Burma Christian Persecution: Thousands Flee to Refugee Camps to Escape Violence

More than 1,000 residents have fled to makeshift refugee camps in the Burmese jungles near the China border as fighting between government troops and rebel groups intensifies in Kachin State, the largely Christian region in northern Burma.

Those fleeing the fighting are not recognized as refugees by the Chinese government and cannot cross the border, leaving them internally displaced in the war-torn Asian nation.

Burmese officials also have denied international aid organizations access to the refugees, according to reports.

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Since fighting intensified between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Burma's military in June, more than 30,000 people have become displaced in the northern state.

The conditions of the camps are alarming, as Burmese troops have blocked aid from reaching those fleeing.

"They are currently sheltering in temporary makeshift tents and sharing whatever food they have brought with them," Kaw Ja, a Kachin youth group member who is helping the refugees, said to The Irrawaddy, a publication providing news coverage on Burma and Southeast Asia.

"We are not able to adequately supply the (refuges), and in the long run they will face food shortages. They presently have no support," he said.

Denying aid to the refugees appears to be another tactic used by the Burmese government in its campaign that targets residents as much as it does rebel forces.

Recently the country's military has attacked churches, beating parishioners and arresting religious leaders. In October, the government began requiring residents in Kachin State to submit a written request at least 15 days in advance prior to reading the Bible or praying.

Christians also have been forbidden to build new churches, had religious symbols – such as crosses – removed by the military and food and homes confiscated by officials, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

The ongoing abuses by the Burmese government against the nation's Christian minority do not seem to be waning, despite recent comments from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging Burma to reform and build economic ties with the U.S.

"Should the government pursue genuine and lasting reform for the benefits of its citizens, it will find a partner in the United States," Clinton previously said.

Clinton will travel to Burma in December, in the first diplomatic mission by senior U.S. officials to the country in more than 50 years.

It is unclear what defines "genuine and lasting reform."

"After years of darkness we've seen flickers of progress in these last several weeks," President Barack Obama said.

Religious freedom watchdog groups, like Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), and governments around the world maintain that the abuses have not subsided.

"It appears that despite changes in rhetoric, there has been no change of attitude, particularly at a local level, on the part of Burmese authorities to religious minorities," CSW's East Asia Team Leader Benedict Rogers said. "Burma is already regarded as one of the world's worst violators of religious freedom, and is one of the US State Department’s Countries of Particular Concern."

Burma – largely for religious intolerance and other abuses – shares a place on the State Department’s list with China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.

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