ho Chi Minh City, even he had been detained on numerous occasions.

“One time I was spreading religion in a nearby area and the police ‘invited me’ and gave me a speech for four hours. They say that you can’t spread religion and I said: people ask so I answer … This happened three times,” he said.

While the situation has generally improved, he said, government control remains omnipresent.

“There is less threat from the outside now but from the inside they still want to take action,” he said.

Quang*, who heads the Tan Thuan evangelical church, said movement was controlled to no small degree.

“We’re allowed to hold activities according to our registration papers that say: ‘in the next year, I want to do this or that.’ You have to let the government know in advance and you can only follow that paper,” he said.

But, he noted, “the magical thing is that the more the government puts pressure on Christian members, the more people want to join.”

Quang’s church is considered midsize, with about 400 regular members and an unknown number of “casual visitors.” In Vietnam, the term house church is something of a misnomer. While some are erected in converted shop houses, many are built specifically as churches and nearly all are registered with the government. One of the biggest “house churches” boasts a congregation of 4,000, is half a city block and has been located on prime downtown real estate for seven decades.

Though groups like Open Doors have listed Vietnam as a dire nation in which to be Christian, one has the sense the government is fighting a losing battle.

“Every year, from central Vietnam to the southern tip, there’s at least 20,000 new Christian converts,” said Hoang An, a young pastor who works with several churches in Ho Chi Minh City.

“God has helped Vietnam to develop Christianity really well.”

*Names have been changed for those who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing a backlash from the government

- ucan

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