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INTERNATIONAL DIGEST: Chavez trains militia as ‘personal army’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Thousands of Venezuelan civilians are training at military bases to “defend” the country against enemies President Hugo Chavez says are threatening the country.

The volunteers, clad in olive-green fatigues, learn to crawl under barbed wire, fire assault rifles and stalk enemies in combat, the Associated Press reported. Critics say the “Bolivarian Militia” is aimed at maintaining control of the country, not protecting it from external dangers.

The AP reporter watched as a 54-year-old housewife fired a machine gun for the first time and a boot camp instructor shouted, “Kill those gringos!”

Chavez’ opponents doubt claims there are 120,000 volunteers in the militia and express alarm that government loyalists are being armed across the country, the AP reported. They also condemn Venezuela’s purchase of more than $4 billion worth of Russian guns, helicopters and fighter jets.

The militia “is a personal army, a Praetorian Guard,” a retired rear admiral, Elias Buchszer, told the AP. He said the militia is intended to keep Chavez in power, “making the country fear that if anything is done the militiamen are going to come out.”

The AP reported that when Chavez addressed an estimated 35,000 militia members at an outdoor rally April 13, he held up a sword and declared that if his opponents assassinated him, militia members “know what you would have to do: Simply take all power in Venezuela, absolutely all! Sweep away the bourgeoisie from all political and economic spaces. Deepen the revolution!”

Chavez, who is up for re-election in 2012, has recently seen his popularity slip below 50 percent in polls as his government struggles with electricity shortages, a recession and 26 percent inflation, the AP said.

‘BLASPHEMY’ LAW UPHELD IN INDONESIA — Indonesia’s controversial 45-year-old law banning religious blasphemy is constitutional, the country’s Constitutional Court ruled April 19. In an 8-to-1 decision, the court said the blasphemy law did not contradict the country’s 1945 constitution or Indonesia’s national ideology of “Pancasila,” which asserts freedom of religion under an umbrella that includes belief in only one God and just, civilized, democratic society.

Several militant Muslim groups have rallied outside the courthouse since November, when the court began considering the case and one extremist group, the Islamic Defenders Front, attacked lawyers seeking repeal of the law, according to a report in The New York Times.

The law bans religious groups that “distort” or “misrepresent” any of Indonesia’s six official faiths — Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism — and mandates prison sentences of up to five years for those found guilty of violating it, The Times reported. The law most often is used to punish perceived offenses against mainstream Islam, and often is misused against religious minorities who get into personal disputes with Muslims.

“This is a setback for Indonesian democracy,” human rights lawyer Uli Parulian Sihombing told The Times.

BUDDHIST EXTREMISTS BEAT, DETAIN 3 — Three Christians in Bangladesh were beaten and taken captive April 16 by members of an armed Buddhist rebel group that was trying to force the trio to return to Buddhism.

Shushil Jibon Talukder, a pastor, Bimol Kanti Chakma and Laksmi Bilas Chakma of Maddha Lemuchari Baptist Church in Bangladesh’s mountainous Khagrachari district were locked in a pagoda as punishment for leaving the Buddhist religion, the Compass Direct news service reported. Local sources said the pastor was bludgeoned nearly to death and had to be taken by wooden stretcher to the pagoda.

The next day, the extremists, who are connected to the United Peoples Democratic Front, forced church members to demolish the church building themselves, Compass Direct reported.

A local official confirmed “three renegade Buddhists” were being kept in the pagoda for religious indoctrination, Compass Direct said. “They became Christian, and they were breaking the rules and customs of the Buddhist society, so elders of the society were angry with them,” Chakma told the news service. “That is why they were sent to a pagoda for 15 to 20 days for their spiritual enlightenment, so that they can come back to their previous place [Buddhism].”

In June, the Buddhists had threatened Talukder if he did not give up his Christian faith and he went into hiding for two months before returning to the area and renewing his pastoral and evangelistic activities, Compass Direct reported. The extremist group issued an ultimatum for all Christians to come back to Buddhism by April 30 or face the same consequences.

PEW STUDIES ISLAM, CHRISTIANITY IN AFRICA — A new survey of 19 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa has found that the vast majority of people are deeply committed to Christianity or Islam but also continue to practice elements of their traditional religions, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life announced April 15.

The survey — “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa” — was based on more than 25,000 face-to-face interviews conducted in more than 60 languages or dialects in 19 countries, according to a Pew Center press release. The selected countries represented different geographical areas, colonial histories, linguistic backgrounds and religious compositions. The nations surveyed contain three-quarters of the population of sub-Saharan Africa.

While at least 90 percent of the respondents in most of the countries identify themselves as Christian or Muslim, many retain beliefs characteristic of traditional religions, such as belief in the protective powers of sacrifices to spirits and ancestors, the press release said. Many keep sacred objects in their homes and consult traditional religious healers when someone in their household is sick.

The report found Christians and Muslims hold generally favorable views of each other, the press release said. Substantial numbers of African Christians (nearly 40 percent or more in a dozen nations) say they consider Muslims to be violent, while Muslims are more positive in their assessment of Christians.

The report is available online at pewforum.org.
Mark Kelly is a Baptist Press assistant editor.

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