Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has received reports of a serious crackdown on churches in Rangoon, the former capital of Burma.
According to the news agency Mizzima, local authorities in Rangoon have ordered at least 100 churches to stop holding worship services. Mizzima also reports that the order could affect as many as 80 per cent of churches in the city, and that 50 pastors were forced to sign at least five documents promising to cease church services. The pastors were reportedly warned they could be jailed if they disobeyed the order.
The campaign appears to be particularly targeted at churches meeting in apartment buildings, rather than churches that own their own building and land. According to a report by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), officials from the local branch of the Ministry of Religious Affairs summoned the owners of buildings in which churches were meeting, and issued them with an order prohibiting the use of private property for religious purposes. “Christians are worried that they will not be allowed to worship anymore, even in their own house,” said one pastor in a report received by CSW.
One pastor in Rangoon, who cannot be named for security reasons, claimed in a report received by CSW that several churches have now been locked and sealed, including three churches in South Dagon Township: the Evangelical Baptist Church, the Karen Baptist Church and the Dagon Joshua Church. An eyewitness said that in one church, the pastor presented his Legal Registration Certificate provided by the Ministry of Religious Affairs to the authorities when they came to inform him of the new order. In response, officials told him his registration certificate had been withdrawn.
Some Christians believe that the immediate cause of the crackdown is church involvement in providing relief for victims of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the area in May 2008. According to Shwekey Hoipang, a Chin pastor from Burma living in exile, the regime does not like the fact that Buddhists have been receiving help from churches, and fears this may possibly result in conversions. “The regime does not want Buddhists coming in and out of churches. It does not want Christianity to grow in Burma,” said Shwekey Hoipang. “Ultimately, the regime seeks the destruction of Christianity. This is part of a top-secret plan by the military to stop Christian growth.”
Burma is categorised as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ by the US State Department, for its violations of religious freedom. In 2007, CSW published a report, Carrying the Cross: The military regime’s campaign of restriction, discrimination and persecution against Christians in Burma, which revealed a 17-point document allegedly from an organisation affiliated to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, titled “Programme to Destroy the Christian religion in Burma”. The first point states: “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practised.”
Benedict Rogers, East Asia Team Leader at CSW and author of Carrying the Cross said: “There is no doubt that the regime is hostile to minority religions in Burma, particularly Christianity and Islam, and seeks to restrict and suppress them. This recent crackdown is an extremely worrying development and a serious violation of religious freedom. We urge the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion and Belief, and the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, to put pressure on the Burmese junta to end these violations and to permit churches and other religious institutions to operate freely, in accordance with internationally-accepted norms of religious freedom.”
CSW is a human rights organisation which specialises in religious freedom, works on behalf of those persecuted for their Christian beliefs and promotes religious liberty for all.