‘A residing hell’: Church buildings, clergy focused by Myanmar navy

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Final month, Myanmar troopers gunned down Cung Biak Hum, a 31-year-old Baptist pastor, whereas he rushed to assist put out a hearth brought on by navy shelling. As his city of Thantlang in Myanmar’s northwestern Chin State went up in flames, troopers sawed off the pastor’s finger and stole his wedding ceremony ring.

“The killing of Cung Biak Hum and mutilation of his finger display the extent of disrespect and brutality with which [Myanmar military] troopers are conducting themselves of their ongoing battle in opposition to the folks,” Salai Za Uk Ling, deputy director of the Chin Human Rights Organisation, instructed Al Jazeera.

The September 19 incident is considered one of at the very least 20 circumstances documented by human rights teams and the media, wherein Christian church buildings, church leaders and volunteers have been focused or caught within the crossfire of navy attacks since a February 1 coup.

The incidents embrace shelling church buildings, detaining pastors, and utilizing church buildings as navy bases.

“Church buildings are actually empty and abandoned,” stated a Catholic church chief in Kayah State who, like a number of others interviewed for this text, spoke on situation of anonymity attributable to considerations of reprisals. “Worry is instilled within the hearts of individuals. Even church buildings should not protected from assaults,” he stated.

Navy spokesman Main Basic Zaw Min Tun didn’t reply to a number of makes an attempt to succeed in him for touch upon the incidents talked about on this report, as his cellphone was switched off.

In Could, the navy justified its assaults on church buildings in Kayah, together with a Catholic church the place artillery fireplace killed 4 folks, by claiming “native rebels” have been hiding there, Radio Free Asia reported.

Christians, together with Catholics make up about six p.c of Myanmar’s inhabitants however are largely from ethnic minority areas. Consultants say they’re focused each for his or her faith and their ethnicity [File: /Jorge Silva/Reuters]

In response to 2014 census figures, which surveyed some 50 million folks and excluded roughly 1 million largely Muslim Rohingya, Myanmar’s inhabitants is almost 90 p.c Buddhist.

The predominantly Buddhist ethnic Bamar majority dominates the navy and politics, and the navy has lengthy promoted Buddhist nationalist organisations. The military-drafted 2008 structure additionally recognises the “particular place of Buddhism as the religion possessed by the nice majority of the residents”.

Christians, in the meantime, make up simply six p.c of Myanmar’s inhabitants and are largely from ethnic minorities concentrated alongside the nation’s borders, the place their experiences of marginalisation and compelled assimilation have contributed to decades-long armed struggles for self-determination.

In response to Benedict Rogers, senior analyst for East Asia on the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide and creator of three books on Myanmar, the navy has all the time had a “deep-seated hostility” in direction of non-Buddhist non secular minorities.

“[The military] have typically used faith as a device of repression. They’ve sowed non secular nationalism, and that has been the case for many years,” he stated, including that because the coup, these patterns have solely intensified. “Christians have actually been focused, each for his or her faith and their ethnicity,” he instructed Al Jazeera.

Chin, Kayah and Kachin State have the nation’s largest focus of Christians, in line with the census.

Harm sustained to Our Woman of Peace church in Kayah State’s Demoso township throughout navy assaults within the space in June [Supplied}

Some 85 percent of the 478,000 residents of Chin State, located on Myanmar’s northwestern border with India, identified as Christian, while in Kayah, which borders Thailand in Myanmar’s southeast, 46 percent of its 286,000 people said they were Christian.

Damage sustained to Our Lady of Peace church in Kayah State’s Demoso township during military attacks in the area on June 6 [Supplied]

In Kachin State, in Myanmar’s far north on the border with China, 34 p.c of 1.6 million folks surveyed recognized as Christian; the census excluded about 46,000 folks residing in areas beneath the management of the Kachin Independence Organisation.

“[The central government] set the mark of their possession on Kachin lands, constructing their pagodas wherever there’s a hill,” stated Layang Seng Ja, head of analysis and publications and a professor on the Kachin Theological Faculty and Seminary. “Our stunning hills, valleys, plains and mountains have the symbols of their domination.”

Crackdown on resistance

Navy violence in direction of Christians because the coup comes amid a broader crackdown on the resistance movement which has swept the nation.

Safety forces have killed greater than 1,100 unarmed civilians, in line with rights teams, largely throughout avenue demonstrations, and as folks have more and more taken up arms, the navy has indiscriminately attacked total civilian populations, following a ‘four cuts’ technique it has utilized for many years in ethnic areas.

In Kayah and southern Shan State, greater than 100,000 folks have fled their properties since an intense navy offensive started in Could.

A minimum of 5 church buildings have been broken in artillery fireplace, together with the Sacred Coronary heart of Jesus Catholic church in Kayah’s Loikaw township the place four civilians were killed.

About 300 folks from the township’s South Kayantharyar village sought shelter within the church grounds on Could 22, hiding in two cathedrals and the clergymen’ residence. “It appeared just like the battle was closing in on us, and we thought that the church can be protected,” stated Khu Reh, a farmer. Al Jazeera has used a pseudonym for the 56-year-old.

The villagers raised white flags across the compound’s perimeter as a gesture of peace. Additionally they disposed of kitchen knives and different objects that may very well be mistaken for weapons, stated Khu Reh.

In response to his account, troopers arrived the subsequent day, looking the church grounds and questioning the villagers. “They warned us to not depart the church, and stated that in the event that they noticed anybody popping out, they’d shoot,” he stated.

A discarded Bible after troopers ransacked a church in Myanmar’s northwestern Chin State in August [Supplied]

That night time, he and a handful of villagers stood guard on the church gates.

One in every of them, he stated, was shot within the leg at about 9pm native time (14:30 GMT). Artillery fireplace started falling on the village and two close by villages at 1am (18:30 GMT), and when it stopped two hours later, Khu Reh and the opposite guards opened the doorways to the brand new cathedral to a billow of smoke. Three aged girls and an aged man lay useless and eight folks have been injured.

When Khu Reh returned the subsequent day, he discovered the church ransacked and looted. “After that, each time [soldiers] got here to our village, they all the time stationed at our church,” stated Khu Reh, who together with others from his village has since been residing in a displacement camp.

The Catholic church chief interviewed by Al Jazeera stated that troopers have additionally stationed themselves on the Doumyalay Parish Church in Loikaw township, and on Could 29 entered the compound of St. Peter’s seminary – additionally in Loikaw township – the place 1,300 folks had taken shelter, and shot a volunteer useless.

On Wednesday, a Catholic church in Kayah State’s Hpruso township was broken by artillery fireplace; the clashes are ongoing, stated the Catholic church chief.

He added that troopers have confiscated medication and meals provides which church teams had collected for displaced folks, following patterns of support obstruction which media and rights teams have documented throughout the nation.

Though he dangers his life to take action, the church chief says he stays dedicated to defending and serving to civilians in want.

“Humanitarian concern, human dignity and worth, and compassionate hearts make us see [all civilians] as our brothers and sisters in want,” he stated. “We have to be with them of their concern and defend them. The struggling of our folks is our struggling. The cries of our persons are our ache.”

Navy suspicions

In Chin State, the place practically 12,000 folks stay displaced by navy assaults that started when armed resistance teams emerged in April, the Chin Human Rights Organisation has collected experiences of three church buildings which have been occupied by troopers and 4 which have been hit by artillery fireplace, in addition to the arbitrary detention of a pastor from Matupi township, who has been in custody with out cost since August 23.

In August, troopers handed by the Taal Baptist Church in Falam township and left Bibles and hymn books strewn exterior the church amid piles of garbage, in line with images seen by Al Jazeera.

Harm to the Sacred Coronary heart of Jesus church in Kayah State’s Loikaw Township after navy shelling on Could 24 [Supplied]

And on October 3, native media outlet Zalen reported that troopers entered a Catholic church in Magway area the place displaced villagers from Mindat township had taken shelter. Troopers interrogated them and checked their telephones for proof of ties to armed resistance, in line with the report. Zalen additionally reported on Wednesday that troopers had set a church in Chin State’s Falam township on fireplace because it burned and looted a small village. Al Jazeera was unable to independently confirm these experiences.

A consultant from the Chin Baptist Conference, who spoke on situation of anonymity, instructed Al Jazeera that troopers additionally destroyed Bibles whereas occupying the Grace Baptist Church in Mindat township in August. “The coup has affected our potential to soundly and freely worship,” he stated. “Individuals fear that they are going to be attacked or bombed whereas they’re praying.”

The violence, arrests and different types of persecution which Christian church buildings throughout Myanmar have confronted because the coup have been already being acutely felt within the nation’s far north, the place a ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Group and the navy collapsed in 2011.

In 2015, two volunteer academics from the Kachin Baptist Conference have been raped and murdered close to a navy encampment in northern Shan State, in a case which was by no means dropped at justice.

And in 2017, two Baptist leaders have been jailed on fees of defamation and supporting the KIO after they took journalists to a church which had been broken by navy airstrikes.

The navy additionally threatened defamation fees in opposition to Kachin Baptist Conference president Hkalam Samson in 2019, after he instructed Donald Trump throughout a spiritual freedom occasion on the Oval Workplace that Christians in Myanmar had been “oppressed and tortured” by the navy and lacked non secular freedom.

Kachin church buildings have been integral within the humanitarian response to armed battle, however have confronted ongoing scrutiny for his or her humanitarian work, particularly in KIO-controlled areas, the place worldwide support entry has successfully been blocked since 2016.

In 2018, the Kachin Baptist Conference needed to briefly droop humanitarian operations in these areas after the navy accused it of supporting the KIO due to its work.

Because the coup, combating has elevated between the KIO and navy, and at the very least 14,000 folks have been displaced, along with greater than 100,000, who have been already residing in camps.

A Catholic church chief in Bhamo district, which has seen a number of the most intense combating, instructed Al Jazeera that the church’s humanitarian volunteers are usually stopped at checkpoints, whereas in Could, a Catholic priest was detained for 3 days whereas touring from Bhamo to the state capital.

“[Soldiers] doubt us once we transport humanitarian support, and we can’t transport it to displaced folks after they want it,”  stated the church chief, who spoke on situation of anonymity.

It’s amongst quite a few ways in which Kachin church buildings have been caught up within the post-coup disaster.

On March 8, a Catholic nun within the Kachin State capital knelt in entrance of police and troopers and begged them to point out mercy in direction of a gaggle of protesters who had gathered in entrance of her church; she additionally served as a primary responder that day when safety forces opened fireplace, killing two.

Church buildings have lengthy offered refuge to folks fleeing battle in Myanmar’s ethnic minority areas together with northern Kachin state the place the navy has been combating the Kachin Independence Military (KIA) for years [file: Ann Wang/Reuters]

In March and April, 4 Kachin church buildings have been raided. At considered one of them, a Baptist church in northern Shan State, 30 troopers entered, firing gunshots and detaining 10 folks, together with 4 ministers, for 2 days, in line with native media experiences.

The Kachin Theological Faculty and Seminary within the state capital was additionally raided on March 13. In response to Layang Seng Ja, a convoy of 15 navy automobiles surrounded the campus and troopers searched the grounds and dormitories. The varsity has since despatched its college students house, she stated.

“If [soldiers] see folks gathering, they are going to suppose one way or the other they’re planning on doing an rebellion,” stated the professor on the school, who herself fled to the KIO headquarters attributable to concern of arrest. “I need to return to the classroom and educate my college students about Jesus’ peace and justice, love and compassion, however I can’t achieve this now,” she added.

The navy has additionally saved a detailed watch on Kachins’ prayer companies. Three pastors within the state’s Nawngmun township have been in detention since June 14, beneath fees of incitement for allegedly utilizing the phrase “ending navy dictatorship” throughout a prayer for peace.

And on August 26, plainclothes police searched the Kachin Baptist Conference headquarters, alleging that the church’s secretary signed off on a COVID-19 prayer assertion which used the phrase “terrorist junta”; The church claims the phrase was mistranslated from Kachin to Burmese.

“[The military] test the contents of our prayers,” stated Seng Ja. “We can’t follow freedom of faith in our personal land; we can’t speak about peace [or] justice.”

“We’re in a residing hell brought on by this navy junta and their mentality,” she added.

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