Behind the Smiles

Bob Luntby Robert Lunt
Thailand is often called the ‘Land of Smiles’; but pull aside the veil of fun and frivolity of this tourist destination and a darker side is revealed.

When Christians Ijaz, his wife Shaida, and their children Joel and Angel arrived in Thailand from Pakistan on a tourist visa, they visited the UN Refugee Agency in Bangkok. But after their visas ran out, Ijaz was arrested and locked up in the notorious Immigration Detention Centre, which is basically a filthy, overcrowded prison. He died there from a heart condition, having been put in a punishment room because he could not pay his hospital bills. Barnabas Fund is supporting Joel and Angel’s education.

Ijaz was part of an influx of Pakistani Christians to Thailand that began around 2013. They were fleeing the discrimination, violence and persecution that many Christians face in Pakistan, but discovered that in Thailand they were treated as criminals, discriminated against, and had little if any hope of getting an adequate job.

One 30-year-old Christian fled Pakistan with his brother after being accused of blasphemy (a charge that can result in a death sentence) and receiving death threats. He said the two of them were locked up with about 100 other men in a cell not much bigger than a family living room.

Initially whole families were taken into the Detention Centre and held in cramped, unhygienic cells. Even children as young as three were forced to wear prison-style uniforms. Christian groups urged the Thai government to stop detaining mothers and children, and mercifully children have been released into foster programmes. Barnabas Fund is helping provide food, medical care and education for such children.

Another group of suffering Christians in Thailand have fled from ethnic and religious persecution in Burma. As of March this year, there were nearly 97,000 refugees from Burma living in nine camps in Thailand. Many are Christians of the Karen ethnic group. Living conditions in these camps, hidden far from any tourist near the Burma border, are extremely poor.

Thailand is more than 90% Buddhist, with Christians making up less than 1% of the population. Buddhism is seen as an essential part of Thai identity. Churches and evangelists can operate freely, but converts from Buddhism to Christianity are often viewed as freaks embracing a foreign religion.
Source: Barnabas Fund