“One needs to only mention Myanmar (Burma), India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Sudan, [and] the Middle East, and images of burned churches and imprisonment appear before one’s eyes,” said the General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance last month. In a recent release made by the BWA, the organization reported that Christians in the Chin State in Myanmar (Burma) continue to suffer from the military government as they struggle to worship freely.
When General Secretary Denton Lotz addressed the BWA General Council in Seoul, Korea, in July, he spoke about the continuing urgency for religious freedom that is threatened in many parts of the world. In particular, Lotz mentioned Burma, where “it is estimated that the community of Baptists in Burma is more than two million, making one of the largest Baptist bodies in Asia.”
Benedict Rogers, a journalist and human rights activist with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, documents many other instances of harassment and persecution of Christians. In the Baptist Times of England, Rogers described the suppression of democracy in Burma, but he said, “suffering the worst oppression are Burma’s ethnic national groups, the Karen, the Karenni, the Chin and the Arakan. Some of these abuses include systematic rape, use of forced labor, forced relocation, human mind sweepers, the destruction of crops and villages and extra judicial killings. Many of these tribes are made up of Christians and they are especially targeted.”
In a report compiled by Rogers and featured in Norway-based Forum 18, Rogers documented cases of Chin Christian children being taken away from their families, with promises of a good education, and then placed in Buddhist monasteries where they are forced to become novice monks. Some reportedly never see their parents again. Burma is overwhelmingly Buddhist and Buddhism is the official religion of the government.
Rogers also reported that the army has forced the Christian villagers in Northwest Burma to tear down crosses that they had built on mountaintops as symbols of their faith and identity. In their place, the villagers are often forced to build Buddhist pagodas.
The use of forced labor across Burma is widespread and well documented by Human Rights organizations and the International Labor Organization. Christian communities are especially targeted during their religious festivals and on Sundays when their ceremonies are deliberately disrupted.
The printing of Bibles is forbidden and Christians are required to obtain a permit for any gathering of more than five people other then a Sunday service. Any Bible study group or conference requires permits from the Religious Affairs Ministry.
In one incident, Baptist churches in Chin state had organized a conference with 49 churches. The leaders applied for permission two months before and paid the fee but a week before the event they were denied the permit to build a structure in which to hold the conference. After several appeals they were allowed to hold the conference but it was too late for them to build a shelter.
The Kachin Baptist Church planned to celebrate its 125th anniversary of the first Christian missionary to Burma, Ola Hansen and the 75th anniversary of the translation of the Bible into the Kachin language in 2002. The military government also stopped this celebration and arrested two Kachin ministers.
Rogers noted in his article that Christians are not the only religious group that suffers at the hands of the Burmese government. Muslims and on occasion, even Buddhist monks who defy the government also face its wrath. Rogers quoted a Karen pastor who sat down at the shell of his church that had been burned by the soldiers. The pastor looked at him and said, “We have to leave village after village, house after house, but it increases our faith. We are Christians, we know God will help us.”
Rev. Saw Simon, who was awarded the BWA Human Rights Award in 2000 at the Baptist World Congress, had lived in the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand for the past 13 years, establishing a Bible school and an orphanage. Last January Simon wrote the BWA that the Kawthoolei Karen Baptist Churches and Bible School and College had 233 students enrolled for three programs with 58 students ready to graduate.
Speaking of the civil war with the Burmese government and Karen resistance fighters, he called on the global Baptist community to pray for a solution. “We need the prayer support of our brothers and sisters around the world and the international help and assistance to settle the problem of the 54 year old civil war in just, fair and peaceful ways and means,” Simon wrote.
BWA reports that there are more than 100,000 displaced persons from Myanmar who are currently in refugee camps in Northern Thailand. They are not recognized by the Thai government and have no official refugee status by them or by the United Nations and they live in fear of being sent back to Myanmar. Military soldiers constantly raid their villages.
Bonny Resu, general secretary of the Asian Baptist Federation met Simon last September and reported “Rev. Simon continues to plead with Baptists to help even as he expresses hope in God for what is happening.”
In one of Simon’s concluding remarks, he wrote, “they call us a displaced people but praise God we are not misplaced. They say they see no hope for our future but praise God our future is as bright as the promises of God.”
In addition to asking the U.S. government and other governments to intervene in the rights of refugees and appealing for religious freedom in Myanmar, BWA has also called on Baptists worldwide to join in prayer for the nation.