Stop the systematic targeting of Christians in Myanmar

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Stop the systematic targeting of Christians in MyanmarLast week, about 50 soldiers from Myanmar’s military stormed the Christ the King Cathedral in Loikaw, the capital of Karenni (Kayah) state, and forced its new bishop, some priests, nuns, elderly people and sick patients who had been seeking shelter in the cathedral to flee.

They bombed the cathedral’s pastoral center the previous day, and junta troops occupied the cathedral itself on Nov. 27. This was reportedly the third time the military had attempted to seize the cathedral complex.

Bishop Celso Ba Shwe, who was appointed to the diocese in March and emphasized that support for the internally displaced people and the poor would be his priorities, tried to mediate with the military, pleading for respect for religious sites.

At least 82 refugees from throughout Karenni state, one of the country’s most conflict-ridden regions, had sought shelter at the cathedral. The bishop now says the military is using his cathedral as a shield against the armed resistance.

This is not the first time Myanmar’s military has attacked Christians. Indeed, ever since the coup on Feb. 1, 2021, churches, particularly in Karen, Karenni, Kachin and Chin states, and Christian organizations and clergy, have been targets for the military’s attacks.

According to a report by While most of the 132,were damaged by heavy weapons Radio Free Asia last year, the military destroyed at least 132 religious buildings, including 66 churches in Chin State alone and 20 churches in Karenni State. But 18 months on from that report, the figure is much, much higher.

"Why is the junta so hostile to Christianity in particular, and towards the Catholic and Baptist traditions?"

Throughout this year, churches have been bombed, desecrated, raided and attacked. On Jan. 15, a 129-year-old Catholic church was set ablaze in the Sagaing region, and on Dec. 30 last year, St Michael’s, a Catholic church in San Hka village, Hpakantt township, Kachin state, was shelled. There are dozens of similar examples that could be shared.

The continued imprisonment of Reverend Dr. Hkalam Samson, one of Myanmar’s most prominent Christian leaders, illustrates the total disrespect this junta has for religious freedom and its particular hostility to Christianity.

Reverend Samson has served two terms as general secretary of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC). He was its president from 2018-22 and was welcomed by the US president in the Oval Office of the White House, by members of the European Parliament, ministers in the UK Foreign Office, and British parliamentarians in Westminster, has been in jail since his arrest at Mandalay airport about a year ago.

If the junta can arrest, sentence and imprison such a prominent and internationally renowned religious leader or force a Catholic bishop out of his cathedral, you can imagine how much worse it must be treating ordinary grassroots Christians.

The question is why is the junta so hostile to Christianity in particular, and towards the Catholic and Baptist traditions?

Three reasons: because they are mostly non-Burman; non-Buddhist; and pro-democracy and human rights. In other words, they represent three concepts and identities that are totally at odds with the junta’s vision for the country.

Ever since the first military coup by General Ne Win in 1962 — and his earlier caretaker regime from 1958-1960 — and indeed from Myanmar’s independence in 1948, Myanmar’s military has always been shaped by an extremist Burman, Buddhist nationalist agenda: the idea that to be Burmese is to be ethnically Burman and Buddhist by religion.

Non-Burman ethnic minorities and non-Buddhist religious minorities have always, in modern, independent Myanmar, had at best second-class citizenship and at worst been treated as sub-human.

"Aung San Suu Kyi, has been in jail for close to three years without contact with her family or access to medical care"

Witness the genocide of the predominantly Muslim Rohingyas, whose citizenship was denied, and the persecution of other Muslim communities, who in the past decade have been subjected to the most egregious forms of hate speech, discrimination, pogroms and violence.

Of course, Buddhists who oppose the junta have also suffered horrific repression.

There are Buddhist monks who have been jailed and tortured. Many of Myanmar’s leading pro-democracy activists gunned down in massacres in 1988, 2007, and following the coup in 2021, and at other times, were Buddhists.

In 2022, pro-democracy champions Ko Jimmy and Phyo Zeya Thaw were executed, and they were Buddhists.

Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader and democratically-elected legitimate head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been in jail for close to three years without contact with her family or access to medical care.

So don’t let anyone tell you the junta is Buddhist. It simply weaponizes religion for political purposes and is an equal opportunities repressor. It locks up, tortures and kills Buddhists who challenge it as it does Muslims and Christians.

That said, the junta has a deep-seated hostility to Muslims and Christians in particular.

Prior to the coup, Muslims caught the brunt of the military’s atrocities. Since the coup, the military appears to have shifted focus to Christians.

"Pastors and priests in Myanmar are human rights defenders and humanitarian aid providers. That puts them in danger"

This is in part because of its hostility to non-Burman and non-Buddhist populations, as described above.

But it is also because Christians and church institutions form one of the backbones of the ethnic and pro-democracy armed resistance and are at the epicenter of what remains of civil society.

At the very heart of Christian belief are human rights, human dignity, human freedom, justice and peace, and so Christians of all traditions work in pursuit of these values. That is especially true of the two largest Christian traditions in the country, the Baptist and Catholic churches.

Across Kachin, Chin, Karenni and Karen states, churches, pastors and priests are at the heart of village communities, providing schools, health clinics, shelter and food for the displaced, besides ensuring human rights education and documentation.

Pastors and priests in Myanmar are human rights defenders and humanitarian aid providers. That puts them in danger. But they cannot resile from it, for it is at the very heart of their calling. It makes them centers of hope and help for Myanmar’s beleaguered, displaced, bombed-out people, and also targets for the junta regime.

Recently, Pope Francis renewed his solidarity with Myanmar, saying: “I renew my closeness to the dear people of Myanmar who unfortunately continue to suffer from violence and repression. I pray that they will not be discouraged and always trust in the Lord’s help.”

In 1996, a former United States Special Forces soldier turned missionary and aid worker, David Eubank, founder of the Free Burma Rangers, met Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon. She, a devout Buddhist, told him, an evangelical Christian, that he should mobilize Christians around the world to pray.

Her favorite words in the Bible, she added, were John 8: 32: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

As a result, Eubank started the Global Day of Prayer for Burma/Myanmar, always the second Sunday of March each year, and it continues to this day. One of the best things we can do to support Christians in Myanmar is to join that day, around the world.

But not just once a year: how about every day?

The world is filled with crises: Ukraine, Israel-Gaza, and the tragedies in Hong Kong, Tibet, the genocide of the Uyghurs, human rights atrocities across China, and crimes against humanity in North Korea. But we cannot ignore any longer the heartbreaking humanitarian and human rights crisis in Myanmar, for its entire people, and in particular Christians.

Myanmar’s Muslims have already faced a genocide that the world failed to stop. Let’s not see a new genocide of Myanmar’s Christians. Let’s act. And let’s work for a Myanmar where everyone — of every ethnicity and religion and those of no religion — find a home, equal rights, peace and freedom.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.