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LAOS: EU urged to press Laos over human rights violations

EU urged to press Laos over human rights violations

Despite talks between the bloc and the communist government, little progress has been made in addressing rights abuses

 

UCA News (16.06.2021) – https://bit.ly/35upcaa -Two leading human rights groups have called on the European Union to lean on the government of Laos about the pervasive rights abuses in the Southeast Asian nation, including severe violations of the freedoms of speech and religion.

“The European Union must raise its concerns with the Lao government over the ongoing serious human rights violations in Laos and press it to adhere to the country’s human rights obligations,” the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its Laotian member organization the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said in a jointly issued statement on June 14.

The two rights groups cited routine rights violations in Laos, including unfree elections, severe restrictions on free speech, unlawful imprisonment of government critics and frequent violations of the freedom of religion.

Lao authorities, they pointed out, severely curtail freedom of speech in a country where even innocuous criticisms of the government can land citizens in prison for decades.

“Individuals publicly criticizing government actions or exposing instances of corruption have continued to be subjected to arrest, detention and intimidation. At least four individuals remain imprisoned for the exercise of their right to freedom of opinion and expression,” FIDH and LMHR said.

In addition, religious minorities, particularly Christians, continue to be harassed and persecuted, especially across the rural countryside.

“Lao Christians have particularly faced violence, prosecution and discrimination by authorities,” the rights groups said.

Yet despite an ongoing dialogue between the EU and Laos’ communist government, little progress has been made in addressing human rights violations in the country, according to Adilur Rahman Khan, secretary-general of FIDH.

“During the more than two years since the previous human rights dialogue with the EU, there has been no improvement in the human rights situation in Laos,” Khan noted.

“It’s time the EU demands concrete actions and results, not just words, from Vientiane.”

In fact, noted Vanida Thephsouvanh, president of LMHR, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided the government with an excuse to step up its restrictive policies.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, human rights violations have continued unabated and the Lao authorities have often blamed the pandemic for their failure to uphold their human rights obligations,” Vanida said.

“The EU should not fall for these excuses and urge the government to address long-standing human rights issues that have nothing to do with Covid-19.”

In its newly released Freedom in the World 2021 survey, Freedom House, a group based in Washington, D.C., list the one-party state as “not free” with only two points awarded out of 40 on political rights and 11 out of 60 on civil liberties.

There is no independent media in the country and local authorities monitor comments made by citizens online, which means that Lao citizens will rarely if ever speak their minds, according to Freedom House.

“In July 2019, the government required news outlets that disseminate material through social media networks to register themselves, threatening fines and prison sentences for those who did not comply; the Information Ministry claimed the move was meant to arrest the spread of fake news,” the group said.

Christians in Laos, meanwhile, often face harassment, or worse, for trying to practice their faith in public in the predominantly Buddhist nation.

“There have been multiple cases in recent years of Christians being briefly detained or sentenced to jail for unauthorized religious activities or being pressured by authorities to renounce their faith. A ban on public proselytizing is generally enforced, and authorities make efforts to monitor the importation of religious materials,” Freedom House said.

“In October 2020, reports revealed that four Lao Christians had been jailed for several months for planning Christian funeral rites. That same month, a group of Lao Christians were evicted from their homes and moved into a forest because they would not renounce Christianity.”

 

Photo : Buddhist monks collect alms from villagers in Luang Namtha, northern Laos. (Photo: AFP)

Further reading about FORB in Laos on HRWF website





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BANGLADESH: Scores of indigenous Santal converts to Catholicism return to ancestral Sarna faith

Scores of people from the indigenous community are embracing their old Sarna religion, claiming the Church has neglected them

 

UCA News (28.04.2021) – https://bit.ly/3vpmflX – Dozens of indigenous Santals who embraced Catholicism years ago have returned to their ancient, nature-worshipping Sarna religion, alleging a lack of social security and support from the Church.

In the latest case, a Santal family returned to the Sarna faith in the presence of leaders of Santal villages in Niamatpur in Naogaon district on April 19.

A photo of the reconversion ceremony posted on Facebook triggered a heated debate among Christian and non-Christian Santals over the causes of conversion of Santals to Christianity and their return to their ancestral creed.

Santal leaders claimed that people from indigenous communities are returning to the old faith as they face negligence and lack of social support.

Others claimed that they became Christians “out of greed” and returned when their wishes were not fulfilled.

Noresh Tudu (not his real name) converted to Catholicism with his seven-member family in 2000. However, they renounced Christianity and returned to the Sarna faith in 2018.

Tudu, 42, a private job holder, says he was attracted to the Christian faith due to great social works by Catholic priests.

“I’ve seen some Catholic priests doing extraordinary work for Santal people. They have been providing medical facilities when needed and sent our children to schools and hostels. They stood beside us in any difficult situation such as land disputes or lack of food. I became a Christian because of their kindness, not because of greed,” Tudu told UCA News.

However, Tudu claimed that he felt betrayed and frustrated when he faced social problems including a land dispute.

“My community abandoned me since I became a Christian. When I faced a legal case over a land dispute, no one from the Church came to support me. However, some people from my community stood beside me. I decided to return to my traditional faith to be united with my community,” he added.

Tudu said 15 Santal families became Catholics with him in 2000 and all except for two have returned their traditional faith.

A Catholic priest said allegations of negligence and lack of support from the Church are baseless and suspected social pressure from the community was behind reconversion of ethnic Christians.

“This person never came to the Church for help and allegations of negligence are groundless. The Church never forces people to become Christians and respects people’s right to religion,” Columbian PIME missionary Father Belisario Ciro Montoya, parish priest of Christ the King Church in Naogaon, told UCA News.

Subas Murmu, 34, a Santal primary school teacher who follows the Sarna faith, has been a vocal critic of Christian evangelists who allegedly proselytize ethnic people by defaming their traditional faith.

“I have no problem with who is following which religion. But I cannot except when evangelists defame our traditional faith to make it an eyesore for people. They highlight the prejudices about our religion and convert Santals to Christianity with false propaganda. For years, this campaign of conversion has caused division within the Santal community,” Murmu told UCA News.

He claimed that Santals who convert to Christianity are greedy as they are lured by promises of education for children and good jobs.

“Sometimes, indigenous people who marry Christians are also forced to become Christians. There are cases of Santals who converted due to promises of residence on church-owned land,” he added.

Murmu alleged that mass conversion of Santals by Christian missionaries in the past has divided the community and the unity and harmony that existed in the community have been lost.

“I wish to establish a common platform for Santals regardless of whether they practice Christianity or the traditional faith. We need to be united and think about developing the community,” he said.

Santals are one of the largest ethnic indigenous groups in India and Bangladesh and are believed to be among the earliest settlers on the Indian subcontinent. In Bangladesh, Santals are spread in various northern districts close to the Indian border.

Both in India and Bangladesh, Santals are among the most marginalized communities due to lack of education and extreme poverty.

Over the past decades, about 200,000 out of more than 250,000 Santals in Bangladesh have become Christians, according to the National Adivasi Council, which covers northern Bangladesh. Most converts have been extremely poor and the conditions of most Santals didn’t change much even after changing faith, council leaders say.

Dinajpur and Rajshahi dioceses cover much of northern Bangladesh and both are predominantly indigenous, with Santals forming the majority of more than 110,000 Catholics.

Santal Christians, however, refuted claims that the faith didn’t change the lives of people.

Subodh Baskey, a Santal Catholic and development worker, said his grandparents became Christians not to gain anything but because they loved Christianity, adding that his family didn’t exploit the faith to get money, jobs or land.

“It is true that those who have become Christians are better off than other Santals or other indigenous groups. They have become educated, secured jobs and improved their lives,” Baskey told UCA News.

He also alleged that many priests don’t offer spiritual, pastoral and social care to ethnic Catholics.

“Today’s priests are busy with themselves. They don’t seem to take much spiritual care, they don’t talk about the rights of the indigenous peoples, and they are not aware of how to provide social security. There are no statistics or research, but it is true such a negligent attitude has been driving some ethnic Santals to embrace their old faith,” Baskey said.

Father Patrick Gomes, senior priest and coordinator of the Interreligious Commission in Rajshahi Diocese, said the Church does not offer any incentives to anyone who embraces Christianity.

“Every year, many ethnic brothers and sisters become Catholics out of passion, not greed. They are attracted to the Christian faith thanks to our polite and dignified services and preaching. If they are poor, they get monetary and other support from church groups like Caritas, which is open for poor people from any religion,” Father Gomes told UCA News.

The priest said that those who become Catholics and then return to the old faith “are not Catholics from the heart.”

“Some people become Catholics for social protection and material things. The Church is a minority and is often unable to provide everything. We keep in touch with people and work for justice and peace. It is true that even our best efforts won’t seem good enough for some people,” Father Gomes added.

In Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Christians make up less than half percent of more than 160 million people. There are an estimated 600,000 Christians, mostly Catholics, and about half of them hail from indigenous groups.

Photo : A photo of a reconversion ceremony posted on Facebook triggered a heated debate among Christian and non-Christian Santals in Bangladesh. (Photo supplied)

 





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LAOS: A small victory for Christians in communist Laos

Pastor is released after a year in jail but convicted of ‘disrupting unity’ for holding religious services

UCA News (11.04.2021) – https://bit.ly/3ggaOZuA Laotian pastor who was kept in police detention for more than a year for conducting religious activities related to his Christian faith is a free man again.

Sithon Thippavong, 35, a Christian leader from the southern province of Savannakhet, was convicted on April 6 by a provincial court on charges of “disrupting unity” and “creating disorder.”

The court sentenced him to one year in prison but Sithon was released three days later on account of time served in jail awaiting trial. His release was hailed as a welcome development for the long-suffering Christian minority in the communist nation.

Sithon was also slapped with a fine of 4 million kip (US$426) over the two charges.

In the communist nation, where most people are Buddhists and animists, Christians are allowed by law to practice their faith, within certain limits, yet many local authorities across the country continue to view Christianity as a subversive alien religion.

Sithon was arrested on March 15 last year after local authorities accused him of conducting religious services without permission.

On the day of his arrest, the pastor was preparing to hold a religious service when seven police officers showed up and told him to cancel it. The officers reportedly asked the Christian man to sign a document renouncing his faith and when Sithon refused, they detained him.

The pastor’s case became a cause célèbre among some rights advocates as it highlighted the routine discrimination that Christians in Laos, who number around 150,000 in a country of 7 million, continue to endure at the hands of communist officials and some hostile locals.

Late last month Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Asia-Pacific region, called Sithon’s arrest and year-long detention “a serious human rights violation.”

“Lao authorities should release Pastor Sithon and apologize for arresting and detaining him,” Robertson stressed. “The authorities should not violate the rights and freedom of those who believe in religion.”

Photo : Photo: Radio Free Asia





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NEPAL: Christianity thrives in Nepal amid trials and tribulations

Hindu groups and political parties have accused Christians of converting low-caste Hindus with economic incentives

By Rock Ronald Rosario

UCA News (16.02.2021) – https://bit.ly/3uf7lPK – Christian social worker Chinimaya Blon ran an orphanage for poor and abandoned children in Dhankuta district of eastern Nepal for five years from 2011-16 until it was shut down following the government’s refusal to renew its license.

She took 14 children to the capital Kathmandu, where pastor Hari Tamang offered them shelter on the premises of his church.

Within nine days, police raided the church and arrested Blon and Tamang after accusing them of trafficking and attempted religious conversion of minors. The two spent six days in jail and were released on bail of 50,000 rupees (US$423).

The charge of trafficking was later dropped, but they are still fighting the charge of proselytizing, a serious crime under Nepal’s anti-conversion law.

Both accused face a fine of 50,000 rupees and a jail term up to five years under the anti-conversion law. Any foreigner found guilty of encouraging and promoting religious conversion can be deported within a week.

The ordeal of Blon and Tamang is just one example of how Christians are often targeted and abused in the Himalayan Hindu-majority nation for their faith and faith-based charities.

Persecution of Christians has intensified under Nepal’s new criminal legislation, the Civil and Criminal Codes 2018, which replaced the 165-year-old General Code. It includes laws guiding criminal and legal proceedings that include strict restrictions on religious conversion.

The legislation is in striking contrast to Nepal’s 2015 constitution, which allows freedom of religion and adopted secularism, democracy and human rights as key principles.

Rights activists and Christian leaders believe the anti-conversion law was specifically designed to target Christians amid long-running aggressive campaigns and allegations from radical and nationalist Hindu groups and political parties. In 2017, two parliamentarians said that Hinduism in the country was “teetering on the edge” due to Christian churches and missionaries, often with funding from the West.

The history of Christianity in Nepal spans more than five centuries marked by oppression and challenges amid the nation’s turbulent politics. Until 2007, Nepal was a Hindu kingdom for two centuries before the monarchy was overthrown. Then came the communist-ruled government, followed by Hindu nationalist rule. In each period, Christianity has been targeted and attacked in various forms that included persecution and expulsion of Christians and missionaries.

Since 2018, when the anti-conversion law was introduced, police have investigated at least 16 cases of religious conversion filed against Christians by state and non-state actors.

Government officials often side with Hindu groups who come up with baseless accusations against Christians over illegal religious conversions.

“Most reported cases that come regarding religious conversion are from the Christian religion,” Chakra Bahadur Budha, a Ministry of Home Affairs spokesperson, told Global Press Journal.

Open Doors, a US-based Christian charity, listed Nepal as one of the countries with a high level of Christian persecution. Many Hindus view conversion to Christianity as “deviating from the faith of the ancestors and therefore breaking with their culture and their national identity.” Christian converts face tremendous pressure from their families, friends, community and government officials.

Christians have regularly been the victims of violence in Nepal

In 2009, a Hindu extremist group, Nepal Defense Army, bombed the Assumption Cathedral in Kathmandu, leaving three Catholics dead and many injured. In 2012, the group threatened a church official with further bomb attacks.

In 2017, arsonists attempted to set fire to the cathedral, leaving parts of the priests’ residence and the western part of the cathedral damaged while a car and two motorbikes were completely burned.

In 2018, four churches were burned by unknown arsonists. In five days of attacks from May 5, Mahima Church in Dhangadhi, Emmanuel Church in Kanchanpur, Emmanuel Church Budor in Doti and Hebron Church in Panchthar were set on fire.

In April 2019, Pastor Dilliram Paudel, secretary-general of the Nepal Christian Society (NCS), was arrested with four other Christians at a hotel in Dang district in western Nepal for alleged attempted religious conversion. The group, including an Indian and one American, had been invited by local churches to speak to a group of pastors. The pastor and others were later released on bail after a week in custody, while the American woman narrowly escaped being deported thanks to lobbying by church and rights groups.

About 8,000 Catholics live in the Apostolic Vicariate of Nepal, though Catholicism in the country dates back to the 16th century from the time of Portuguese rule in the present Indian state of Goa.

But there are an estimated 2-3 million Christians in Nepal, according to the National Federation of Christians. Most Christians belong to Protestant and evangelical churches, who number as many as 12,000 across the country.

The World Christian Database lists Nepal among countries with the fastest-growing Christian populations. Most Christians are from remote, impoverished Dalit (former untouchables) communities who face widespread discrimination and abuses from upper-caste Hindus who dominate the four-tier social caste system. A Dalit convert once lamented that upper-caste Hindus treat street dogs better than lower-caste people.

Also included in the Christian flow are the most marginalized and disadvantaged ethnic groups like Chepangs, who struggle to survive amid a lack of education and employment.

Escape from endemic discrimination

The rising switch to Christianity has more to do with socioeconomic conditions than a genuine thirst for the faith. For many, Christianity offers solace and an escape from the endemic discrimination, poverty and sickness that plague many parts of Nepal.

About 25 percent of Nepalese live below the poverty line in a country of about 30 million where a thriving tourism industry, the main economic lifeline, has slowed to a trickle. The devastating earthquake in 2015 that killed over 9,000 people pushed some 3-5 percent Nepalese into poverty.

The nation’s hospital system is fragile and some 22 percent of people don’t have access to basic health services, largely because only about 5 percent of Nepal’s national budget is allocated to health care.

Unemployment in Nepal is about 2 percent but the International Labor Organization noted that about 19 percent of people aged 15-30 are unemployed. Corruption is endemic in Nepal as the country stands 117th out of 180 countries in the Global Corruption Index

Despite repressive regimes, Christian missionaries and church groups have been present in Nepal and offered hope and support to socially and economically excluded groups with food, clothes, employment and humanitarian aid.

These groups have been attracted to Christianity as they have long sought to get away from deep-rooted, caste-based and discriminatory social structures. To the rebels, the Christian faith offers a liberation from long-running injustices.

Yet Hindu religious groups and upper-class Hindus in political parties have accused Christian missionaries and church groups of converting Hindus by luring them with money and other economic incentives, which is nothing but a shameless cover to hide the structural fault lines in Nepal’s social and state systems.

Christian groups have appealed to the authorities to allocate spaces for cemeteries amid a shortage of burial sites, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Following the 2015 earthquake, even government claimed that Christian groups converted many people while providing aid. Christian leaders refuted the allegations as groundless as church groups including Catholic charity Caritas Nepal were among the first to respond with relief and rehabilitation.

Christian charities are credited with reaching out to rural, remote regions with food, education and health services where government and other private agencies have failed.

Thus, as long as Christianity offers love and hope to beleaguered Nepalese people, the faith will continue to rise and shine in the shadow of Hindu religious and cultural hegemony.

Christian groups across the world need to pay more attention to the plight of their Christian brothers and sisters in Nepal.

Photo : Hindu devotees perform rituals after a ceremonial bath in the holy Bagmati River during the month-long Swasthani festival at the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu on Feb. 11. (Photo: Prakash Mathema/AFP)





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INDIA: Indian government rules out national anti-conversion law

Christian leaders want all eight Indian states to repeal their anti-conversion laws to ensure religious freedom

UCA News reporter, New Delhi – (03.02.2021) – https://bit.ly/2N1Lt9q – The Indian government, run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has ruled out the possibility of a nationwide law regulating religious conversions, bringing cheer to Christian leaders.

G. Kishan Reddy, a junior minister in the Ministry of Home Affairs, told parliament that the government plans no national law against conversions, ending speculation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi plans such a law targeting Christians and Muslims.

“Prosecution of offenses related to religious conversions is primarily the concerns of state governments and union (federal) territory administrations,” Reddy told the national parliament on Feb. 2.

Christian leaders, who welcomed the assurance, also appealed to the government to repeal anti-conversion laws in eight states.

“Any anti-conversion law is against the constitution,” said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Pamplany, a member of the Office of the Doctrine of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI).

“Any law made against the spirit of the constitution cannot be justified. The constitution has guaranteed people to choose and practice whatever religion one wishes to,” he told UCA News on Feb. 3.

The minister’s statement came in response to questions from five parliamentarians from Kerala state in southern India who wanted to know if the government believed forced conversions were taking place in the country because of interfaith marriages.

They also sought to know if the government was planning any law to curb conversions by interfaith marriages.

Under the Indian constitution, “public order and police” are under each state’s domain, the minister said. Therefore, “prevention, detection, registration, investigation and prosecution of offenses related to religious conversions are primarily the concerns of the state governments.”

The demand for a nationwide anti-conversion law to regulate interfaith marriages came after governments in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh states, both run by the BJP, enacted separate anti-conversion laws to check religious conversion through interreligious marriages.

Bishop Pamplany said these laws were superfluous.

The governments are enacting anti-conversion laws under the pretext of checking conversion by allurement or force, but they actually target religious minorities, said Bishop Pamplany, who is also the chairman of the media commission of Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC).

He said the Indian penal code has enough provisions to deal with allurement and force, “and there is no need for any special laws.”

“The federal government is in the right direction in this announcement. It is in tune with the constitution, and the Church appreciates it,” said the auxiliary bishop of Tellicherry Diocese in Kerala.

“We have come across gross misuse of anti-conversion laws in states where they exist. They are also deliberately used to target the minorities, including Christians and their institutions.”

Bishop Pamplany wanted the federal government to take steps to repeal anti-conversion laws. “No doubt the federal government has done the right thing, and we appreciate it,” he said.

Shibu Thomas, the founder of Persecution Relief, a forum that records Christian persecution in India, also appreciated the federal government announcement.

“We have been praying against such laws in the country, and God has heard our prayer,” Thomas told UCA News on Feb. 3.

He said Christians want all eight Indian states to repeal their anti-conversion laws “to ensure that no one is deprived of their constitutional right to choose one’s religion.”

“We don’t convert anyone as was being made out against us,” Thomas asserted.

Photo: Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Pamplany said any anti-conversion law is against the constitution. (Photo: UCA News)


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