FaithWorld

Policy adrift over Rohingya, Myanmar’s Muslim boat people

The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority fleeing oppression and hardship in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, have been called one of the most persecuted people on earth. But they have seldom hit the headlines — until recently, that is. More than 500 Rohingyas are feared to have drowned since early December after being towed out to sea by the Thai military and abandoned in rickety boats. The army has admitted cutting them loose, but said they had food and water and denied sabotaging the engines of the boats. (Photo: Rohingyas in immigration area in soutwestern Thailand, 31 Jan 2009/Sukree Sukplang)

The Rohingyas are becoming a headache for Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia where they have washed up. Indonesian authorities this week rescued 198 Rohingya boat people off the coast of Aceh, after three weeks at sea. Buddhist Thailand and mostly Muslim Indonesia call them economic migrants looking for work at a time when countries in the region, like everywhere else, are in an economic downturn. But human rights groups such as Amnesty International are calling on governments in the region to provide assistance to the Rohingyas and let the UNHCR  have access to them.

Myanmar’s generals have a shabby enough record with their Buddhist majority. The brutal suppression of monk-led protests that killed at least 31 people in September 2007 and the continued detention of opposition icon and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi bear witness to that. But their treatment of ethnic minorities, including the Muslim Rohingyas and the Christian Chin people in the mountainous Northwest — where insurgents have been fighting for autonomy — have been especially brutal. They are not oppressed because of their faith alone, but their faith and ethnicity make them targets. The military government does not recognise them as one of the country’s 130-odd ethnic minorities. They are forbidden from marrying or traveling without permission and have no legal right to own land. (Photo: Thai policeman with Rohingyas at immigration area in southwest Thailand, 31 Jan 2009/Sukree Sukplang)

Most Rohingyas come from Rakhine State, also known as Arakan State, in northwest Myanmar, abutting the border with Bangladesh.  Their roots go back at least to 1821, when Britain annexed the region as a province of British India and brought in large numbers of Bengali-speaking Muslim labourers. When Burma won independence from Britain in 1948, the Bengali-speaking Muslim population near the border exceeded that of the Buddhists, leading to secessionist tensions. This translated into harassment following the 1962 coup that has led to nearly five decades of military rule by the ethnic Burman majority. Thousands fled to Bangladesh to escape a 1978 military census of the Rohingyas called “Operation Dragon.”

Exercised over yoga in Malaysia

Of all the things to get exercised about, yoga would seem to be an unlikely candidate for controversy. But such has been the case in Malaysia this week.

Malaysia’s prime minister declared on Wednesday that Muslims can after all practice the Indian exercise regime, so long as they avoid the meditation and chantings that reflect Hindu philosophy. This came after Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council told Muslims to roll up their exercise mats and stop contorting their limbs because yoga could destroy the faith of Muslims.

It has been a tough month for the fatwa council chairman, Abdul Shukor Husin, who in late October issued an edict against young women wearing trousers, saying that was a slippery path to
lesbianism. Gay sex is outlawed in Malaysia.

Look who’s celebrating Reformation Day today

Today is Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in eastern Germany and set off the Protestant Reformation. It is a public holiday in the five eastern German states, in Slovenia and — this year for the first time — in Chile.

Chile? Isn’t that traditionally a Catholic country? Even the Catholic parts of Germany don’t celebrate Reformation Day.

Yes, Chile is traditionally Catholic, but now only about 70% so. Like elsewhere in Latin America, Protestant churches — especially evangelicals and Pentecostals — have spread rapidly in recent decades. They now make up just over 15% of the Chilean population, up from 7% in 1970. It’s not a new story, but creating a holiday especially for Protestants is a symbolic step towards recognising the changes in the religious landscape in Latin America.

Japanese have first Catholic prime minister, and few know it

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, 24 Sept 2008/Toru HanaiJapan installed its first ever Roman Catholic prime minister this week, a milestone that has attracted media attention around the world — but hardly a word in his home country. It is doubtful whether most Japanese citizens are even aware that their flamboyant, manga-cartoon reading new leader, Taro Aso, has any particular religious beliefs.

Mainstream Japanese media have not touched on the fact that Aso is a member of a tiny religious minority — about 0.4% of the population — in a country where both Buddhism and Shinto rituals are a part of every day life for many. Aso himself rarely mentions his Catholicism, except when speaking to foreign audiences.

One of the foreign audiences that noticed was the Vatican daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, which enthused: “The nomination of a Catholic as prime minister is a turning point in Japanese politics, where religion has never had a real influence on public life, but the respect for traditions is shared by all sides. Recently, breaking with the proverbial reserve that Japanese politicians have on religious issues, the new prime minister said that his family has been Catholic for four generations.”

Christians cower from Hindu backlash in Orissa

Christian woman outside her destroyed house in an Orissa village, 2 Sept 2008/Parth Sanyal TIKABALI, India (Reuters)On a starry night last week, as Lal Mohan Digal prepared to go to bed, a mob of raging, machete-wielding Hindu zealots appeared above the hills of his mud house and swarmed over a bucolic hamlet in Orissa. By dawn, Christian homes in the village were smoking heaps of burnt mud and concrete shells. Churches were razed, their wooden doors and windows stripped off.

Krittivas Mukherjee, a correspondent in our New Delhi bureau, recently visited the eastern Indian state of Orissa for a first-hand view of the continuing Hindu nationalist violence against minority Christians there. His eyewitness feature “Christians cower from Hindu backlash in Orissa” paints a vivid picture of the drama unfolding in the ransacked Christian hamlets and makeshift relief centres packed with frightened refugees.

Orissa has a history of religious violence (see our factbox). The Reuters India website archive shows 37 stories since last Christmas from datelines including Bhubaneswar (Orissa state capital), New Delhi, Rome and Vatican City. The United Nations freedom of religion investigator warned back in March about more violence to come. Mukherjee’s harrowing story comes from a hamlet so small it doesn’t show on web maps.

Prince Ghazi fears the worst if interfaith tensions flare

“Christians and Muslims routinely mistrust, disrespect and dislike each other, if not popularly and actively rubbish, dehumanize, demonize, despise and attack each other.”
Hmmm … this doesn’t sound like your usual speech at a conference on Christian-Muslim dialogue.

“With such an explosive mix, popular religious conflicts, even unto genocide, are lurking around the corner.” Um, er … the gloves are really off.

“God forbid, a few more terrorist attacks, a few more national security emergencies, a few more demagogues, a few more national protection laws, and then internment camps, if not concentration camps, are not inconceivable in some places.”

Turkey’s Alevis fight back against Sunni religion lessons

An Alevi girl dance during a prayer service in Istanbul, 3 April, 2008/Umit Bektas
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Turkey’s ruling AK Party, which has its roots in political Islam, has preached a message of religious freedom as a way to expand liberties for believers in the officially secular country. It has assured the European Union it would respect freedoms for religious minorities. There has been some progress for minorities, but it is halting. The government’s focus seems to be more on assuring religious rights for pious Sunni Muslims, as in ending of the university headscarf ban. Religious minorities still face an uphill struggle to practice as they see fit.

Turkey’s Alevis, some 15-25 million whose faith is rooted in Islam but mixed with other traditions including ….shamanism, form the country’s leargest religious minority but they have never been recognised as a formal religion. This means they can be lumped together with Sunni Muslims, as a recent court case about the mandatory religion classes in state schools showed. The classes, taught in all primary schools, serve as an instruction guide to being Muslim, with topics ranging from how to pray in a mosque to fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

Alevis dance during a prayer in a Cem house in Istanbul, 3 April, 2008/Umit Bektas
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Alevi Hatice Kose took the education ministry to court to win permission to pull her son out of the classes and change the curriculum to include information about Alevis. She won the case, but the government has said it has no power to change the classes, which it says are protected in Turkey’s constitution.

A visit to an Armenian church in Islamic Iran

Iran’s Black Church stands near Chaldoran, 650 km (404 miles) northwest of Tehran The rest of the world often forgets that there are Christian churches dotted across the Muslim world and some of those communities date back to the earliest years of the faith. Fredrik Dahl and Reza Derakhshi from our Tehran bureau recently visited a remote medieval outpost of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their report says:

The last priest left the Black Church more than half a century ago and now the picture on the wall of a former monk’s cell is of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, not Jesus.

But Iran says this medieval Armenian Christian retreat in a mountainous region close to Turkey and Armenia shows it is observing the rights of other faiths.