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Canadian Christians tally burning churches

Anger remains over unmarked graves of Indigenous children


Fire damage at the Roman Catholic St. Jean Baptiste church in Morinville, Alberta Getty Images/Photo by Amber Bracken/Anadolu (file)

Canadian Christians tally burning churches

Early on June 21, Rev. Fr. Obi Ibekwe received word that the historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church where he pastors on Penticton Indian Band land in British Columbia was on fire.

“I jumped into my car and off I went,” he said. “All I could see were ashes, ruins, rubbles.”

Local authorities called in the fire at the 1911 church at about 1 a.m. About two hours later, another blaze engulfed the St. Gregory’s Church on Osoyoos Indian Band lands, also in British Columbia.

June 21 marked National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada. This year, the annual observation came amid outrage over recent discoveries of more than 1,000 unmarked Indigenous mass graves. The discoveries have made churches across Canada targets: Dozens of churches have burned since then, while others have reported vandalism. Christian leaders are calling for deeper reconciliation and for authorities to take a stronger stance against the violence.

Late in May, the Kamloops Indian Band confirmed researchers used ground-penetrating radar to discover the unmarked graves of some 215 children who attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. About a month later, the Cowessess First Nation announced the discovery of 751 unmarked graves of mostly Indigenous children at the cemetery of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in southeast Saskatchewan. In July, another First Nation community reported 182 unmarked gravesites at a mission school.

Roughly 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children attended the indigenous schools between 1831 and 1996. The Canadian government established the boarding schools, which were mostly run by Catholic religious orders and Anglican churches. A report in 2015 from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that more than 4,000 students died while attending the schools.

The discoveries sparked anger, calls for public apologies from church leaders, and, in some cases, attacks against churches. Two other British Columbia churches on First Nations land reported blazes on June 26. The more than 100-year-old St. Ann’s Catholic Church’s small white building on Similkameen First Nations territory had become a regional landmark.

“This isn’t justice for what’s happened to our people,” said Rose Holmes, a member of the Indian Band in Vernon who grew up near the church. “I am Indigenous, and this upsets me, because it does hurt our elders seeing these historic buildings being taken away.

Attacks have struck many denominations. A July 19 blaze left only the walls of the St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Surrey standing. In southeast Calgary, a July 4 fire damaged the House of Prayer Alliance, a church belonging to the Calgary Vietnamese Alliance.

“We are Vietnamese refugees here,” Pastor Thai Nguyen said. “So maybe the people who do this don’t know. If anybody do this they should know that we (are) victims too, before we came here to find a new life.”

Rev. Andrew Bennett, director of Cardus Religious Freedom Institute and Canada’s first religious freedom ambassador, called for a stronger condemnation and political action against the violence. “The anger is understandable but the violence is unacceptable,” he said. “In Canada, because we have religious freedom and it’s enshrined in our constitution, we have a greater responsibility to ensure these types of attacks are condemned and they don’t happen again.”

Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet, a senior media relations officer for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in British Columbia, told America Magazine that officers have stepped up patrols around local churches and investigators across different regions are sharing information. But she said they have not launched a national response: “Each investigation is being conducted by the police of jurisdiction but being monitored provincially.”

Bennett said Canada needs to create space for genuine reconciliation, going forward: “Reconciliation is advanced and religious freedom is advanced by all of us within society having an open and honest dialogue about what’s the nature of our common life.”

President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 25.

President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 25. Associated Press/Photo by Slim Abid

Tunisia faces new uncertainty

Tunisian President Kais Saied last week invoked emergency powers to dismiss the country’s prime minister and suspend the parliament for 30 days. He also imposed a nationwide curfew and gathering restrictions. He replaced the head of the national television station and urged traders to reduce the prices of goods in a Wednesday video.

Lawmakers and opponents have accused the leader, who is not backed by any party, of tightening his grip on power. Some have condemned his actions as a coup. But other Tunisians welcomed his decision with cheers and waving flags.

The country also faces nationwide protests over the worsening economic situation and the government’s response to the pandemic. Crowds of mostly young demonstrators chanted “Get out” and other slogans demanding economic reforms.

Deposed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi said he would comply with his dismissal “in order to preserve the safety of all Tunisians.” Civil society groups have asked the president to produce a roadmap for handling the crisis within a month.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Saied to abide by democratic principles and “maintain open dialogue with all political actors and the Tunisian people.” —O.O.

Yidiresi Aishan in Istanbul in 2019

Yidiresi Aishan in Istanbul in 2019 Associated Press/Photo by Safeguard Defenders (file)

Morocco detains Uyghur activist

Moroccan authorities arrested Yidiresi Aishan, a 34-year-old computer designer, on July 20 after China put out a terrorism warrant for him.

Authorities seized the Uyghur man from the international airport in Casablanca after he left Turkey, according to the nonprofit Safeguard Defenders. The group said Aishan told his wife during a weekend phone call that he will be deported to China.

The father of three has lived with his family in Turkey since 2012. The Uyghur community there said he helped with translations and collected testimonies on abuses in China’s Xinjiang region.

Morocco’s national security directorate on Tuesday confirmed the arrest, saying Aishan “was the subject of a red notice issued by Interpol due to his suspected belonging to an organization on the lists of terrorist organizations.” China has cracked down on the majority Muslim minority group in Xinjiang and put pressure on democracy activists abroad. In April, a Chinese teenager who said he was a U.S. permanent resident was detained in Dubai. —O.O.

Rwandan armed forces in Kigali prepare to board a flight to Mozambique on July 10.

Rwandan armed forces in Kigali prepare to board a flight to Mozambique on July 10. Associated Press/Photo by Muhizi Olivier (file)

Mozambique gets more support

Nearly 300 Botswanan troops left the international airport in the capital of Gaborone for Mozambique on Monday. Botswana is the second member of the 16-nation Southern African Development Community to send soldiers to aid the battle against insurgents in Mozambique’s restive Cabo Delgado region.

The regional body last month concluded it would send about 3,000 troops to offer military support. South African soldiers arrived last week. Angolan and Tanzanian troops and elite units from Zimbabwe’s armed forces will also deploy to the region. Some 1,000 soldiers from Rwanda, which doesn’t belong to the bloc, arrived earlier in July and are engaging Islamic State–linked extremists in battle, according to officials.

Dyck Advisory Group, a private South African military contractor that provided aerial support to Mozambican forces, did not renew its contract after it expired in April. The violence in the oil-rich region has killed more than 3,000 people since it began in 2017. —O.O.


Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD’s Africa reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University–Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria.

@onize_ohiks

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HJOH4656

On the Canadian churches, not everyone agrees with the kind of political statement the Rev. Andrew Bennett made. Each church burning may be partly in response to the revelations about Residential schools, but not in the same degree. The burning of the Coptic and Vietnamese churches for example, seem more like arsonists or anarchists in search of an excuse for destroying property (I suggest reading up on the actions of anarchists in Hamilton Ontario to see that there are always groups in search of a cause worth destroying property for). The destruction of the churches on First Nations land may well be angry youths seeking revenge for what their parents and grandparents suffered, but there is much more to that story. This is not the first time that First Nations and Inuit youth struggling with societal problems that were in a very large measure created by the Residential School system have blindly struck out in destructive ways and destroyed things their elders wanted to keep. In 2018, in Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, located on Baffin Island, delinquent youth burned the storehouse of the Northern store, creating supply chain problems for all the isolated communities of Baffin Island. It was Inuit youth who set the fire and it was all Inuit who live on Baffin Island who felt the consequences. But for those who have had the opportunity to visit those remote northern communities and seen the ongoing impact of Canadian government policies in destroying the Inuit and First Nations fabric of community and culture, the existence of such self destructive individuals that would burn down the store that provides material goods to them is no surprise. The wonder is, that so many Inuit and First Nations are so patient and even forgiving of Canadians for the way their government has continually lied to and cheated them, and it is still a greater matter of wonder that many Inuit and First Nations are in fact Christians. But, whether or not the Inuit and First Nations can forgive, the churches of Canada who were involved in the running of those places of horror still have a reckoning to pay, a reckoning that is required by God, who will not hold the person guiltless who takes His name in vain. Burning church buildings is simply a symptom of a much deeper reckoning that will be required by God and those who claimed to serve God by imprisoning and abusing children will have an awful reckoning.

DENNIS&MARY CUPERY

Thanks for the details and reporting. Somehow, though this article made these church-burnings sound like legal protests. Church-burning is violent and dangerous and just plain horrible, no matter what happened nearby 75 years ago. I'd like to know more about who has been apprehended in these crimes.