Obstacle to Conversion Looms for Burma’s Beleaguered Evangelists
January 29, 2015
Children of animist upbringing at Burma village orphanage showed keen interest in Christian song and teaching.
In a country where Christians face hostilities from the Buddhist majority, the upper house of Burma’s parliament last week passed a bill requiring all people wishing to convert to another religion to obtain approval from an 11-member government committee. The Religious Conversion Bill would also force those seeking to convert in Burma (Myanmar) to provide an extensive list of personal information to “registration boards,” answer intrusive questions, and wait 90 days for approval.
The punishment for applying to convert “with an intent to insult, disrespect, destroy, or to abuse a religion” would be as much as two years in jail, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). It was unclear how such intent would be proven, USCIRF noted, and members of the abandoned religion would have conveniently vague grounds for filing criminal charges against those who left them.
The legislation, roundly condemned in the international human rights community, would add a huge obstacle to furthering the message of Christ in villages where native missionaries already encounter threats, deprivation and violence from Buddhist monks, followers of native animistic beliefs, and village officials.An indigenous missionary whose work led to the establishing of a new church last month in the town of Pin Da Zah, Shan state, regularly faces threats of violence.
“By the grace of God, the Lord’s church has been founded in Pin Da Zah town, where strong Buddhists are fighting against other religions,” said the director of a Burma-based ministry that trains and sends native missionaries. “Please pray for them, as their lives are under threat.”
The native missionary reached out to villagers by offering school lessons at her home to about 15 children. In that way she became acquainted with their parents and other relatives, gradually gaining opportunities to share Christ with them. She and a few other native missionaries then formed a church that began meeting on Dec. 16 with three families.
The opposition of Buddhists and animists has influenced local officials.
“The township authority has called her two times and commanded that she might teach only school lessons, but no songs, no Christian beliefs,” the ministry director said. “But some parents appreciate her sacrificial work, and she is known by many now in her area.”
The leader of another indigenous ministry assisted by Christian Aid Mission said workers have more freedom of movement than in past years, though they still have to tread cautiously. They now face only occasional opposition from monks.
“In the past, the monks would purposely install a loudspeaker facing the church,” the leader said. “We’d have monks chanting early in the morning – as early as 4 a.m. For some reasons unknown to us, they moved!”
Native gospel workers in Burma have the tools to confront obstacles
Most remaining problems arise in more remote areas, he said.
“With our longstanding presence in the community, more and more parents began to relate with us on a deeper level, we feel, and rapport has been building with the larger community,” he said. “This certainly creates a platform for us to speak to the people.”
On Open Doors’ latest World Watch List of countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, only Kenya had a higher jump in ranking from one year to the next than Burma. Though its degree of persecution rose only slightly, from 59 points to 60, Burma’s ranking among 50 other countries increased by 21 in 2014, to 25th place from 46th the previous year. (Kenya increased by 24, going from 43rd place to 19th place).
Religious nationalism is the primary factor behind persecution in Burma, according to Open Doors. The ethnic Burmese, who make up the majority of the population, equate their ethnicity with being Buddhist, and the government promotes that notion in efforts to unify the country. Officials permit the hostile excesses of radical Buddhist groups and label non-Buddhists as threats to social stability.
A Burmese missionary leader assisted by Christian Aid Mission said some members of his team are suffering primarily from village officials who have tacit approval from the national government to abuse non-Buddhists.
“They beat them, and also they expel them from the village,” he said. “That’s what we’re facing right now. In many, many villages we are opposed by Buddhists and opposition from the village chairman. But we can still go to the next village and tell the gospel.”
The U.S. Department of State designated Burma as a “Country of Particular Concern” in July 2014 because of religious rights violations – as it has since 1999.
“In our field,” said the indigenous missionary director, “children are forced to attend school at Buddhist monasteries. And there is one thing they do regularly to persecute our people: if you are a missionary, they say, ‘You cannot live in our village.’ If you want to be in a church, they say you cannot. But the Buddhist person can do everything.”
Church-planters find it especially difficult to erect a church building or a house for a missionary. The missions leader encourages them to move in with Christian families, so that antagonistic Buddhists or animists cannot object or deprive them of accommodations. On other occasions, however, native missionaries are able to win approval from local leaders.
“When we go to a village, we go first to the village chairman to share the gospel and to ask if we can stay in their village,” the missions leader said. “Sometimes we have to give small gifts, such as a shirt, or whatever we can. And after he smiles, we know that everything will be okay.”
Difficulties are small compared with knowing God and doing His will, he said.
“A few people have died, but not many,” he said. “So if persecutions come, God is working more and more and giving us more strength to stay there and endure. Some villages don’t want to hear the gospel right now, but later they will hear. I’m ready to face any harm; I don’t care, as long as we share the gospel.”