At least eight churches have been attacked and five civilians killed in less than 30 days in eastern Myanmar, where hostilities between the Buddhist-majority country’s army and local militias have increased since the military coup on Feb. 1.
The eight churches that have been damaged since May 20 are located in Myanmar’s Kayah and Shan states and five civilians who were sheltering inside the churches have also been killed, Radio Free Asia reports.
Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, including Christians, live in the various conflict zones across the country’s borders with Thailand, China and India.
Militias in those areas have been morally supporting pro-democracy protesters since the coup, which has led to the use of heavy weapons by the Burmese army. Thousands of civilians in the conflict zones have sought shelter in churches when their villages are under attack.
According to the United States government-funded non-profit news service, the military has used heavy weaponry against local militia forces in a series of attacks from May 23 to June 6.
Churches destroyed in the various attacks include the Golden Temple of Jesus and Jeroblo Marian Shrine and Our Lady of Lourdes Cave in Pekon, Mother Mary’s Church in Moebye, St. Joseph’s Church in Demoso, the Catholic Church in Daw Ngan Khar Village and St. Peter’s Church in Loikaw.
“It’s just a building, but it hurts people in their hearts,” Radio Free Asia quoted a Catholic priest from Demoso in Kayah state as saying. “Are they just targeting us? I would like to appeal to both sides not to carry out such attacks in future.”
Fighting in Kayah state since May 20 has forced more than 100,000 residents to flee their homes. Over 40,000 of those displaced are taking shelter in 23 churches, according to the RFA's Myanmar Service.
The military also raided a Catholic parish house in Chin state, a majority Christian state in northern Myanmar, last Wednesday. According to The Union of Catholic Asian News, Fr. Michael Aung Ling and a boarding student were arrested for allegedly providing food to a civil resistance group.
Soldiers suspected the priest of supplying the food to the civil resistant group Chinaland Defense Force after finding bags of rice in the parish house. The priest was reportedly arrested around 8 a.m. and questioned for 11 hours before being released.
CDF had reportedly ambushed the military in the Chin state last month, causing many casualties.
Church officials in Chin state claim that the priest's arrest came after informants gave false information to the military.
Earlier this month, the Burmese military arrested and released six Catholic priests and a lay Catholic in Chan Thar village in the Archdiocese of Mandalay.
According to Fides News Agency, soldiers raided the Church of the Assumption and its adjoining clergy house, arrested the parish priest and other religious leaders visiting him during a midnight raid on June 12 and June 13. The church was built by French missionaries over 200 years ago.
The raid occurred after informants said National League for Democracy parliamentarians were hiding in the Catholic churches and Buddhist monasteries.
In May, four civilians were reportedly killed and around eight others were injured when military forces fired artillery shells at a Catholic Church in the Kayah state's Thar Yar village.
Earlier in June, the Church of Mary Queen of Peace in Daw Ngan Kha in Kayah, which was acting as a place of refuge for many displaced by conflict, was shelled. No one was reportedly killed in the attack.
Aung Myo Min, the human rights minister for the National Unity Government, the Burmese government in exile, told RFA that the attacks on religious buildings by the military are a "violation of international laws of war."
"The shooting of people who are hiding and taking refuge in there is another serious matter,” the minister argued. “We are now working to condemn these attacks and then we will continue to work to get the international community to get involved in stopping this kind of attacks. At the same time, we will systematically put on record these violations in order to bring the perpetrators to justice one day."
On Feb. 1, the military detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in response to her National League for Democracy party’s landslide victory in last year’s election. The coup makes an army general the de-facto leader of the country. Protests against the coup have been met with force as the military has reportedly killed hundreds since Feb. 1.
In the three months between Feb. 15 and May 15, Asia News reported that 73 people under the age of 18-years-old had been killed.
Christians make up just over 7% of the majority-Buddhist nation. Formerly known as Burma, the country is home to the world’s longest civil war, which began in 1948. Myanmar is ranked No. 18 on Open Doors USA’s 2021 World Watch List of 50 countries where Christians face the most severe persecution. The persecution level in Myanmar is “very high” due to Buddhist nationalism. Burma is recognized by the U.S. State Department as a "country of particular concern" for egregious violations of religious liberty.
“The military is notorious for its relations with the ultranationalist ultra-Buddhist group the Ma Ba Tha,” International Christian Concern Southeast Asia Regional Manager Gina Goh said in a statement earlier this year. “The military together with Ma Ba Tha has targeted the Muslims in the country, but they also go after Christians. Once they get a hold of the power, they might resort to things they were doing before they passed the power to the civilian government. They kill. They rape minority Christians.”
The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom raised concern about violence toward religious minorities after the military coup.
“Given the history of brutal atrocities by the Burmese military, our fear is that violence could quickly escalate, especially towards religious and ethnic communities, such as the Rohingya and other Muslims,” USCIRF Chair Anurima Bhargava said in a statement at the time. “We urge the Burmese military to honor the faith and will of the Burmese people and restore democratic civilian rule as soon as possible.”