Controversial Burmese Pastor Tested Positive for COVID-19, Perception of Christians Worsened

By ICC’s Myanmar Correspondent

04/29/2020 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern)Along with COVID-19, Christians are increasingly being put in the spotlight in Myanmar, mostly thanks to the fact that despite Christians being the minority in the country, they are not the minority among COVID-19 patients.

Two weeks ago, one of the country’s top news stories featured a controversial church leader, Canadian Burmese pastor David Lah, who is known for his polarizing views. It was said that as he led a worship service, the coronavirus crept in. What actually took place was that his church was shooting a live video for his followers. Out of enthusiasm, many Christians showed up at the site. One of them turned out to be a COVID-19 carrier and infected four others, including the pastor.

According to Reuter, “Ye Win Aung, the local government administrator for Yangon’s Mayangone township, said he had been instructed by the committee to file charges [against the pastor for hosting a service in contravention of a ban on large gatherings]. The disaster management law under which charges have been filed could lead to a three-year jail term.”

But the impact caused by this controversial pastor is far more than three years of imprisonment. Buddhist radicals in the country dug up photos of their gathering and his sermons from the past, which are considered not only provocative for people of other faiths, but also mainstream churches. He was blaming mainstream churches for being scared of this virus, since all of the churches agreed to cooperate on church closures when being demanded by the government, which resulted in an online battle between his followers and others.

What became at stake, is not merely him, but the Christian community as a whole and God’s mission in Myanmar.

While many Buddhist monks were on the streets, assisting the government by offering cash, medicine, and space for quarantine centers, a Christian pastor commenting on and spreading COVID-19 is unacceptable for many.  For Christian minorities, many felt quite shameful given radical Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha’s criticism. In addition, among his online sermons, there was one about Muslims which also enraged the Muslim community. The backlash was so great that even the state counselor of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, stepped in with an attempt to convince people that they should be kind to the COVID-19 patients, regardless of what they have done. She also urged Yangon authorities to examine whether charging the pastor and his followers is too harsh of a decision.

She did not have Burmeses’ buy-in, and Yangon authorities filed a lawsuit against him for unlawful assembly during this COVID-19 pandemic. Some of her opponents questioned whether she is above the law.

On the other hand, even with many Christians’ expectations, Lah has not stepped out to take responsibility or issue an apology for the commotion he has caused. Instead, the two largest church groups, Myanmar Council of Churches and Catholic Bishop Conference in Myanmar, released a New Year greetings letter with apologetic tone on April 17, the Myanmar traditional New Year day. Many Christians were humiliated due to the pastor’s sermons, while people of other faiths questioned God’s existence. Even at the time of writing, I received many calls from friends and was asked about the pastor’s position and how people view his sermons.

The deepest level of the impact, in the end, fell on his followers. Pastor David Lah has been able to attract many wealthy, well-known, and influential Christians as his supporters, scattering among many different mainstream churches. People who are against him, including Buddhist extremists, have taken this opportunity to identify his followers, especially celebrities and government officials. They attacked these Christians, questioning their reputation and intending to make them crippled socially.

Among them are vice president Henry Van Di U, as he comes from a Christian family; and minister U Min Thu, as his wife is a Christian and Pastor David Lah’s follower. Given these officials’ proximity to Aung San Suu Kyi, the president’s office had to announce that the vice president and his family have tested negative for COVID-19, and that they have been taking care, to imply that Aung San Su Kyi is in good health.

Some famous Christian singers also came under attack. These innocent Christians are now under pressure, and their lifelong reputation is at risk even if they are not COVID-19 positive.

Myanmar remained coronavirus-free until late March when the first two cases appeared. Compared to its neighboring ASEAN countries, the country’s relatively low numbers –144 cases and five deaths – stand in stark contrast. Yet, among the first confirmed cases, many are Christians, and that has given the intolerant Buddhist groups an excuse to find faults and attack the religious minority in a Buddhist-majority country. Please be in prayer not only for COVID-19 patients in Myanmar, especially Pastor David Lah, but also for Christians who have to bear the brunt of his actions.

For interviews, please contact Olivia Miller, Communications Coordinator: press@persecution.org.

ICC is on a mission to help persecuted Christians. Will you join us?