By Robin Gomes
At least four Catholic churches in villages in Myanmar's Pathein Diocese in Irrawaddy division were raided on April 8 by police and soldiers in search of alleged illegal activities or anti-coup activists. Armed security forces searched inside a Catholic church and checked around the cemetery, according to church sources. The latest targeting of Catholic churches follows military raids on other churches in Kachin state, a Christian stronghold, over the Easter weekend.
Places of worship
A source of the Vatican’s Fides news agency said the military recently raided Baptist Christian, Catholic and Anglican churches in the city of Mohnyin. On March 1, security forces also broke through the gate of a Kachin Baptist church in Lashio, in Shan state, and detained more than 10 religious leaders and staff who were released later, according to media reports. The soldiers fired shots inside the church compound during their search. The raids are also targeting Buddhist monasteries and temples in the largely Buddhist country.
The Fides source said, “Buddhist places of worship and monasteries are regularly ransacked with violence. These are serious acts of intimidation by the army that are generating growing tension and hostility in the Burmese population of all ethnicities and religions." He said, "The military identifies youth and protest leaders on social media and then launches night raids to stop them.”
The Irrawaddy online news website run by Myanmar exiles in Thailand recounted raids in 3 churches of Reverend Awng Seng of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC). “Soldiers climbed over the fences and entered all the buildings in the complex, without any justification and searched all the spaces", the Reverend said. They were suspecting a protest leader was hiding inside and those religious leaders participated in protests against the regime. Nothing illegal was found in the churches, he said, lamenting how it must be in peoples’ homes. He condemned the military actions, which also targeted the KBC’s Kachin Theological College and the adjacent Baptist Christian Seminary in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin.
Christians are a minority in the predominantly Buddhist country, accounting for 6.2 percent of the 54 million population. Areas occupied by the Kachin, Chin, Karen and Kayah ethnic groups, who have been facing oppression and persecution at the hands of the military for decades, are largely Christian.
An estimated one-third of Myanmar’s territory – mostly the border regions – is currently controlled by 20-odd armed rebel outfits. The military has been fighting these groups. Since 2015, 10 armed groups have signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement with the civilian government. But fighting has continued particularly in Kachin and Shan states in the north, and Rakhine state in the west, displacing thousands. On 27 March, army fighter jets launched air strikes on a Karen village, killing at least three and injuring eight.
More than 100,000 people, many of them Christians, remain in camps for displaced persons in Kachin and Shan states, while another 100,000, mostly Karen Christians, are in camps across the Thai border. According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom report 2020, the military has reportedly damaged or destroyed over 300 churches in the conflicts.
Myanmar's powerful military seized power on Feb. 1, after detaining the nation’s elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi. This has triggered nationwide daily protests and a civil disobedience movement, including a strike, demanding her release and the restoration of democracy.
The coup came after days of escalating tension between the civilian government and the military, which claimed that the November general election, won overwhelmingly by Suu Kyi’s governing National League for Democracy (NLD) party was fraudulent. The security forces have been responding with brutal force, killing 710 protesters so far as of Monday, according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an activist group that verifies and compiles the list of casualties and those imprisoned in the protests.