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


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Maharashtra, January 30 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremists on Jan. 26 disrupted a baptism and thrashed believers at Gangapur Dam, Nashik district. The Times of India reported that as members of the Navjivan Fellowship Church were conducting a baptism ceremony at the dam, a group of 10 to 12 men armed with cricket stumps, iron rods and sticks arrived and beat those present, including women and children. They also damaged the car of one Christian. Winston Daniel, whose head was injured during the assault, told the national daily that the attack was so meticulously planned that the group left behind no clues to ascertain their identity. The Hindustan Times reported that Sangeeta Paulat, who also was injured, said the assailants shouted, “Jai Shri Ram [hail to Lord Ram]” while beating them. Suresh Patil suffered a head injury, and Himmat Wagh received hospital treatment for a fractured hand. Sanjay Pandit suffered a broken leg and was recovering at Nashik General (Civil) Hospital. A complaint was filed with Nashik Taluk police, and a case of rioting was registered against the unidentified men.


Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists from the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Jan. 26 vandalized and attacked the nuns at St. Mary School in Kadiri. The Christian Legal Association (CLA) reported that a mob of about 12 extremists led by Vishnuvardhan Reddy barged into the school premises accusing authorities of not hoisting the flag on India’s Republic day. The extremists destroyed furniture, window panes and attacked the sisters, and area pastors reported the incident to police. A deputy superintendent of police identified only as Sainad told Compass that school officials and the attackers reached a compromise. The CLA reported that the school principal said the students had not come to school as there was a solar eclipse, but that the flag had been hoisted inside the building.


Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists accused a pastor of “harming religious sentiments” in Sanjay Koyla Nagar, Anooppur district, according to the Christian Legal Association. On Jan. 18 police went to the house of pastor Paulose Venkatarao of an area Pentecostal church around midnight on a complaint filed by Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists accusing the pastor of selling a book, “Dharam Nirpeksh Evam Hindutva,” which they said harmed the sentiments of the Hindus. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that police told the pastor to go to the police station at 1 a.m., following a three-day convention the church had organized on Jan. 16-18, attended by a team from Bible College of Nagaland and pastors from abroad. At the police station, officers reprimanded the pastor; he gave a statement saying he had no idea who was selling books at the convention. Police officials told Compass that the pastor was called to the station for his own security as the extremists were creating a disturbance. No case was registered against the pastor.


Chhattisgarh – On Jan. 18 about 1,000 Hindu extremists gathered in anti-Christian protest in Palnar, Dendewada. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that the extremists shouted anti-Christian slogans, asserting that they wanted to wipe out all Christians and their activities in the area. The Hindu extremists reportedly staged the protest in response to Christians who were arrested on Jan. 5 on charges of defiling an area Hindu temple. After several calls by Christian leaders, police came to the area and dispersed the crowd.


Andhra Pradesh – Suspected Hindu extremists on Jan. 16 attacked a pastor in Gunpula, Karimnagar district. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that six persons with their faces masked barged into the house of pastor Yakobu Jacob and began assaulting him. They shaved his head and burned his house with all his belongings. The intolerant Hindus also shouted that there should not be any Christian pastor in the village. The pastor filed a police complaint, and officers at Potkapalli police station registered a case against the extremists. Sub-Inspector D. Pratab told Compass that a police investigation was continuing.


KarnatakaHindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists on Jan. 11 forcibly entered the home of Christian converts in Amrthmahal Kavalu hamlet, near Tiptur town in Tumkur district. They verbally abused the four Christians there, burned their Bibles and forced them to the Honnavalli police station, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians. Identified only as Shankarappa and his wife Leelamama, and Shivappa and his wife Manjamma, the two brothers and their wives are the only Christians resident in the village. They worship at Calvary Gospel Centre in Tiptur town. The church’s pastor, Joy Jacob, told Compass that at around 10:30 p.m. nine local Hindu extremists barged into the house using foul language, falsely accused the Christians of forcible conversions and tore up and burned two Bibles. They threatened to burn down the Christians’ house if they continued to worship at the Calvary Gospel Centre. Police arrived and took the Christians to the police station as the extremists shouted Hindu chants along the way. On Jan. 12 about 9 a.m., Jacob went to the police station to register a complaint but officers refused to accept it. They instead arranged a compromise agreement, with the Christians forgiving the assailants.


Karnataka – Police on Jan. 9 arrested pastor Iswar Albannavar of the Throne of Grace Ministry in Gangavadi slum, Belgaum for forcible conversion, but when the accusations proved false they were held for promoting religious enmity. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that Albannavar and his wife Renuka were conducting their regular weekly prayer meeting in their home for about 25 Christians, mostly recovering alcoholics, when police officials from Mala Maruthi police station stormed into the house. On the basis of a complaint filed by Hanmant Gargoti, officers falsely charged the pastor with forcible conversion and confiscated Bibles and hymn books, GCIC said. Police took the pastor and another Christian, Raju Kolkar, to the police station for questioning, after which Albannavar and Kolkar were sent to Belgaum Central Jail. An investigating officer identified only as Channakeshava told the Christian Legal Association that the two Christians were charged with promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion.


Karnataka – Four suspected Hindu extremists on motorbikes beat teacher James Victor Menezes, 52, a teacher at St. Legory’s School in Merlapadavu village near Mangalore on Jan. 7, reported the Daijiworld Media Network. Father Charles Menezes of the school told Compass that he strongly suspected the hand of Hindu extremists in the attack. On Jan. 2 the Catholic school had distributed Bibles; officials had announced that the Bibles were intended only for Christians, but a few others also picked up copies. The next day, protestors appeared in front of the school from Hindu groups, including the Srirama Sene (Army of Lord Ram). “The protestors falsely accused the schoolteachers of distributing Bibles to Hindus,” Fr. Meneze said. The beaten school teacher said he filed a complaint with the Kankanady police station, reportedly informing police that he would be able to identify the attackers, as they had also taken part in the protest. At press time no arrests had been made.


Chhattisgarh – Police on Jan. 5 arrested 10 Christians in Dantewada for allegedly defiling a Hindu temple. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that on Christmas Day around 40 Christians from the Bastar for Christ (BFC) house church in Palnar village, Dantewada had gone to Phulpad for a picnic and had inadvertently left behind a few paper plates and some food. Unidentified mischief-makers gathered up the leftovers and piled them at a small Hindu temple nearby, then took photographs of the supposed defilement. Local sources told Compass that on Dec. 28 and Jan. 4, area Hindu extremists disrupted a prayer service at the BFC house church, and on Jan. 5 police from Kua Kunda arrested associate pastor Shankar Sona and nine other Christians based on a police complaint filed by a Hindu extremist using the photograph as evidence. Police charged the Christians with damaging or defiling a place of worship, and they were all released on bail the same day.


Madhya Pradesh – Police on Jan. 5 arrested Christians in Kushalpura village, near Rajgarh in Dhar district after Hindu extremists attacked them. Dr. Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said that pastor Kantilal Bhuria of Philadelphia Church was conducting a house-blessing service at the home of Badar Baria when nearly 10 members of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad stormed into the house, assaulted the Christians and falsely accused the pastor of forcible conversion. The extremists phoned police, and as is customary in India officers jailed the victims of the Hindu extremist aggression. Pastor Bhuria and Baria were taken to the Sardarpur police station. Investigating officer Upendra Khare informed the Christian Legal Association that the Christians were arrested for injuring or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult religion. At press time the Christians were still in jail.


Karnataka – Airport police in Bangalore on Jan. 4 arrested three Christians for trying to fraudulently convert residents of Murugeshpalya and for disparaging Hindu gods, the Times of India reported. Police arrested Rama Reddy, 26, Mike Barabas, 35, and his wife Asmira Barabas based on a complaint by Prabhod Kumar Das that they were involved in “denigration of Hindu gods.” The complaint also stated that the three persons promised him money and a job if he agreed to convert. The newspaper reported that the three visited Das’ house for one week and persuaded him to change his religion. When the three went to Das’ house on Jan. 4, he went out and called people from the area who took hold of the Christians and handed them over to airport police. Officials seized books, handouts and other evangelistic materials from the accused. Airport police officials told Compass that the three Christians were in jail and have been charged with trespassing, hurting religious sentiments and promoting enmity between different religious groups.


Karnataka – Police on Jan. 4 arrested a pastor on a false complaint of forcible conversion by Hindu extremists in Kanakapura Taluk, Ramnagar district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that nearly 25 extremists belonging to the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal stormed the worship service of the India Christian Revival Mission, verbally abused the congregation and chased them from the building. The extremists repeatedly slapped and kicked the pastor, identified only as Paul, and his son Barnabas. The intolerant Hindus dragged them both outside and took them to the Kanakapura police station, where they filed the false complaint of forcible conversion against the pastor. A GCIC representative told Compass that police detained the Christians at the station until about 7:30 p.m., when GCIC intervention resulted in a compromise between the pastor and the assailants. Having forgiven them, the pastor declined to press charges, and police gave assurances that adequate protection would be extended to the church in Kanakapura.


Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Jan. 1 burned a house church of the Resurrected God’s Ministry in Malai Bennur, Davangere district. The Christian Legal Association reported that the extremists burned the church in the early morning hours and threatened a pastor identified only as Gangadhar that they would burn his family alive if he took the matter to authorities. The Deccan Herald News Service reported that one section of the church built with areca leaves was gutted in the fire, while the other side of the church was partially burned. This incident was reportedly the second attack on the church, with the earlier incident taking place on Nov. 11, 2007. Superintendent of Police Sandip Patil told Compass that one person had been arrested under Section 436 of the Indian Penal Code for intent to destroy a house with fire or explosives.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Persecution has diminished for some Christians in 2008, but it has increased for others. Overall, Todd Nettleton with Voice of the Martyrs believes it is worse than it used to be and will continue to worsen in 2009, reports MNN.

“I think there are situations where it’s worse. I think there are probably some isolated situations where things are improving a little bit, but I think on the whole, it’s at least as bad and probably worse than 2007, or worse than five or ten years ago,” said Nettleton.

Persecution has worsened drastically in Orissa, a state in India. Hindu radicals in that region have been rampaging against Christians since August.

“Orissa is probably the location of the worst persecution that’s going on right now in the world,” Nettleton said, “a place where they’re trying to wipe out the Christian church; a place where tens of thousands of Christians have had to flee their homes. Many of them fled literally into the jungle to escape the attacks of radical Hindus.”

In the months leading up to the Olympic games in Beijing, many hoped that the publicity surrounding that event would bring more liberty for the people of China. Unfortunately, such has not been the case.

“The concern that we had when the Olympics ended was that although the world has been watching, the Chinese continued persecuting Christians. What will they do now that the world’s not watching anymore?” Nettleton said. “Even in the months since the Olympic games, we have seen Christians arrested. We’ve seen house church services raided. So I don’t think it’s markedly better. I think it’s really about the same.”

Nettleton is not discouraged by the fact that persecution has not decreased and probably will not. He has observed that, ironically, persecution actually increases the strength of God’s church.

“One of the amazing things is that as persecution increases, the church tends to grow. As the church tends to grow, the persecution increases,” he said. “Christ promised that His followers would be persecuted, and that is coming true around the world. But that also means the church is growing. More people are coming to know Christ in a personal way.”

VOM’s biggest challenge nowadays “is to know how best to respond in a given situation of persecution,” Nettleton said.

“The challenge for us is to know the best way to support the church in restricted nations, the best way to come alongside them and lift them up, support them, and encourage them.”

Nettleton is excited about VOM’s “vital role” in connecting believers with their Christian brothers and sisters all over the world.

“When we go into a restricted nation and we’re able to deliver help, we say, ‘This is from Christians in America who love you and are praying for you during this time of suffering.’ Then when we come home and talk to the church in America we say, ‘Our brothers and sisters in restricted nations are praying for you here in America.’ We get to be a bridge between the two churches, and it’s really an exciting role that God has called Voice of the Martyrs to play.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph