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Indian Jesuit’s custodial death challenges Asian Christians

The tragic death of elderly Indian Jesuit activist Father Stan Swamy has triggered an outpouring of grief and criticism from across India and the globe. In other parts of Asia, Covid-19 and oppressive regimes pose renewed threats to people.

Published: July 09, 2021 12:09 PM GMT

Updated: July 10, 2021 04:38 AM GMT

The tragic death of elderly Indian Jesuit activist Father Stan Swamy has triggered an outpouring of grief and criticism from across India and the globe. The 84-year-old died on Monday, two days after he was put on a ventilator at Catholic-run Holy Family Hospital in Mumbai, more than a month after he was admitted to the hospital following a court order.

The priest was jailed in October last year, a day after he was arrested at his home in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state in eastern India. He was accused of several charges including collaborating with outlawed Maoists. The priest repeatedly denied such charges, but his bail petitions on medical grounds were repeatedly denied by the court of the federal anti-terror body, the National Investigation Agency.

The priest suffered from Parkinson’s disease and various age-related ailments and his health deteriorated in jail without basic services. A day after his admission to hospital, he tested positive for Covid-19.

Father Swamy’s death has triggered an outburst of grief and condemnation in India and across the globe, with some calling it “murder by the state” of an activist who championed the rights of poor and marginalized tribal and Dalit communities for more than four decades. The United Nations said it was “deeply saddened and disturbed” by Father Swamy’s death. 

Indian Jesuit’s custodial death challenges Asian Christians

Father Stan Swamy had been detained in Taloja Central Jail in Mumbai since October. (Photo: Wikipedia)

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A Philippine Air Force C-130 plane with 96 passengers on board overshot the runway and crashed at Sulu airport in Mindanao last Sunday.

It was carrying troops heading to conduct counter-insurgency operations in the south. Fifty-two were killed including four civilians while 47 passengers were injured in the country’s worst air accident in recent memory.

Rescue workers arrive as smoke billows from the wreckage of a Philippine Air Force C-130 transport plane after it crashed near the airport in Jolo town, Sulu province, on the southern island of Mindanao on July 4. (Photo: AFP)

Filipinos prayed for the victims and offered condolences to their families. Bishop Oscar Jaime Florencio, the head of the Catholic Church of the Philippine military, celebrated a Mass on Monday for the victims’ eternal repose and for their families. 

Meanwhile, Filipino Church officials have appealed to thousands of people not to return to their homes near an active volcano.

About 7,000 residents who live within a 7-kilometer “danger zone” of Taal volcano in Batangas province, south of capital Manila, have fled their homes since the volcano started spewing ashes and sulfur dioxide on July 1.

This picture taken on July 1 shows an eruption from the main crater of the Taal Volcano, which sits in a picturesque lake in Batangas province. (Photo: AFP)

The volcano was spewing an average of 22,628 tons of ash and sulfur dioxide gas each day, the highest ever recorded. The authorities warned this might be a prelude to a major eruption. Church officials have also appealed for more N95 masks for people and urged churchgoers to assist displaced people.

Taal volcano last erupted in January 2020, killing 39 people and forcing more than 376,000 to flee their homes.

A deadly outbreak of the Delta variant of Covid-19 in neighboring Indonesia has prompted Timor-Leste’s government to step up efforts to ward off a spillover into the country.

Timorese authorities have sealed off the border with Indonesia and asked people living near the border to be on alert for any illegal entries to the country. They vowed to take stern action against anyone crossing the border illegally.

Timor-Leste and Indonesian police patrol a border area. Timor-Leste has tightened security to prevent the entry of the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus that has triggered a crisis in Indonesia. (Photo: Timor-Leste National Police)

Archbishop Virgilio Do Carmo Da Silva of Dili described the new variant of the coronavirus as “one of the greatest threats to the world” and urged the government to take maximum steps to prevent it. Despite endemic poverty and a poor healthcare system, the tiny Catholic-majority nation has registered only 9,594 cases and 25 deaths from the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the virus has wreaked havoc in Indonesia, which has recorded 2.38 million infections and 62,908 deaths. 

Christians in Indonesia have dismissed an attack on a Protestant church as an act of Islamic extremism. On June 26, a man vandalized and set ablaze the Toraja Mamasa Church in Mamasa district of West Sulawesi province. The violence sparked speculation on social media that it was an attack on Christians by Muslim hardliners.

However, the Communion of Churches in Indonesia said on Tuesday that the act was carried out by an individual who was “mentally ill” and not a case of religious intolerance. Police said the 40-year-old suspect admitted to attacking the church after a dream in which his dead father told him his belongings had been stolen and taken to the church. Armed with a machete, he vandalized the interior and started a fire, which was put out by residents.

A policeman examines fire damage at the Toraja Mamasa Church in Mamasa district in Indonesia's West Sulawesi province that was attacked on June 26. (Photo: YouTube)

Several recent terror attacks against Christians in Sulawesi have led to speculation about extremist links. On May 11, four Christian farmers including a Catholic were killed by Islamist extremists in Poso district of Central Sulawesi province.

On Palm Sunday, March 28, Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral in Makassar, capital of South Sulawesi province, was targeted by suicide bombers, leaving two bombers dead and at least 20 people injured.

Thousands of people in Thailand remain affected by toxic chemicals after a massive fire destroyed a chemical factory. The blaze started with a loud explosion in the early hours of Monday and engulfed the factory complex in Samut Prakan province, near Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. It had some 50 tons of chemicals stored in six warehouses.

Following a day of frantic efforts, firefighters brought the blaze under control. One firefighter was killed during the operation. The fire consumed the entire factory complex and 40 people were injured. The toxic plumes of smoke affected some 80,000 people who live nearby, while many homes were damaged.

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Firefighters work at the site of an explosion and fire at a plastics factory on the outskirts of Bangkok on July 5. (Photo: AFP)

About 2,000 people within a 50-kilometer radius of the factory fled their homes and took refuge at eight emergency shelters. The air quality around the site remains unhealthy.

Among the chemicals stored at the facility was styrene monomer, a hazardous liquid chemical which can release toxic fumes including styrene gas that can cause people to go numb minutes after inhaling and can result in death if inhaled in larger amounts. 

A Catholic writer remains in jail more than six months after he was arrested on allegations of secession in Hebei province of northern China. Police detained Pang Jian, who writes under the pen name Gao Yang, in January at his home in Pangcheng village. His family has been unable to meet him since then.

In an interview with Radio Free Asia, his father Pang Jingxian alleged that Pang drew the ire of the communist regime by reporting on forced demolitions and evictions in rural areas around Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei. Pang has written about Hebei's Catholics and their unique culture and took photos of most Catholic churches in Hebei.

Screen grab of a Jan. 21, 2019, Hong Kong television interview with activist and writer Pang Jian, who has been detained since January on suspicion of 'splitting the country' in Hebei's Gaobeidian city. (Photo: RFA)

The case is just one of numerous cases of crackdowns against dissent and religion in the officially atheist country. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch slammed Chinese authorities for sentencing four Tibetan Buddhist monks to up to 20 years in prison on dubious offenses.

The monks from Tengdro monastery of Tibet were accused of violating laws by exchanging private messages with monks in Nepal and sending donations after the 2015 earthquake.

A group of Catholic nuns in Vietnam have become frontline workers to serve distressed people after the fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic hit the country.

Since May, nine sisters from the Mater Unitatis Association in Bac Giang province, who are qualified healthcare givers, have cared for patients in four quarantine centers. Although the nuns were initially uncomfortable with wearing full protective gear, they have adapted to the situation.

A nun in protective gear prepares to test Covid-19 patients at Catholic-run Hoa Sen Nursery School in Vietnam's Bac Giang province. (Photo: Truyen Thong Mater Unitatis)

The nuns are among numerous clergy, religious and laypeople who are battling the pandemic in the communist nation.

Vietnam was relatively unscathed by initial bouts of the pandemic that has infected about 185 million people and killed four million globally. Vietnam has registered about 23,400 cases and 102 deaths.

Despite ongoing conflicts across the country, the Catholic Church in Myanmar has taken a series of measures to battle the pandemic and to support people reeling from the crisis.

Archbishop Marco Tin Win of Mandalay Archdiocese urged the faithful to follow health and safety measures as the virus spreads dangerously in the country. The archdiocese has set up a body to help Covid patients have access to much-needed oxygen tanks and has requested people to make donations for the cause.

Health workers carry the coffin of a Covid-19 victim n Tedim in Chin state as more than two million people in Myanmar were placed under new stay-at-home measures on July 2 as infections surge. (Photo: Tedim Post/AFP)

Pathein Diocese has instructed priests to carry out an awareness campaign. Three priests in Kalay Diocese died from the coronavirus in just one week in May and hundreds of people have been infected in Sagaing region and Chin state, both bordering India.

Amid fighting between the military and ethnic rebels as well as a deadly crackdown on anti-coup protesters, churches have tackled the pandemic with whatever they can. The Catholic Church has played a leading role in raising awareness, allowing buildings to be used as quarantine centers, making donations and sending youths to serve as volunteers at quarantine centers.

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