The rebel faction Arakan Army in Myanmar has released 52 villagers from the predominantly Christian Khumi community in the Western Chin state after they were detained for six months in a border camp.
Radio Free Asia reported the release last week, citing a local pastor and the Arakan Army. The Khumi villagers were abducted in February from their communities following a battle with Myanmar's military troops.
Although the Khumi Affairs Consultative Council accused the Arakan Army of taking the villagers by force, the rebel group vehemently denied that accusation.
In April, a spokesperson for the rebel faction said the Arakan Army helped the villagers flee to safety after fighting in Chin's Paletwa township. The spokesperson claimed that the Arakan Army did not take the villagers by force.
Fifty-four villagers were initially said to have been detained by the Arakan Army but two villagers were able to escape.
KACC chairman Kyaw Nyein said in April that the villagers who escaped said the rest of the villagers were being held at an Arakan Army outpost along the border of Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh.
According to Radio Free Asia, the Arakan Army released the Khumi villagers and sent them to community leaders in the Ohnthee Wa village. The released villagers are expected to stay at an internally displaced persons camp in Meezar.
“They said that all have been released," Pastor Moses told Radio Free Asia.
The release of the villagers was praised by the U.S.-based persecution watchdog and charity International Christian Concern.
"For the Chin captives who were held against their will for months, this is definitely encouraging news that they could finally return home," ICC Regional Manager Gina Goh said in a statement. "We rejoice with them and their loved ones. However, the AA should not have taken them in the first place. Civilians have the right to live without fear despite ongoing armed conflicts between the AA and Tatmadaw [Myanmar military]."
According to the Joshua Project, the Khumi community in Myanmar is about 66,000 in population with 80 percent being Christian.
Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority country, ranks as the 18th-worst persecutor of Christians in the world, according to Open Doors USA's 2019 World Watch List.
Open Doors warns that churches are being attacked even in predominantly Christian states like Kachin, Karen and Shan. With increased fighting in 2018 in places like Kachin state, Open Doors estimates that over 100,000 Christians have been forced out of their homes as internally displaced persons.
"And radical Buddhist monks, generally tolerated by the government, have invaded church properties and built Buddhist shrines on church premises," an Open Doors factsheet reads. "Anyone deviating from the Buddhist heritage is regarded as an outsider and as potentially dangerous."
Last year, it was reported that as many as 90 Christian leaders were detained by the United Wa State Army, another rebel faction in Eastern Myanmar. Additionally, over 50 churches were said to have been closed down.
In the Kachin state, it was reported last July that the Myanmar army had bombed 60 churches and replaced some of them with Buddhist pagodas.
The U.S. State Department has designated Myanmar as a "country of particular" concern for egregious religious liberty violations.
The predominantly-Muslim Rohingya community in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state has faced what advocates are calling a "genocide" systematically planned by the Myanmar military.
Because of the military onslaught of their communities in 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have been forced to flee as refugees into neighboring Bangladesh.
This week, a United Nations fact-finding report called on the international community to "sever ties with Myanmar’s military and the vast web of companies it controls and relies on."
The U.N. report details how the Myanmar military profits from domestic and foreign business deals to bolster its ability to carry out "gross violations of human rights with impunity. The report called for U.N. member states to impose targeted sanctions against companies run by the Myanmar military.
The U.N. fact-finding mission also called for the imposition of an arms embargo as over 14 firms from seven nations have supplied weaponry to Myanmar since 2016.
"During this period the military carried out extensive and systematic human rights violations against civilians in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states, including the forced deportation of more than 700,000 ethnic Rohingya to Bangladesh," the report explains.