A controversial Christian pastor and three others in Myanmar face three years in jail for organizing services in defiance of a ban on large gatherings in the Southeast Asian country due to COVID-19.
Pastor David Lah, who holds a Canadian passport, and three others in Yangon city were charged under the 2013 Natural Disaster Management Law, an offense which is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years and a possible fine, according to the U.S.-based Christian persecution watchdog International Christian Concern.
According to the Yangon Region COVID-19 Control and Emergency Response Committee, Lah and two other pastors held services after a ban on large gatherings was imposed in Yangon on March 13, and the other accused is a member of the congregation, Reuters reported.
In a sermon posted online in late March, Pastor Lah said, “If you hear the sermon of God, the virus will never come to you, I declare it with the soul of Jesus Christ.”
Weeks later, about 20 people connected to his gatherings tested positive for the novel coronavirus, including Pastor Lah and a famous Myanmar rock star named Myo Gyi.
According to CBC News, on the afternoon of April 7, police say “a crowd” gathered to listen to Lah. It was more than three weeks after restrictions on mass gatherings were announced in Myanmar, and more than two weeks after Myanmar officially documented its first case of COVID-19, the Canadian news outlet reported.
“Because of Lah’s action, many Christians in Myanmar face criticism and have sensed hostilities towards them in the Buddhist majority country,” ICC said. “Christian leaders have appealed to citizens to work together to fight COVID-19 in unity and love as anti-Christian sentiment surges on social media. They also urged people not to post and share fake news, photos and videos on Facebook that may be offensive to religion.”
On May 7, Lah was discharged from the hospital and has been quarantined for 21 days in a Yangon hotel.
There are 182 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and six deaths in Myanmar as of Sunday.
According to David Lah Ministries Facebook, he is a Myanmar-born pastor living in Toronto and currently “touring around the globe to preach the gospel.”
Photos of Henry Van Thio, Myanmar’s first-ever non-Buddhist vice president, attending a gathering held in February by Lah in the capital city of Naypyidaw appeared on social media in April, according to CBC News.
The Buddhist and ethnic Burman majoritarian military of Myanmar, earlier known as Burma, routinely persecutes Christians due to the various ethnic conflicts in the country, especially along the borders with China, Thailand and India.
Open Doors ranks Myanmar 19th on its 2020 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 living in camps where they have been denied access to food and healthcare.