A living hell: Churches, clergy targeted by Myanmar military

Rights groups say Christians, a minority in the mainly Buddhist country, are being swept up in the military crackdown on resistance.

By Nu Nu Lusan and Emily Fishbein

Churches, which have provided refuge to people fleeing violence, are being caught up in the Myanmar military's crackdown on all forms of resistance to its rule. Christians in Chin State say these hymn books were thrown out by soldiers who ransacked their church in August [Supplied]

Last month, Myanmar soldiers gunned down Cung Biak Hum, a 31-year-old Baptist pastor, while he rushed to help put out a fire caused by military shelling. As his town of Thantlang in Myanmar’s northwestern Chin State went up in flames, soldiers sawed off the pastor’s finger and stole his wedding 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, told Al Jazeera.

The September 19 incident is one of at least 20 cases documented by human rights groups and the media, in which Christian churches, church leaders and volunteers have been targeted or caught in the crossfire of military attacks since a February 1 coup.

The incidents include shelling churches, detaining pastors, and using churches as military bases.

“Churches are now empty and deserted,” said a Catholic church leader in Kayah State who, like several others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity due to concerns of reprisals. “Fear is instilled in the hearts of people. Even churches are not safe from attacks,” he said.

Military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him for comment on the incidents mentioned in this report, as his phone was switched off.

In May, the military justified its attacks on churches in Kayah, including a Catholic church where artillery fire killed four people, by claiming “local rebels” were hiding there, Radio Free Asia reported.

Christians, including Catholics make up about six percent of Myanmar’s population but are mostly from ethnic minority areas. Experts say they are targeted both for their religion and their ethnicity [File: /Jorge Silva/Reuters]

According to 2014 census figures, which surveyed some 50 million people and excluded roughly 1 million mostly Muslim Rohingya, Myanmar’s population is nearly 90 percent Buddhist.

The predominantly Buddhist ethnic Bamar majority dominates the military and politics, and the military has long promoted Buddhist nationalist organisations. The military-drafted 2008 constitution also recognises the “special position of Buddhism as the faith possessed by the great majority of the citizens”.

Christians, meanwhile, make up just six percent of Myanmar’s population and are mostly from ethnic minorities concentrated along the country’s borders, where their experiences of marginalisation and forced assimilation have contributed to decades-long armed struggles for self-determination.

According to Benedict Rogers, senior analyst for East Asia at the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide and author of three books on Myanmar, the military has always had a “deep-seated hostility” towards non-Buddhist religious 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 said, adding that since the coup, these patterns have only intensified. “Christians have certainly been targeted, both for their religion and their ethnicity,” he told Al Jazeera.

Chin, Kayah and Kachin State have the country’s largest concentration of Christians, according to the census.

Damage sustained to Our Lady of Peace church in Kayah State’s Demoso township during military attacks in the area 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.