Agencies Say Religious Freedom Violations Continue in Burma

Amid widespread religious freedom violations by Burma’s government, Christians among the ethnic Karen, Karenni, Chin and Kachin nationalities suffer particularly harsh persecution, according to national and international human rights groups.

“The regime is vigorously pursuing a policy of religious persecution against Chin Christians in order to expand the influence of Buddhism in Chinland," stated the Chin Human Rights Organisation (CHRO), according to a report released recently by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).

"The ultimate goal is to gain control of the Chin people by annihilating their culture, religion and ethnic identity," the CHRO stated. "The destruction of crosses, church buildings and persecution of Christian religious leaders are evidently designed to crush the will and psychology of Chin Christians."

CSW reports that in recent years, crosses built by Chin Christians for public display in towns such as Tonzang, Tedim, Falam, Hakha and Thantlang have been destroyed, and the Burma Army has often forced Christian villagers to construct Buddhist pagodas in place of the Christian crosses.

According to UK-based CSW, the destruction of the last remaining cross on Jan. 3, 2005, led to protests by exiled Chin Christians in Malaysia and India. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 164 Chin protestors were arrested in January after demonstrating outside the Burmese Embassy. Meanwhile, Chin Christians delivered a letter to the Burmese Ambassador demanding an end to religious persecution in their homeland. A similar protest took place a week later at the Burmese Embassy in New Delhi, India.

While Christians among the ethnic groups along Burma's borders face severe persecution, Christians in the cities have more freedom, CSW reported. According to one Burmese church leader in Rangoon, "we cannot say we are persecuted for our faith - but there are a lot of restrictions."

Churches are restricted on who they may invite to services, what they may say and where they can meet, but they do not face the same harassment that churches in Chin, Karen and Karenni areas face, CSW stated.

"We did not see religious people terrorized," one Western church leader who recently visited the country told Forum 18, a Norway-based agency which monitors religious persecution in Communist and former Soviet states. "People have freedom of worship but not full religious freedom."

Agencies such as Forum 18, have reported that religious persecution in Burma is closely tied with ethnic and political conflicts, which is why the churches in the cities, firmly under the control of the regime, face less severe problems.

"The situation for religious groups is complicated by the internal political situation," the Western Christian leader explained. "Many Christians come from ethnic tribes who are opposed to the government, which does not make things easy for either side."

However, the leader added that there have been "positive moves" towards improving religious freedom. In February, around 80,000 Catholic Christians gathered for the Second National Eucharistic Congress of Myanmar, at a Marian Centre in Nyanglebin, in Rangoon diocese (the first such gathering since 1956). A special message from the late Pope John Paul II was read to the assembled crowd by Archbishop Charles Bo of Rangoon, and the Papal Nuncio to Thailand and Apostolic Delegate for Myanmar, Archbishop Salvatore Pennacchio, presided at Mass.

A Karen Catholic priest confirmed the report. "This is true," the priest told Forum 18. "All the bishops in Burma were there, and many priests and religious men and women were also there. There were no problems at all."

The priest, who cannot be named for security reasons, added that "The Catholic Church does not have many conflicts with the ruling society. Because the Church inside Burma doesn't get involved in political struggles, the Church right inside Burma is free to celebrate the feasts."

Still, according to CSW, the military government retains tight oversight over all religious meetings, with specific permission required for any special event or for a visitor to address a religious gathering.

Religious leaders are subject to close oversight and government spies are believed to operate within religious communities, stated the UK-based charity.

“Some religious literature is published within the country, though under the authorities' watchful eye,” reported CSW. The agency added that religious groups that try to maintain contact with fellow-believers abroad assume that their contacts are monitored by the authorities.