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Fights for freedom, rights continue across Asia

Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing administration has put the last nail in the coffin of a free press and democracy by shutting down popular newspaper Apple Daily in a city once known as Asia’s media hub. In other parts of the region, people continue their struggle for rights and justice against oppression.

Published: June 25, 2021 12:02 PM GMT

Updated: June 25, 2021 03:53 PM GMT

The pro-Beijing administration of Hong Kong has effectively suppressed one of the last vestiges of freedom, democracy and a free press in the politically volatile city by forcing the closure of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper

On Thursday, this popular daily run by jailed Catholic media mogul Jimmy Lai printed its final edition, ending its 26-year run as a champion of democracy and strong critic of China’s authoritarian leaders. Police had frozen the newspaper’s bank accounts and arrested its staff including editors and senior journalists under Hong Kong’s draconian national security law.

The drastic actions crippled the paper’s ability to conduct business or pay staff. The paper has also shut down its website, Facebook and Twitter accounts, leaving about 700 staff jobless. Across Hong Kong, tens of thousands lined up to grab one of one million copies of the paper that featured its own journalists on the front-page waving goodbye to its supporters outside its headquarters.

The sudden death of the newspaper is seen as a massive blow to residents of the former British colony who once enjoyed certain freedoms and democracy under the “one country two systems” framework since the 1997 British handover.

Fights for freedom, rights continue across Asia

Apple Daily journalists hold freshly printed copies of the newspaper's last edition while acknowledging supporters gathered outside their office in Hong Kong on June 24. (Photo: AFP)

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People in the Philippines are mourning former President Benigno Aquino, who died at age 61 on Thursday following his hospitalization earlier this week. He was believed to have been suffering from kidney disease.

Aquino served as the country’s 15th president from 2010 to 2016 and was known for his strong anti-corruption stance and legal challenge to China amid territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Former Philippine president Benigno Aquino, who waged an anti-corruption agenda and ushered in key economic reforms during his term, has died at the age of 61, officials said on June 24. (Photo: AFP) 

Aquino was the only son of the late senator Benigno Aquino Junior and former president Corazon Aquino, who spearheaded the 1986 People Power movement to overthrow military dictatorship.

Catholics offered condolences and prayers as news of Aquino’s death broke and they hailed him for his efforts to reduce corruption and poverty.

Meanwhile, on the same day, Cardinal Jose Advincula was installed as the new archbishop of Manila in a ceremony at the Philippine capital’s cathedral.

The 69-year-old cardinal from Capiz became the 33rd archbishop of the country’s largest diocese, succeeding Cardinal Luis Tagle, who is now the prefect of the Congregation of the Evangelization of Peoples in Rome.

Manila's new archbishop, Cardinal Jose Advincula, kisses the cross during his installation ceremony at Manila's historic cathedral on June 24. (Photo: AFP)

The installation was attended by the papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, along with another former Manila archbishop, Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, and apostolic administrator Bishop Broderick Pabillo. Several other bishops and a limited number of priests and civic officials were present in the ceremony scaled down due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cardinal Advincula made history on June 18 as he received his red hat and ring from the nuncio in his archdiocese in Capiz province after he missed a Rome consistory last November due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Catholics in Sri Lanka have rejected a police statement that investigations into the deadly Easter Sunday attacks are over. Senior deputy inspector general of police Ajith Rohana said the probe into the 2019 suicide bombings has been completed.

Church officials have dismissed the claim and insisted the investigation must continue. Father Camillus Fernando, spokesman for Colombo Archdiocese, said that further inquiries should be carried out into issues such as what happened to swords imported into Sri Lanka prior to the attacks.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith blesses a survivor of the Easter Sunday bomb attacks at midnight Mass at St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo on Dec. 25, 2019. (Photo: AFP)

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has filed a case asking for an investigation into the import of about 6,000 swords, prompting a court to issue notices to top government officials seeking an explanation. A group of suicide bombers affiliated to local Islamist extremist group National Thowheed Jamath targeted three churches and three luxury hotels in 2019, killing at least 279 people including 37 foreign nationals.

Police say 32 suspects have been charged in nine cases in the High Court.

Minority leaders including a Catholic bishop have expressed skepticism after police in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh arrested two Muslims on allegations of converting more than 1,000 people from other faiths to Islam.

The Anti-Terrorism Squad of state police said the two were part of a nationwide mass religious conversion racket and claimed that the men received funding from overseas organizations and targeted disabled children and other vulnerable groups. Archbishop Emeritus Albert D’Souza of Agra says cases of religious conversion, hate crime and communal harmony will intensify as the government aims to hide its failures ahead of an assembly election next year.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath (center) waves to supporters as he arrives to address a gathering in his home constituency of Gorakhpur in March 2017. (Photo: UCA News/IANS)

The prelate noted the government of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party has always treated minorities and poor communities as second-class citizens and is now using the communal card to divide people in the name of caste and creed. He said the state’s strict anti-conversion law could be misused for political gain as it mostly targets minority groups such as Muslims and Christians.

Several states run by the BJP have enacted stringent anti-conversion laws that triggered a series of attacks and lawsuits against minorities by radical Hindus in recent years. 

In Pakistan, Christian nurses who provide vital medical services face many workplace challenges including discrimination, religious bias and teasing by Muslim co-workers. During a recent seminar organized by the Archdiocese of Lahore, some 250 nurses, doctors and paramedics were hailed for their dedicated services and advised on how they can avoid being targeted with blasphemy accusations by Muslims.

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Christian missionaries pioneered women’s health and education in Pakistan. An estimated 60-70 percent of nurses in Pakistan belong to the Christian community. Pakistan has more than 160 registered nursing institutions where most students belong to the Christian community.

Catholic nurse Fazilat Lal (right) with Archbishop Sebastian Shaw at St. Anthony’s Higher Secondary School in Lahore on June 19. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry/UCA News)

However, there have been several incidents of humiliation and attacks on Christian nurses over allegations of blasphemy recently. In January, Christian nurse Tabitha Nazir Gill was slapped and stripped for alleged blasphemy at a hospital in Karachi where she had worked for nine years. 

In the worst case in 2019, Christian nurse Saima Sardar was shot dead by a Muslim at Faisalabad District Hospital after she refused to convert to Islam and marry him. 

Human rights groups and Western governments have criticized the Cambodian government of Prime Minister Hun Sen for arresting and charging three young environmentalists for terrorism. Sun Ratha, 26, Ly Chandaravuth, 22, and Yim Leanghy, 32, face 5-10 years in prison in a case accusing them of insulting the king and plotting to overthrow the government.

The US and Australian embassies as well as the Swedish government have issued statements urging a rethink about actions against the environmentalists. Human Rights Watch said the Cambodian government had stepped up its campaign to silence activists peacefully advocating to protect the environment.

Environmentalist Sun Ratha has been charged with insulting Cambodia's king. (Photo: Mother Nature)

Last month, a court in capital Phnom Penh handed down 20-month jail terms to five Mother Nature activists and fined them US$1,000 for inciting serious social unrest and conspiracy to incitement.

Mother Nature has adopted a strong approach to environmental advocacy in Cambodia and found itself targeted by the authorities amid a crackdown on opposition politicians and the independent press ahead of elections in 2018.

An Islamic school in Indonesia’s Central Java province faced a backlash after a group of its students were accused of vandalizing and desecrating Christian graves in a cemetery. Local media reported that 10 students broke the crosses of 12 graves in the public cemetery last Saturday.

Mayor Gibran Rakabuming Raka has vowed to shut down the Islamic school after inspecting the damage at the cemetery in the Kenteng area of Solo. The mayor, who is the son of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, said the school was established without permission from the local government and it must be closed because its teachers are teaching intolerance to their students.

Mayor Gibran Rakabuming Raka (third right) inspects vandalized Christian tombs on June 21 in Kenteng in Solo city in Central Java province. (Photo: Surakarta government) 

Christians in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country have been facing rising religious intolerance and violence in recent years. In January, a school in Padang in West Sumatra province ordered all female students to wear hijabs, sparking an outcry from Christians.

On March 28, a suicide bomb attack on a Catholic cathedral compound in Makassar city left two bombers dead and at least 20 people wounded. In May, suspected Islamic terrorists killed four Christian farmers in Poso district of Central Sulawesi province.

Myanmar’s military junta is continuing to suppress anti-coup civic resistance movements violently despite an appeal for peace from Pope Francis. At least 875 people, mostly anti-coup protesters, have been killed in deadly crackdowns by security forces since the military coup on February 1.

At least eight people were killed in the latest clash on Tuesday between the military and the People's Defense Force in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city. A state-run television report labeled the PDF as terrorists.

A protester holds a flare as others make the three-finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on June 22. (Photo: AFP)

A video circulating on social media showed a soldier firing a grenade at a building where the force members were staying. At least four bombs exploded, including one near a police station, following a shootout.

Saddened over violence and deaths in Myanmar, Pope Francis last Sunday renewed his call for peace in the conflict-torn country where fighting has left thousands of people displaced. The pope expressed support for the Myanmar bishops’ appeal for peace, calling the world’s attention to the “heart-rending experience of thousands of people in that country who are displaced and have been dying of hunger.”

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