Since the February 1, 2021, military takeover of the government in Myanmar, priests, pastors, and lay people were harassed, threatened, and killed, churches were burned to the ground, desecrated, and became targets of artillery shelling.
Church leaders said the persecution happened because Christians — Catholic and Protestant — chose to be with the suffering people, the poor who were caught in the middle of the conflict that had already killed and displaced thousands.
“They became targets of attacks not because of their religious affiliation but because of their being with the people,” a Catholic priest in Myanmar told LiCAS News. He said not all Christians were being targeted by the military, “only those who helped the people.”
Father Raymond Kyaw Aung said that if a Christian do not get involved in politics, “he or she is not attacked.”
He said most of the communities that have been under siege are located in predominantly Christian areas where resistance to the military junta is strong, and where churches serve as refuge for the displaced, helpless people.
The priest said junta military forces suspect that churches are being used by the resistance movement as hiding places, “and with this suspicion the churches were attacked and deliberately targeted for artillery shelling.”
“But the churches are being used for refugees and displaced people only,” insisted Father Raymond, adding that the Church cannot turn its back to the victims of violence.
He said that in the Yangon and Ayeyarwaddy regions, churches were not attacked because there were no clashes between the military and the rebels, “and most Christians are keeping their silence” over the atrocities in the predominantly Christian Chin and Karenni states.
The priest said that aside from Catholic and Protestant churches, Buddhist temples, pagodas, and compounds, especially those located in conflict areas, are also hit during air raids, “sometimes intentionally.”
“Sometimes it is intentional,” said Father Raymond, “because the soldiers do not understand the sacredness of churches as Christians do.”
“The military soldiers are ordered by their generals to fire at anyone or at any community who opposes them,” said the priest.
“It is not dangerous to be a priest, a Catholic or a Christian in Myanmar,” said the priest, “as long as he or she does not get involved in politics or does not oppose the military junta.”
“It is dangerous for those who speak, those who write, those who preach, those who criticize,” said Father Raymond.
Christians in the crosshairs of persecution
Even before the 2021 coup Christians in Myanmar have been complaining about religious persecution.
The attacks on churches in recent months might be considered part of the junta’s efforts to get rid of resistance groups, but some people cite “past experiences of enduring Christmas nightmares.”
Rights groups International Christian Concern (ICC) recalled the Christmas Day 2014 incident when government troops “deliberately” attacked resistance fighters despite appeals from Catholic and Protestant Church leaders for a ceasefire during the holidays.
The ICC noted that similar attacks were also staged during other Christian religious holidays, but especially during the Christmas season when people are out to celebrate and congregate in churches for Masses and religious services.
A refugee from Karen state posted on Facebook that during one Christmas Day, “airplanes, artillery bombings, and gun noises” drowned Christmas carols.
Last Christmas, Christians in Karen, Chin, Kachin, and Karenni states had to spend the day in bomb shelters and refugee camps, while others had to hide in the forest.
On Christmas Day, at least 35 civilians in the village of Mo So in Kayah State were killed in what Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon described as a “heart-breaking and horrific atrocity.”
“The [Myanmar military] openly and frequently brands itself as the protector of Buddhist religion in Myanmar and claims that Buddhism is able to last this long in the country only because of them,” read an ICC report on January 31.
The group, however, said that despite the attacks, “people’s faith continues to sustain them in a hopeless situation.” It said that resistance to the military junta “is not about one particular religion or ethnic group.”
“It is the whole nation saying to the bully, ‘Enough is enough,’” read the ICC report, adding that Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists should “unite in the fight against the evil regime that seeks to return the Southeast Asian country to authoritarian rule.”
Cardinal Bo’s call for peace
“We are deeply concerned,” said Cardinal Bo, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar, in his answer to questions sent to him.
He said the situation of the country a year after the military coup “escapes sensible description.”
“After a year, there is too much human suffering,” he said, adding that the life of the people in Myanmar is an “extended way of the Cross,” turning the “Garden of Eden” into “Mount Calvary.”
“It is a time of spiraling chaos, confusion, conflict, human agony,” said the prelate. “Our people live in fear, anxiety, starvation, and a prospect of danger to life,” he said.
He said the people of Myanmar are “undergoing an existential crisis, a deep crisis marked by a visceral threat to life and livelihood.”
“Enough is enough. It is time for healing,” said the cardinal, adding that the people and the country “cannot bear any more the pain and violence.”
“I am prayerfully hopeful that all stakeholders take the path of peace and reconciliation,” he said.
To the people of Myanmar, the Catholic Church leader said: “We feel your pain, your suffering, your starvation. We understand your disappointment, we understand your resistance.”
“But to some who believe only in violent resistance, we say there are other means,” said Cardinal Bo.
To the Christians, he said, “You have suffered heavily this time. The Church accompanies you in your Way of the Cross. But as a Church and as Christians, we follow the direction of Pope Francis.”
“Let us become the wounded healer, be an instrument of peace. Let us light a candle of hope amidst the frustrating darkness.”
The cardinal urged the military junta to enter into a dialogue, release political prisoners, allow “greater freedom of expression,” “respect basic human rights of all,” and “urgently facilitate humanitarian access to affected millions.”
Cardinal Bo reiterated his call to the international community to continue pressing for peace in the country and to stop providing weapons to the military. He noted that “after the initial bout of interest, Myanmar seems to have disappeared from the radar of the world.”
“Our agony continues. Remember Myanmar and help in her struggle for peace.”