Minority Christians displaced by conflict in northern Myanmar (also known as Burma) have formed their own village outside of Yangon and named it Baythala — or "Bethel" — the biblical town that served as a refuge for those in need.
The ongoing fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army in the northern Rakhine state has spilled over into the neighboring Chin state, forcing the ethnic Chin, who are predominantly Christian, out of their villages and into temporary camps.
After months of traveling hundreds of miles, a group of about 80 Christians settled on a small plot of land in Yangon's Hmawbi Township and formed their own village.
Led by Kan Lwat — a 36-year-old whose home state was shelled in the fighting — the Christians christened their new home Baythala, according to a report from AFP.
"It means Jesus was blessing and helping people in trouble with this place, which will be peaceful,” Kan Lwat told the press agency.
The village is currently supported by Christian organizations and Chin rights groups that send food and other supplies while villagers wait for water, electricity and supplies to build homes.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yangon is currently in an economic slump. This makes it difficult for Chin migrants to find work. Kan Lwat told the AFP that he’s hopeful that once the pandemic eases, adults will be able to find jobs and the 30-some children in the village will have access to better education.
"Even if our lives are not good, I hope my children will have a brighter future ahead," he said.
Village pastor Aung Far said that despite their troubles, being able to live in a safe place, away from artillery shelling or soldiers, is a “godsend.”
"Even if we wanted to go home, we can't live in peace because there's still fighting," the pastor said.
Villager Hla Sein told the international news outlet she hopes to stay in the village “forever,” adding: “I feel happy living here. It's a different feeling [than] in my home village."
Open Doors ranks Myanmar 18th on its 2021 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
The group notes that due to ongoing fighting, more than 100,000 Christians have been forced to flee their homes and are now living in camps where they are denied access to food and healthcare.
Christian converts in Myanmar also face persecution for their faith in the Buddhist-majority country.
According to Open Doors, converts to the Christian faith often face persecution and ostracisation from their families and communities for leaving, or “betraying,” the system of belief they grew up in.
Pastor Langjaw Gam Seng, who was jailed in 2016 for helping journalists report on the bombing of Christian churches in the majority-Christian Kachin province, previously shared at the U.S. State Department's Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in 2019 how he was tortured and jailed by Myanmar officials.
“I was detained, handcuffed and shackled for over one month with my eyes tied sealed and I was unable to see for an entire month,” Seng said. “And they put me in something like a dungeon for an entire month and gave me minimal food.”
“I was going in and out of consciousness for several weeks," he added.
Seng said that he played an instrumental part in helping to provide aid to victims of violence and even helped to bury the dead amid the ongoing violence between the Myanmar military and rebels in Kachin.
“Many times we have experienced repression because of our belief in our country,” Seng stated. “Our country is very diverse with multi-ethnic and multi-religious. We want our society to be plural and not oppressed by one singular state religion.”
“I can attest to the fact that with my own experience, the welfare of the society or even nation is incumbent upon the liberty that they enjoy," he added. "I do not want another person to go through the same ordeal that I have gone through.”
After visiting Kachin in 2018, Texas Pastor Bob Roberts told The Christian Post that the military had bombed as many as 60 churches in the previous 18 months in the region. He added that about 20 of them were converted into Buddhist pagodas.
"[To] be clear, most of it is about ethnic cleansing,” Roberts told CP at the time.
In December, the U.S. State Department again listed Myanmar as a "country of particular concern," a designation that highlights countries that tolerate or engage in egregious violations of religious freedom.