Last 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 demonstrate the extent of disrespect and brutality with which [Myanmar military] soldiers are conducting themselves in their ongoing war against the people,” Salai Za Uk Ling, deputy director of the Chin Human Rights Organisation, advised Al Jazeera.
The September 19 incident is certainly one of no less than 20 circumstances documented by human rights teams and the media, during which Christian church buildings, church leaders and volunteers have been focused or caught within the crossfire of navy assaults since a February 1 coup.
The incidents embrace shelling church buildings, detaining pastors, and utilizing church buildings as navy bases.
“Churches are now empty and deserted,” 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 issues of reprisals. “Fear is instilled in the hearts of people. Even churches are not safe from attacks,” he stated.
Military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun didn’t reply to a number of makes an attempt to reach him for touch upon the incidents talked about on this report, as his cellphone was switched off.
In May, the navy justified its assaults on church buildings in Kayah, together with a Catholic church the place artillery hearth killed 4 folks, by claiming “local rebels” have been hiding there, Radio Free Asia reported.
According to 2014 census figures, which surveyed some 50 million folks and excluded roughly 1 million principally Muslim Rohingya, Myanmar’s inhabitants is nearly 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 “special position of Buddhism as the faith possessed by the great majority of the citizens”.
Christians, in the meantime, make up simply six p.c of Myanmar’s inhabitants and are principally 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.
According to Benedict Rogers, senior analyst for East Asia on the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide and writer of three books on Myanmar, the navy has all the time had a “deep-seated hostility” in the direction of non-Buddhist spiritual minorities.
“[The military] have often used religion as a tool of repression. They have sowed religious nationalism, and that has been the case for decades,” he stated, including that for the reason that coup, these patterns have solely intensified. “Christians have certainly been targeted, both for their religion and their ethnicity,” he advised Al Jazeera.
Chin, Kayah and Kachin State have the nation’s largest focus of Christians, in response to the census.
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.
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 living in areas below the management of the Kachin Independence Organisation.
“[The central government] set the mark of their ownership on Kachin lands, building their pagodas wherever there is a hill,” stated Layang Seng Ja, head of analysis and publications and a professor on the Kachin Theological College and Seminary. “Our beautiful hills, valleys, plains and mountains have the symbols of their domination.”
Crackdown on resistance
Military violence in the direction of Christians for the reason that coup comes amid a broader crackdown on the resistance motion which has swept the nation.
Security forces have killed greater than 1,100 unarmed civilians, in response to rights teams, principally throughout avenue demonstrations, and as folks have more and more taken up arms, the navy has indiscriminately attacked complete 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 houses since an intense navy offensive started in May.
At least 5 church buildings have been broken in artillery hearth, together with the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic church in Kayah’s Loikaw township the place 4 civilians have been killed.
About 300 folks from the township’s South Kayantharyar village sought shelter within the church grounds on May 22, hiding in two cathedrals and the monks’ residence. “It seemed like the war was closing in on us, and we thought that the church would be safe,” 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. They additionally disposed of kitchen knives and different objects that could possibly be mistaken for weapons, stated Khu Reh.
According to his account, troopers arrived the subsequent day, looking the church grounds and questioning the villagers. “They warned us not to leave the church, and said that if they saw anyone coming out, they would shoot,” he stated.
That night time, he and a handful of villagers stood guard on the church gates.
One of them, he stated, was shot within the leg at about 9pm native time (14:30 GMT). Artillery hearth 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 ladies 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, whenever [soldiers] came to our village, they always stationed at our church,” stated Khu Reh, who together with others from his village has since been living 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 May 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 hearth; the clashes are ongoing, stated the Catholic church chief.
He added that troopers have confiscated drugs and meals provides which church teams had collected for displaced folks, following patterns of help obstruction which media and rights teams have documented throughout the nation.
Although 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 value, and compassionate hearts make us see [all civilians] as our brothers and sisters in need,” he stated. “We must be with them in their fear and protect them. The suffering of our people is our suffering. The cries of our people are our pain.”
In Chin State, the place nearly 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 hearth, 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 via the Taal Baptist Church in Falam township and left Bibles and hymn books strewn exterior the church amid piles of garbage, in response to photographs seen by Al Jazeera.
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. Soldiers interrogated them and checked their telephones for proof of ties to armed resistance, in response to the report. Zalen additionally reported on Wednesday that troopers had set a church in Chin State’s Falam township on hearth because it burned and looted a small village. Al Jazeera was unable to independently confirm these experiences.
A consultant from the Chin Baptist Convention, who spoke on situation of anonymity, advised Al Jazeera that troopers additionally destroyed Bibles whereas occupying the Grace Baptist Church in Mindat township in August. “The coup has affected our ability to safely and freely worship,” he stated. “People worry that they will be attacked or bombed while they are praying.”
The violence, arrests and different types of persecution which Christian church buildings throughout Myanmar have confronted for the reason that coup have been already being acutely felt within the nation’s far north, the place a ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organization and the navy collapsed in 2011.
In 2015, two volunteer academics from the Kachin Baptist Convention have been raped and murdered near a navy encampment in northern Shan State, in a case which was by no means delivered to justice.
And in 2017, two Baptist leaders have been jailed on expenses 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 expenses in opposition to Kachin Baptist Convention president Hkalam Samson in 2019, after he advised Donald Trump throughout a non secular freedom occasion on the Oval Office that Christians in Myanmar had been “oppressed and tortured” by the navy and lacked spiritual 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 help entry has successfully been blocked since 2016.
In 2018, the Kachin Baptist Convention needed to briefly droop humanitarian operations in these areas after the navy accused it of supporting the KIO due to its work.
Since the coup, preventing has elevated between the KIO and navy, and no less than 14,000 folks have been displaced, along with greater than 100,000, who have been already living in camps.
A Catholic church chief in Bhamo district, which has seen a few of the most intense preventing, advised Al Jazeera that the church’s humanitarian volunteers are commonly stopped at checkpoints, whereas in May, a Catholic priest was detained for 4 days whereas travelling from Bhamo to the state capital.
“[Soldiers] doubt us when we transport humanitarian aid, and we cannot transport it to displaced people when they need it,” stated the church chief, who spoke on situation of anonymity.
It is 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 indicate mercy in the 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 hearth, killing two.
In March and April, 4 Kachin church buildings have been raided. At certainly 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 response to native media experiences.
The Kachin Theological College and Seminary within the state capital was additionally raided on March 13. According to Layang Seng Ja, a convoy of 15 navy autos surrounded the campus and troopers searched the grounds and dormitories. The college has since despatched its college students home, she stated.
“If [soldiers] see people gathering, they will think somehow they are planning to do an uprising,” stated the professor on the faculty, who herself fled to the KIO headquarters attributable to fear of arrest. “I want to go back to the classroom and teach my students about Jesus’ peace and justice, love and compassion, but I cannot do so now,” she added.
The navy has additionally saved an in depth watch on Kachins’ prayer providers. Three pastors within the state’s Nawngmun township have been in detention since June 14, below expenses of incitement for allegedly utilizing the phrase “ending military dictatorship” throughout a prayer for peace.
And on August 26, plainclothes police searched the Kachin Baptist Convention 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] check the contents of our prayers,” stated Seng Ja. “We cannot practice freedom of religion in our own land; we cannot talk about peace [or] justice.”
“We are in a living hell caused by this military junta and their mentality,” she added.