Myanmar’s Religious Minorities Facing Test of Faith

on March 22, 2014

According to Christian relief group Barnabas Aid, the army of Myanmar (Burma) is kidnapping, raping, torturing and killing ethnic minority groups, the majority of whom are Christians.

In May of last year, a peace agreement was negotiated between the government of Myanmar and officials of a majority Christian people group, the Karen. According to Barnabas Aid, officials in Myanmar are continuing to disrupt Christian worship services, stop publication of Christian literature and even prevent church buildings from being built or repaired.

Barnabas Aid says the government is aggressively involved in promoting conversion to Buddhism.

Christian leaders in Myanmar say children of very poor Christian families have been targeted by government-run schools which have offered free education and government jobs upon graduation. The schools force Christian children to stop practicing their faith, and threaten them with physical abuse or military conscription if they resist.

Myanmar for many years has had a very poor human rights record.

The country was ruled by a military dictatorship from 1962-to-2011. The military junta was accused of many human rights abuses.

Elections were held in 1990, and overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.  The military rejected the results, and Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest just before the elections and was not released until November of 2010.

In 2010, a general election was held and a nominally civilian government was installed in March 2011.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that over 1,200 political prisoners remain in jail, and there are an estimated 70,000 forcibly conscripted child soldiers in the country, the highest number in the world.

The military, however, retains control of the country under a constitution drafted in 2008. Under this constitution, a quarter of seats in both parliamentary chambers are reserved for the military, and three key positions must be held by serving generals. reports in October of last year, government forces attacked a town in the state of Kachin. The area has a large Christian population. Eyewitnesses claim government forces fired mortars at civilian homes for around an hour before the village was stormed.

After the state security forces left several months later, Christian relief groups entered the area and found bodies that showed signs of torture.

War broke out between government forces and the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) in mid-2011.

The Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) collected information last year that indicates at least 66 churches — 61 Baptist, four Catholic and one Church of God — have been destroyed in less than three years. The KBC also says at least 75 thousand people have fled to temporary camps, and entire Christian communities have been wiped off the map.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) says the persecution against Christians in this region is more severe than in other countries.

Benedict Rogers, East Asia team leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide states “there is a religious dimension, in that successive military regimes have been hostile to non-Buddhist religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians, and have used religion as a political tool.”

He states though “the war is primarily ethnic and political.”

The government announced a unilateral ceasefire with the Kachin in January of this year. Fighting has continued.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide says Christians are not the only victims of crimes against humanity. CSW says ethnic groups in eastern, western and northern Myanmar are suffering from the military regime. CSW says these crimes amount to ethnic cleansing and potentially attempted genocide. CSW says there are reports of rape, forced labor, forced relocation of villages, use of human minesweepers, torture and killings. CSW says since 1996, over 3 thousand villages in eastern Myanmar have been destroyed by the military, and over one million people have been internally displaced.

Open Doors has ranked Myanmar number 23 on its World Watch List of 50 countries where persecution is most extreme. Open Doors USA says registering a church is almost impossible. Open Doors has been providing livelihood grants and skills training to Christians in Myanmar. Open Doors says although there has been a transition in leadership, the government is still nominally communist, and Buddhism is used as the main tool by the regime to unite the nation, which has several strong ethnic minority groups.

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