Pakistan, August 18, 2015: Hashmat Barkat, a Christian lawyer and director of the Peace for Nation International (PNI) non-governmental organisation, spoke to AsiaNews about the decision taken by Faisalabad’s central prison (Punjab) to end Sunday Mass for Christian prisoners.
“Restricting the right of Christian prisoners to profess freely their own religious faith is a clear violation of Article 20 of the Constitution of Pakistan,” he said.
The latter states that “(a) every citizen shall have the right to profess, practise and propagate his religion; and (b) every religious denomination and every sect thereof shall have the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions.’”
He is not alone in his opposition to the prison’s decision. Indeed, some rights organisations filed a case with the Sessions Court of Faisalabad, demanding that prisons respect the principle of freedom of religion guaranteed by the country’s fundamental charter.
This prison’s decision comes as conditions in penitentiaries become more repressive after the end of a moratorium on the death penalty following a Taliban attack on a military school in Peshawar in December 2014.
The Faisalabad prison superintendent justified the decision citing security concerns and drug smuggling among prisoners. The Sessions judge however rejected his argument.
In view of the situation, prison authorities said they would allow the church service if it is officially authorised by the Inspector General (I.G.) of Prisons or the Home Secretary.
The judge thus directed the parties to approach the two offices for a decision in the matter. As of today, the case is still pending.
For Suneel Malik, an activist and director of the Peace and Human Development (PHD) Foundation, “Pakistan has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of the United Nations.* Therefore, it is under the obligation to protect the religious freedom of its citizens since Article 18 of the Covenant provides that’ Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.’”
Malik added that Pakistan is also a party to the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) since 2013, which guarantees tax exemptions in trade if the country respects its conventions and recommendations. These include the obligation to respect freedom of worship without restrictions or discrimination.
“The PHD Foundation sent a series of letters to Punjab authorities but we have not received any answer. This situation is distressing,” he said.
Fr Khalid Rashid Asi shares that view. “Religious freedom is frequently violated and discrimination based on faith prevents individuals from fully enjoying their human rights,” he explained.
“When the government denies freedom of worship, the most obvious consequence is more complaints from the groups that suffer limitations. The lack of religious freedom can also result in social, economic and residential conditions that contribute to higher levels of violence.”
“The government has to foster a climate of tolerance and respect for minorities and ensure the protection of minority rights through the law. The government must allow Christian prisoners to celebrate their Mass,” he said.
Lastly, “This example of freedom denied to Christian prisoners increases the sense of fear, deprivation, pessimism, and insecurity among minorities, particularly Christians,” said Hashmat Barkat. Hence, “I will fight for the rights of Christian prisoners in Faisalabad’s central prison until justice is done.”
Sri Lankan, August 11, 2015: Civic rights leaders are campaigning for Christian candidates in the upcoming general election to take a stand against drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution and development projects that harm the environment.
“We act as a pressure group to stop all these evil activities in Christian-majority areas and create a good political culture,” said Thilina Alahakoon, the convener of 20 Christian organizations, during a meeting at a Baptist church in Colombo Aug. 10.
The organizations are, through their policy document, working for good governance and building of a just society.
Christian candidates for parliament should also oppose projects that might endanger the environment — such as the proposed US$1.4-billion Colombo Port City project funded by a Chinese company. The government has wavered on the project because of a debate about how it will affect the environment and the local fishing community.
“Environmentalists have already warned that [because of] this project, the coastal land, sea and lagoon and fish-breeding grounds will be damaged and affect the livelihood of the fishing community,” Alahakoon said. “Houses on the coast will be at risk of being washed away due to erosion,” he said.
The activists also urged Christian voters to reject candidates who were involved in cases of drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution or were not ready to take a stand on environmental issues.
Dominican Father Jayalath Balagalle, lecturer at the Aquinas University College, urged Christian voters to reject corrupt politicians and make those elected accountable because “we are the ones who elected them,” he said.
The Sri Lankan general election is scheduled for Aug. 17. President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved parliament in June, calling a general election.
Sri Lanka is 70 percent Buddhist, 15 percent Hindu, 8 percent Christian and 7 percent Muslim. A total of 6,151 candidates from 21 registered parties and 201 independent groups will be contesting in the election.
The bishops urged citizens to think of present and future generations by electing representatives with great care.
“Loyalty to a party should not be the sole criterion for voting,” said Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, president of the bishops’ conference.
“The Catholic Church has always upheld the importance of electing worthy candidates to the legislature as the people’s representatives,” the bishops said in a July 31 statement.
“Educational background, general culture, integrity and honesty, respect for law and order are qualities that should characterize those who are aspiring to political leadership,” the bishops said.
Bishop Raymond K Wickramasinghe of Galle told ucanews that the bishops wanted to remind citizens of their fundamental responsibility to cast an educated vote.
The statement from the bishops was released amid a recent corruption investigation that saw former minister Basil Rajapaksa — brother of the former president — and several other ministers questioned by the federal Fraud and Corruption Investigation Division.
The Chilaw diocese distributed more than 50,000 leaflets printed in the Sinhala and Tamil languages among its 47 parishes insisting on the importance of casting a vote for a qualified candidate.
“If we fail to select the best candidates being once again blind to an extreme attraction toward one party, no doubt once again we will have to wait another five years to change them,” said Father Jude Shayaman Fernando, who participated in a diocese-led awareness program aimed at community leaders in Chilaw.
Indonesia, July 15, 2015: The Jakarta Cathedral will open its gates on Eid ul-Fitr to provide parking for Muslims wishing to pray at the Istiqlal Grand Mosque, which is located across from the church.
Sharing parking lots is not just a gesture of religious tolerance but an example of the cooperation that has connected the congregation members of the church and the mosque in Central Jakarta for decades.
“This kind of cooperation with Istiqlal has been going on for more than 30 years. The cooperation also continues outside of Idul Fitri prayer times. We will also be glad to help them in their other religious activities,” the cathedral’s security coordinator Thomas Bambang told The Jakarta Post on July 14.
The Istiqlal Grand Mosque is the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. It was deliberately built across from the Jakarta Cathedral as a symbol of religious harmony and tolerance in Indonesia. The mosque was designed by Frederich Silaban, a Christian architect, in 1955.
Thomas said that as many as 250 motorcycle parking spaces and 160 car parking spaces as well as a number of the church’s employees and youth members would be ready to facilitate Idul Fitri prayers from 3 a.m.
“We hope the Muslims can hold solemn Idul Fitri prayers,” Thomas said.
He said that the Istiqlal Grand Mosque’s management was also always ready to return the favor by opening its gates for churchgoers’ vehicles during Christmas, Easter or any other big events at the church.
Istiqlal’s public relations officer Abu Hurairah Abdul Salam said he expected to see as many as 150,000 people pray for the upcoming Idul Fitri at the mosque. He said he appreciated the additional parking spaces provided by the cathedral.
He said that during Easter this year, dozens of Istiqlal’s employees and several members of Muslim organizations were deployed to secure the church area.
“The cathedral’s security post at Easter and Christmas was even established inside the Istiqlal parking space,” he said.
Abu said that there was more to the relationship between the two houses of worship than shared parking spaces. He said foreign Catholic leaders who attended events at the Cathedral were also likely to visit the Istiqlal Grand Mosque, adding that he was more than happy to give tours.
“Although we have different beliefs to Catholic followers at the cathedral, we have a strong relationship with them,” he said, adding that it was very important for the two places of worship to be an example of religious tolerance in these days of increasing intolerance.
- the jakarta post
Lahore, July 10, 2015: Being women is the “first crime” in our society while being a non Muslim women is a double crime, said Mehboob Khan legal aid advisor of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan HRCP. Centre for legal Aid Assistance and Settlement discussed concerns over sexual and gender based violence in the country during a stakeholder meeting with legal fraternity of Lahore on July 8.
“Women, children and religious minorities are among the most disadvantage groups. Christians especially prefer to remain silent when it comes to speaking about social justice. There are different forms of gender based violence for which society is to be blamed”.
He was addressing more than 35 participants including lawyers and human rights activists. The event also marked launching of Centre for legal Aid Assistance and Settlement CLAAS Annual Report 2014. The Christian NGO noted three Christian females, including an eight year old, raped by Muslims in Punjab province last year. CLAAS pursued all these cases, visited concerned police stations and kept regular contact with families of the victims.
According to latest HRCP annual report, a woman is raped every two hours, and gang raped every eight hours. Less than four percent of Pakistan’s rape cases result in a conviction, it states. More than 3000 women have died in honour killings in Pakistan since 2008.
The panelists in Lahore meeting also noted that more than 900 cases of honor killings, 500 cases of abductions and more than 400 cases of gang rapes were reported in Punjab last year.
Ever since coming to power in 2013, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)’led Punjab government has only passed four pro women bills including one on reproductive, maternal, neo-natal and child health authority.
“Our struggles end at the doors of provincial assembly of the Punjab”, Bushra Khaliq, another panelist, told AsiaNews at the sidelines of the event. “A feudal and tribal mindset generally prevails among the lawmakers. Whenever the issue of a pro woman bill is raised, everybody becomes concerned about its misuse. This affects both the policy and psyche that follows”, said Executive Director of Women in Struggle for Empowerment.
For human rights associations and foreign governments, the conviction of the 45-year-old Catholic activist was “politically motivated”.
In the past, he fought for democracy and human rights in the Asian country, and opposed China’s “imperialist” policy in the South China Sea.
After several arrests and short stints in jail, the Catholic lawyer and blogger was arrested by Vietnamese government officials on 27 December 2012 on baseless and false accusations of “tax fraud”.
On 2 October 2013, after a trial that lasted only two hours, the court handed down a 30-month prison sentence and hefty fine (US$ 57,000).
International NGOs, Catholic activists and representatives of Vietnam’s main religions came to the dissident’s defence. The latter fasted and prayed for a long time before his first trial.
Le Quoc Quân was released from prison after serving fully his sentence. During his first days of freedom, he had several interviews with local media and international agencies involved in the defence of human rights.
He reiterated that his arrest on charges of tax evasion and his conviction were groundless and unjustified, adding that the prison “did not make me change my mind” and that his ideals “remain the same”.
The Catholic lawyer and activist said that he does not plan to leave the country, that he will remain in Vietnam, his homeland, the land where his family lives.
Finally, he said that towards the end of his prison sentence he went on a hunger strike to protest mistreatment in jail, and that he would continue the fight for the right to practice law.
Le Quoc Quan’s story, like those of Cu Huy Ha Vu and dozens of other jailed bloggers and activists, are evidence of Hanoi’s iron fist policy against internal dissent.
The authorities have even targeted religious leaders, including Buddhist and Catholic clerics, as well as entire communities like the diocese of Vinh, where last year the media and government engaged in a smear campaign and targeted attacks against the local bishop and believers.
Repression also affects ordinary individuals, guilty of claiming the right to religious freedom and respect for the civil rights of citizens.
Recently, Vietnamese authorities also freed 46-year-old Le Thanh Tung, a writer linked to Bloc 8406, an outlawed movement fighting for democracy and reform in the Communist country.
He was released five months before his four-year sentence was completed. He had been convicted for “anti-government activities”.
According to experts and activists, the release could be linked to the upcoming visit to the United States of Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary (and main leader) of Vietnam’s Communist Party.
Vietnam, June 06, 2015: “Vietnam’s official media made it shockingly clear that persecution of religious minorities is state policy,” said Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Asia director, Brad Adams, after the advocacy group released a report on Friday (26 June). Compiling interviews with Vietnamese ethnic Montagnards seeking asylum abroad, the report reveals the government’s deliberate actions to persecute the ethnic minority because of their desire to follow Christianity.
“I was hit everywhere; they even used electricity to shock me,” said one of the Christian Montagnards interviewed by HRW. “The police hit me with their hands on both sides of the face… The police told me if I continued going to church, then the police would continue arresting me.” Labelled an “evil way” religion by communist Vietnam, these followers of Christianity are the victims of constant surveillance, intimidation, arbitrary arrest and abuse under detention.
According to HRW, an official media report released in January said that the Vietnamese authorities had organised a campaign to “deal seriously with their leaders and core members”. And in the same month, General Tran Dai Quang, a government minister in the Central Highlands (where most Montagnards reside), called on security forces to “actively fight” followers of unauthorised Christianity.
The threat to Montagnard Christians in the Central Highlands of Vietnam is causing many to flee into neighbouring Cambodia and Thailand, where they seek a place to worship Christ in freedom, a reality that even the Vietnamese officials recognise.
Reaching Cambodia, however, they are deported back into Vietnam despite the fact that this goes against the 1951 UN Refugee Convention of which Cambodia is a signatory country. According to the report, over the past year Cambodia had sent back at least 54 Montagnards “without allowing any opportunity to seek refugee status, and had denied at least another 109 the possibility of registering there as asylum seekers”.
In Thailand, a press conference that was due to coincide with the launch of the report on 26 June was cancelled just minutes before it was set to begin. The decision to stop the conference was said to have been to protect diplomatic ties between Thailand and Vietnam. HRW, however, is concerned that Vietnamese authorities may have requested Thai officials to intervene in an attempt to prevent the issue from ever being heard.
But this recent campaign against the Montagnards is sadly nothing new. In 2001, hundreds of ethnic Montagnards fled across the border into Cambodia after a government crackdown led to numerous arrests of Montagnards demanding greater religious freedom and the return of their lands which had been seized by the authorities.
Ethnic Montagnards are an originally animist people group who began converting to Christianity in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1990s, house churches mushroomed and today they are a predominantly Christian ethnic group. In addition to being persecuted for their Christian faith, Montagnards also believe they are targeted because of their allegiance to the U.S. in the Vietnam War. “The war is over but they still punish us because we fought alongside the Americans,” said Rong Nay, head of the Montagnard Human Rights Organisation (MHRO). “Until today,” he said, “they accuse the Montagnards of [attempting to] overthrowing the government of Vietnam… How can we overthrow it? We have empty hands.”
- barnabas team
Pakistan, 25 June, 2015: The Organization for Legal Aid in Pakistan successfully petitioned at the end of May to have Mumtaz Masih recovered from unlawful detention by his Muslim employer, who had forced him into bonded labour.
Originally, Masih borrowed 200,000 Pakistani rupees (roughly £1,400) from a local Muslim in July 2013. In exchange, Masih had to take care of his farms and animals. As part of the agreement, Masih was required to remain on his employer’s property at all times except once a month when he would receive payment and could go home to visit his family. In July 2014 the employer stopped paying Masih, banned him from home visiting, and effectively turned him into a slave.
Masih’s wife, Alishba Bibi, became concerned about her husband’s absence and sought help. After a habeas corpus court case on 29 May, a court official was directed to find Masih, who was found on his master’s property in a locked room where he had been held for the last three days.
Although bonded labour is illegal in Pakistan, many poor Christians live and work in similar situations.
- barnabas fund
For Catholic activist, federalism and religious freedom should be part of Myanmar’s democratic development
Rome, June 19, 2015: Many issues will shape Myanmar’s upcoming parliamentary election. Scheduled for later this year, this poll is the second since the military dictatorship ended. However, unlike 2011, this time Myanmar’s main pro-democracy party will be able to participate fully.
The issues that top the political agenda include the Rohingya crisis, which has gone from a domestic problem to a regional one; Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China as part of her strategy to gain political acceptance and overcome Beijing’s past hostility towards her pro-democracy party; rising nationalism among some Buddhists; and the countervailing work by the local Catholic Church in favour of peace and reconciliation, starting in regions inhabited by ethnic minorities torn by decades of conflict.
To explore these issues, AsiaNews spoke with Benedict Rogers, a journalist and human rights activist originally from London. As the East Asia Team leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), he is a leading expert on Myanmar, where in 2013 he converted to Catholicism in Yangon Cathedral.
He has visited the Asian nation more than 50 times in recent years, travelling to Yangon, Mandalay, and Naypyidaw as well as states inhabited by minorities like Kachin, Chin and Shan.
The activist has just completed a new mission in Myanmar and wanted to share with us his impressions. Here is his interview with AsiaNews:
The Rohingya problem is back. Once a domestic issue, it has now become a regional issue. Is there a parallel between the refugee emergency in Asia and events in the Mediterranean?
It is extraordinary that simultaneously we are seeing a humanitarian crisis of refugees fleeing on boats in both Asia and Europe. There are certainly stark parallels between the two situations, including the reluctance of countries in both regions to help provide sanctuary for these refugees. In regard to the situation in Burma, the root cause of the crisis is the desperate persecution of the Rohingyas, who have been stripped of citizenship and of any basic human rights, exist in dire conditions in camps for displaced people with little humanitarian assistance, and are subjected to a dehumanising campaign of hatred.
Is the Myanmar government, as someone said, the main culprit for this emergency?
The Burmese government is certainly responsible, though there are of course elements within society who are involved as well. If the Burmese government took steps to recognise the citizenship of the Rohingyas, begin a process of reconciliation between the Rohingyas and Rakhine, tackle hate speech, and protect the basic human rights of the Rohingyas, it would go a long way towards resolving the crisis.
On the subject of civil society and religions, can we say that some elements in Burmese Buddhism are becoming extremist?
There is certainly a serious problem of extremism in Burmese Buddhism, or more accurately, we should say Buddhist nationalism. It is of course a total perversion of Buddhism itself, which as a religion teaches love, compassion, peace and non-violence, but unfortunately, there is a movement in Burma – as there is in Sri Lanka – which has distorted the beautiful principles of Buddhism and turned it into a politicised religious nationalism that confuses religion with race and identity. It is a movement that seeks to impose its extreme religious nationalism on the country, through violence, discrimination and legislation, and oppresses primarily Muslims, but also Buddhists who try to counter it, and potentially Christians and other non-Buddhist minorities.
In addition to religious nationalism, ethnic minorities (Kachin, Chin, Kokang) remain an issue. Can we really believe in government-sponsored talks?
On the question of trust, clearly decades of war and broken promises and brutal oppression have eroded trust in the government and the army. Even now, it appears that the government and the army want peace only on their terms. If that is the case, peace will not be achieved. However, is lasting peace possible? Yes it is, if the government and the army sincerely build trust with the ethnic nationalities. This must include the army observing the terms of any ceasefire agreed; withdrawing troops from ethnic areas; and beginning a political dialogue to seek a political solution. Withdrawing troops is vital in my opinion, because for decades, the Burma Army has perpetrated serious human rights abuses against ethnic civilians, including rape and forced labour, and civilians will feel vulnerable if Burma Army soldiers remain close to their villages even if there is a ceasefire.
A political dialogue must lead to the establishment of a federal democracy in which the ethnic nationalities are given some degree of autonoy. A genuine, lasting peace can only be achieved through a political settlement.
In political terms, Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent visit to China marks a turning point for her (She turns 70 today). Once an iconic defender of rights, she has become the leader of a party and one day she might be the leader of a nation . . .
It is obviously important for the National League for Democracy (NLD) to establish constructive relations with China, if the NLD is to hold some political power in Burma after the elections later this year. China is too big and too important a neighbour to ignore, and although it has historically backed successive regimes and is no friend of democracy, it is in the NLD’s interests at least to neutralise China’s negative influence by building relations. Very clearly, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a politician, as she has said herself, and her focus currently is on the forthcoming elections in Burma.
In such a complex framework, what role does the Catholic Church play in Myanmar?
The Catholic Church definitely has an important role to play and can indeed contribute to reconciliation. Cardinal Charles Maung Bo has been perhaps the most consistently and courageously outspoken national leader in Burma, not only among religious leaders but among any public figures, as a voice for human rights, religious freedom, inter-religious harmony and ethnic peace for all the peoples of Burma. When he was appointed Cardinal earlier this year, many Burmese Buddhists and Muslims described him as “our Cardinal”. As a result of his leadership, and the Church’s contribution to society over many years through education, health care and other social justice issues, Catholics are respected in Burma and have an important contribution to make to nation building.
Is there an image, a face, an event that has marked your last trip to Myanmar?
Although there are very grave concerns over the rise of religious intolerance, it is also encouraging to note that there are a growing number of civil society actors and religious leaders, including Buddhist monks, who are trying to counter intolerance and promote religious freedom and inter-religious harmony. Their work is difficult and challenging, but vital. There is a real appetite for workshops, seminars and training on religious freedom and inter-faith harmony, and I have been privileged to be involved with several such initiatives. Working to strengthen the voice of those Buddhist monks who want to promote peace and harmony and counter hatred and intolerance is especially important. In February this year, I organised an exchange between religious freedom activists from Burma with counterparts in Indonesia, and in one visit to an Islamic boarding school in West Java, Indonesia, there was a beautiful moment when the Burmese Buddhist monk and the Indonesian Muslim leader embraced, hugged.
This was followed more recently by a moment when, at the end of a workshop I gave in Mandalay, a Burmese Buddhist monk came and hugged me. These symbolic images represent hope for the future.
Iraq, June 08, 2015: Only four miles (six km) from the frontlines of Islamic State (IS) fighters, three monks and six students have determined to remain in St Matthew’s ancient monastery in Iraq’s Nineveh province until there are no Christians left in the country. “We can see the battles and the airstrikes from here in front of us,” says Yousif Ibrahim, one of three remaining monks living in the monastery. “The sky lights up at night, but we of course are not scared. God protects us.”
With only the Kurdish Peshmerga military left to protect a monastery that has withstood the conquests of the Ottoman and Persian empires, the nine Christians who have chosen to stay are only too aware that IS could reach St Matthew’s at any moment. “We are not scared, because our teachers give us a feeling of peace here,” says student Sahar Karaikos, “but we know we are on the frontlines… I don’t even want to think or speak about the destruction the Islamic State would cause if they took our monastery.”
Most of the Christians in the town and the other monks fled in August last year when IS militants advanced across territory close to Mt. Al-Faf, where St Matthew’s monastery has sat since 363 AD. Even though these monks and students remain, many of the irreplaceable books and relics have been taken to safer areas. “If a people don’t have the history of their past,” says Sahar Karaikos, “then they will not have a future because they won’t know what their origins are, where they came from.”
Set at the very heart of Iraq’s ancient Christian heartland, the Nineveh plains, St Matthew’s monastery is emblematic of Iraq’s historical Christian presence which dates back almost 2,000 years: prayer worship at St Matthew’s is conducted in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. But now the country’s Christian presence is under serious threat. Those who remain, a distinct light in the darkness, are likely to be forced out of Iraq eventually, says Yousif Ibrahim. Until then, however, he has decided to stay, explaining, “the shepherd cannot leave his sheep”.
When IS took over Mosul in June last year, they drove the Christians out of the city and looted their homes. Archbishop Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, Archbishop of Mosul, fled with only five minutes to spare when the IS fighters were just 300 metres from his house. “They take everything from us,” he said, “but they cannot take the God from our hearts, they cannot.”