Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election

Military hostilities against insurgents may result in Christian casualties and persecution.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, October 22 (CDN) — With Burma’s first election in over 20 years just two weeks away, Christians in ethnic minority states fear that afterward the military regime will try to “cleanse” the areas of Christianity, sources said.

The Burmese junta is showing restraint to woo voters in favor of its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but it is expected to launch a military offensive on insurgents in ethnic minority states after the Nov. 7 election, Burma watchers warned.

When Burma Army personnel attack, they do not discriminate between insurgents and unarmed residents, said a representative of the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers relief aid group in Chiang Mai, close to the Thai-Burma border. There is a large Christian population in Burma’s Kachin, Karen and Karenni states along the border that falls under the military’s target zone. Most of the slightly more than 2 million Christians in Burma (also called Myanmar) reside along the country’s border with Thailand, China and India.

The military seems to be preparing its air force for an offensive, said Aung Zaw, editor of the Chiang Mai-based magazine Irrawaddy, which covers Burma. The Burmese Air Force (BAF) bought 50 Mi-24 helicopters and 12 Mi-2 armored transport helicopters from Russia in September, added Zaw, a Buddhist.

Irrawaddy reported that the BAF had procured combat-equipped helicopters for the first time in its history. Air strikes will be conducted “most likely in Burma’s ethnic areas, where dozens of armed groups still exert control,” the magazine reported, quoting BAF sources.

“Armed conflicts between ethnic armies and the military can flare up any time,” said Zaw. “However, to boost the morale of its personnel, the military is expected to attack smaller ethnic groups first, and then the more powerful ones.”

Seven states of Burma have armed and unarmed groups demanding independence or autonomy from the regime: Shan, Karenni (also known as Kayah), Karen, Mon, Chin, Kachin, and Arakan (also Rakhine).

The junta has designated many areas in this region as “Black Zones” – entirely controlled by armed ethnic groups – and “Brown Zones,” where the military has partial control, said the source from FBR, which provides relief to internally displaced people in states across the Thai-Burma border.

“There are many unarmed Christian residents in these zones where Burmese military personnel attack and kill anyone on sight,” the source said.

A Karen state native in Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph, who fled Burma as a child, referred to the junta’s clandestine campaign to wipe out Christians from the country. At least four years ago a secret memo circulated in Karen state, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” that carried “point by point instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state,” reported the British daily Telegraph on Jan. 21, 2007.

“The text, which opens with the line, ‘There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced,’ calls for anyone caught evangelizing to be imprisoned,” the Telegraph reported. “It advises: ‘The Christian religion is very gentle – identify and utilize its weakness.’”

Persecution of Christians in Burma “is part of a wider campaign by the regime, also targeted at ethnic minority tribes, to create a uniform society in which the race and language is Burmese and the only accepted religion is Buddhism,” the daily noted.

The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the FBR. Three months ago, Burma Army’s Light Infantry Battalions 370 and 361 attacked a Christian village in Karen state, according to the FBR. In Tha Dah Der village on July 23, army personnel burned all houses, one of the state’s biggest churches – which was also a school – and all livestock and cattle, reported the FBR.

More than 900 people fled to save their lives.


Vague Religious Freedom

The Burmese regime projects that close to 70 percent of the country’s population is ethnic Burman. Ethnic minorities dispute the claim, saying the figure is inflated to make a case for Burman Buddhist nationalism.

The new constitution, which will come into force with the first session of parliament after the election, was passed through a referendum in May 2008 that was allegedly rigged. It provides for religious freedom but also empowers the military to curb it under various pretexts.

Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 360 (a), however, says this freedom “shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice,” apparently to bar religious groups from any lobbying or advocacy.

Further, Article 360 (b) goes on to say that the freedom “shall not debar the Union from enacting law for the purpose of public welfare and reform.”

Adds Article 364: “The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.”

Furthermore, Article 382 empowers “the Defense Forces personnel or members of the armed forces responsible to carry out peace and security” to “restrict or revoke” fundamental rights.

The Burmese junta is expected to remain at the helm of affairs after the election. The 2008 constitution reserves one-fourth of all seats in national as well as regional assemblies for military personnel.

A majority of people in Burma are not happy with the military’s USDP party, and military generals are expected to twist the results in its favor, said Htet Aung, chief election reporter at Irrawaddy.

Khonumtung News Group, an independent Burmese agency, reported on Oct. 2 that most educated young Burmese from Chin state were “disgusted” with the planned election, “which they believe to be a sham and not likely to be free and fair.”

They “are crossing the border to Mizoram in the northeast state of India from Chin state and Sagaing division to avoid participating,” Khonumtung reported. “On a regular basis at least five to 10 youths are crossing the border daily to avoid voting. If they stay in Burma, they will be coerced to cast votes.”

There is “utter confusion” among people, and they do not know if they should vote or not, said Aung of Irrawaddy. While the second largest party, the National Unity Party, is pro-military, there are few pro-democracy and ethnic minority parties.

“Many of the pro-democracy and ethnic minority candidates have little or no experience in politics,” Aung said. “All those who had some experience have been in jail as political prisoners for years.”

In some ethnic minority states, the USDP might face an embarrassing defeat. And this can deepen the military’s hostility towards minorities, including Christians, after the election, added Aung.

For now, an uneasy calm prevails in the Thai-Burma border region where most ethnic Christians live.

Report from Compass Direct News


Immigration officials threaten to kill convert from Islam unless he renounces faith.

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 8 (Compass Direct News) – A pastor trying to visit Somalia’s autonomous, self-declared state of Somaliland earlier this year discovered just how hostile the separatist region can be to Christians.

A convert from Islam, Abdi Welli Ahmed is an East Africa Pentecostal Church pastor from Kenya who in February tried to visit and encourage Christians, an invisibly tiny minority, in the religiously intolerant region of Somaliland.

Born and raised in Kenya’s northern town of Garissa, Ahmed first traveled to Addis Ababa, the capital of neighboring Ethiopia. When he arrived by car at the border crossing of Wajaale on Feb. 19 with all legal travel documents, his Bible and other Christian literature landed him in unexpected trouble with Somaliland immigration officials.

“I was beaten up for being in possession of Christian materials,” Ahmed told Compass. “They threatened to kill me if I did not renounce my faith, but I refused to their face. They were inhuman.”

Ahmed said the chief border official in Wajaale, whom he could identify only by his surname of Jama, took charge of most of the torturing. Ahmed said their threats were heart-numbing as they struggled to subdue him, with Jama and others saying they had killed two Somali Christians and would do the same to him.

His pleas that he was a Kenyan whose faith was respected in his home country, he said, fell on deaf ears.

“I was abused, and they also abused my faith as the religion for pagans, which they said is unacceptable in their region,” he said. “I told them that I am Kenyan-born and brought up in Kenya, and my Christian faith is respected and recognized in Garissa.”

Jama ordered Ahmed’s incarceration, and he was locked up in an immigration cell for nine hours. The officials took from his bag three CDs containing his personal credentials and Christian educational literature. They also took his English Bible, two Christian books and US$400, he said.

Ahmed said he was released with the aid of an unnamed Ethiopian friend.

“They warned me to never dare step into or think of going to Somaliland again,” said Ahmed, who doubles as a relief and development worker.

On March 22 he sent letters of complaint to Ethiopian, Kenyan and even presumably less-than-sympathetic Somaliland officials; none has shown any signs of pursuing justice, he said.

Compass e-mailed a copy of the letter to Alexander O. Oxiolo, head of consular affairs at Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs ministry, who subsequently denied receiving it. When Compass printed the letter and took a hard copy to him, Oxiolo said he could not act on it because the complainant had not signed it.

He also questioned whether Ahmed was a Christian because of his Muslim name, apparently expecting him to have changed it after conversion.

Ahmed converted to Christianity in 1990. Soon after he was baptized in 1995, Ahmed came under threat from Muslims and fled to Niger in 1996, where he married. He and his wife returned to Kenya in 2000, Ahmed said, and since then he has received a steady stream of threats from Muslims in Garissa. On several occasions he has been forced to leave Garissa for months at a time, he said, waiting for tensions to cool.

Ahmed was ordained in 2004.

Report from Compass Direct News


More than a week has passed since San Diego pastor Manuel Jesus Tec was kidnapped Oct. 21 in Tijuana, and his family still has not talked with or heard from him, reports Baptist Press.

Originally, the kidnappers demanded a $1-million ransom for Tec’s release, but in two calls Monday night, Oct. 27, the kidnappers lowered that figure to $500,000 and subsequently to $200,000.

“Last night, we also heard a recording of his voice saying he was OK, and he asked us to do all that the kidnappers told us to do because his life was at risk,” Tec’s 30-year-old son Johnny said Oct. 28.

“We are totally hopeful and faith-filled,” Johnny Tec said. “Mom is holding up pretty good. We’ve been having prayer meetings every night here at the house. We give credit to the prayers of so many people out there. We’re hearing from places all over the world where people are praying for us. I don’t know how they found out, but we’re hearing from people all over the U.S. and Mexico, from Japan, the Philippines and even Africa.

“Only God can give us joy in the middle of a storm like this,” Tec said. “But that’s what we’ve been experiencing — the comfort of God and the hope that He will bring our dad back soon.”

Pastor Manuel Tec, 59, was kidnapped after crossing the border from San Diego into Tijuana with wife Maria and his younger son Giovanni. Gunmen stopped the car around 5 a.m. and forcibly abducted Tec, but left his wife and son free and unhurt.

The kidnappers contacted the Tec family for the fourth time Sunday night, Oct. 26, “trying to be intimidating,” Johnny Tec said. He said the kidnappers have not allowed him or his mother to talk to Manuel since abducting him.

The Tecs first heard from the abductors on Oct. 21, the day of the kidnapping, when the kidnappers called the family three times — at 5:15 a.m., 11:45 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. to voice their demands.

“Every time they called, they got more aggressive and more graphic in their threats,” said Tec, adding that the family is in the dark as to why his father was targeted for kidnapping.

“He wasn’t famous so we don’t know why anyone would want to kidnap him. He was friendly, well-liked and popular with his church members and those who knew him. But we don’t know why someone would want to kidnap him for money, especially $1 million.”

Tec added that the kidnappers have instructed the family, “Keep cooperating with us and your dad will be OK.”

“They said to come up with the money -– that this wasn’t a game. They’ve also said they know all of the Tec brothers and sisters and would go after the entire family,” Johnny said.

Manuel and his wife have three sons and two daughters. Though he lives in Tijuana, the pastor travels regularly to his new church plant in San Diego, Iglesia Familiar y Vida. A graduate of the Dr. G.H. Lacy Baptist Seminary in Oaxaca, Mexico, Manuel has pastored numerous Baptist churches south of the border since 1981, his son Johnny said.

“We just say ‘gracias’ to Southern Baptists everywhere for praying during this crisis we’re going through,” Johnny Tec said. “Let Baptists know that their prayers are being heard. We can feel how God has strengthened us. We think God is setting the stage for one more of His miracles that will leave us all in awe. Something grand is going to come out of this to show the world the power of prayer and God.”

Tijuana increasingly has become known as a dangerous border town, with a growing number of kidnappings and murders — often with doctors and other white-collar professionals as targets. The escalating violence is blamed on gangs and drug traffickers. Authorities recently rounded up some of the kidnapping gangs.

“It’s getting worse,” Johnny Tec said. “A lot of people are fleeing the city because the violence has skyrocketed over the past five years. Tijuana’s an unsafe place to be, with a lot of evil on the streets. Ten people a day are showing up dead on the streets of Tijuana.”

Tec said demanding a $1 million — or even a $200,000 ransom — for a Baptist minister makes no sense.

“The first ransom proposals down here seem to always be for $1 million, no matter who they pick out,” said Tec, adding that the latest ransom demand of $200,000 is still “well out of our possibilities.”

Tec said his family has “come to the crossroads,” however, where it may have to begin bargaining with the kidnappers.

Report from the Christian Telegraph