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U.S. Report Highlights Christian Persecution in Burma

9/29/07 Burma (International Christian Concern) – The U.S. Department of State’s 2007 Report on International Religious Freedom, released earlier this month, highlights Christian persecution perpetrated by the military regime in Burma .

Burma , which has been designated by the U.S. Secretary of State as a “Country of Particular Concern” for severe violations of religious freedom since 1999, is a Buddhist-dominated country with close to 90 percent of its 54 million people being Buddhist, according to official figures. However, religious persecution in this South Asian country is linked to the current military government, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) that has governed without a constitution or legislature since 1988.

Burma does not have a state religion, but in practise the SPDC promotes the Theravada sect of Buddhism, and persecutes ethnic Christian and Muslim minorities – even those belonging to certain sects of Buddhism.

Christians form about six percent of the total population or 3.24 million, as per official statistics, and include mainly Baptists, Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

Christianity is the dominant religion among certain ethnic groups of the country, such as the Kachin of the northern region and the Chin and Naga of the western region. Among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups in the southern and eastern regions, Christianity is widely practiced, though it is not a dominant religion.

Despite increasing sanction by the U.S. government and continual international pressure, Burma has not made political reforms or corrected its human rights record. International relations experts suggest the deteriorating situation in Burma can be linked to the economic and military support extended by its neighbors, India and China . As a result of the overall political crisis, religious freedom remains a distant reality.

The 2007 U.S. report on Burma’s religious freedom, released on September 14 covering the period from July 1, 2006, to June 30, coincided with the unprecedented pro-democracy demonstrations in that country in the wake of the government’s decision to hike fuel prices by 500 percent.

The report indicates several concerns faced by the Christian minority in Burma , officially known as Myanmar – a name christened by the military regime, but rejected by those who advocate for democracy in the country.

Government’s Control over Places of Worship

In Burma , all religious organizations have to register with the government for practical reasons, though it is not mandatory for “genuine” religious organizations. In practice, only registered organizations are allowed to buy or sell property or open bank accounts.

The report said the Burmese government “covertly and overtly” monitored meetings and activities of religious organizations besides discouraging and prohibiting minority religious groups from constructing new places of worship.

“In some cases, government officials destroyed existing places of worship,” it said, adding that Christian groups continued to have trouble obtaining permission to repair existing places of worship or build new ones.

Christians in Chin State say the authorities have not authorized the construction of any new churches since 1997, though there are newly built churches there. “In Rangoon , Mandalay , and elsewhere, authorities allowed construction of new community centers by various Christian groups only if they agreed not to hold services there or erect Christian signs.”

The report cited some specific examples of restrictions put by the government on churches’ functioning.

“On October 1, 2006, the Agape Zomi Baptist Church , with more than 1,000 members, had to stop its weekly services at Asia Plaza Hotel in Rangoon after the hotel management refused to continue renting them a conference room. The hotel management claimed the township authorities had ordered them to stop renting its facility to the group, which had worshipped at the hotel for approximately one year.”

On August 19, 2006, government officials prohibited a Baptist church in Rangoon from conducting a literacy workshop for its youth, stating that the church must seek advance permission to hold such programs.

In February 2006, Insein Township authorities in Rangoon ordered a Chin evangelist to stop holding worship services in his house church in Aung San ward. In November 2005 authorities in the same area pressured evangelical Christians of the 20-year-old Phawkkan Evangelical Church to sign “no worship” agreements.

The report also noted an incident concerning establishment of new dioceses in Kachin and Shan states by the Catholic Church. “The bishop of the new diocese in Pekon, Shan State , decided to build his residence on a plot of land long owned by the church. Brigadier General Myo Lwin, commander of Military Operation Command Seven at Pekon, ordered the partially built structure demolished, confiscated the land, and extended his own compound fence to enclose the church property. Despite appeals to higher authorities, the Church has not recovered its property.”

Restriction on Preaching of the Gospel

The government of Burma has strict control and censorship over publications, including religious. Besides, there is a ban on importing translations of the Bible in indigenous languages. Since the 1960s Christian groups have had difficulty importing religious literature into the country.

State censorship authorities continued to enforce special restrictions on local publication of the Bible and Christian publications, said the report, pointing out that “the most onerous restriction was a list of more than 100 prohibited words that the censors would not allow in Christian or Islamic literature because they are ‘indigenous terms’ or derived from the Pali language long used in Buddhist literature”.

Further, the government has not allowed permanent foreign religious missions to operate in the country since the mid-1960s, when it expelled nearly all foreign missionaries and nationalized all private schools and hospitals, which were extensive and affiliated mostly with Christian religious organizations.

Christian groups, including Catholics and Protestants, have brought in foreign clergy and religious workers for visits as tourists, but they have been careful to ensure that the Government did not perceive their activities as proselytizing, said the report.

Coercion and Pressure to Convert to Buddhism

Christians in Burma complain that non-Buddhists are rarely promoted to upper levels in government jobs.

The report noted that Christian military officers who aspired for promotion beyond the rank of major were “encouraged by their superiors to convert to Buddhism”. “Conversion of non-Buddhists coerced or otherwise, is part of a longstanding government campaign to ‘Burmanize’ ethnic minority regions,” it added.

Besides, since the independence of Burma in 1948 from the British rule, successive governments, civilian and military, have “supported and associated themselves conspicuously with Buddhism”. The Ministry of Religious Affairs includes the powerful Department for the Promotion and Propagation of Sasana, Buddhist teaching.

The report pointed out that authorities have attempted to prevent Chin Christians from practicing their religion. “In 2005, the military commander in Matupi Township , Chin State , ordered the destruction of a 30-foot cross erected on a hillside with government permission in 1999. A more senior military official subsequently told local church authorities that they could get permission to reconstruct the cross; however, the local pastors have thus far refused to ask for such authorization. In the past, these crosses often have been replaced with pagodas, sometimes built with forced labor,” it said.

The report added: “In some instances, local authorities reportedly confiscated National Identity Cards of new converts to Christianity.”

If and when Christians try to complain about their persecution, either no action is taken or they themselves are implicated in false cases. The report quoted an example of this: In February 2006, police at Hpa-an, Karen State , arrested Yeh Zaw, a member of the Phawkkan Evangelical Church . Yeh Zaw had earlier written a letter to the regime leader urging him to end the persecution of his church that Rangoon authorities closed earlier in 2006, banning members from worshipping there. Police charged him with traveling without an identity card.

Anti-Christian Hate Campaign

During the reporting period of the report, a Burmese language document surfaced titled, “Program to Eliminate Christianity”. “The document suggested 17 points for countering Christianity in the country; however, the source of the document was unknown and several grammatical errors raised questions about its authenticity.”

Other Reports

Several other reports have also criticized Burma for persecution of Christians. For instance, a report presented at the British parliament in London by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Burma in February, said abuses against Christians in that county were widespread and systematic, reported BBC on February 6. It pointed out that Christians, who are predominantly found among the non-Burmese ethnic groups such as the Chin, Kachin, Naga and Karen, suffer a deliberate campaign of discrimination in jobs and promotions, restrictions on church events, meetings and literature, and the arrest, torture and imprisonment of pastors and church workers.

Rights activists say Burma has virtually no press freedom, as the media is controlled by the government and, therefore, it is difficult for the rest of the world to get information related to day-to-day religious freedom violations there. They also highlight the broken down and militarized courts and policing system in the country, which leaves the victims helpless.