Rescuing the Rohingya

October 16, 2013

Unable to attain official residency in Burma or Bangladesh, many Rohingya live in squalid conditions with little hope to escape chronic poverty.

They are a people without a country. As described by the United Nations—one of the most persecuted minority groups on earth.

The Burmese government denies them citizenship, despite their migration from Bangladesh two centuries ago. To the people of Bangladesh, they are an unwanted scourge from Burma.

Among the untouchables in India, they are outcasts.

They are Muslim, and even traditional Muslims have no use for them.

We are referring to the Rohingya, an ethnic group of some two- to three- million people dispersed throughout several countries in South Asia.

Women gather for prayer

Some historians theorize the Rohingya are descendants of Arab traders that were shipwrecked off the coast of Burma in the 8th century. Their language, however, is a Bengali dialect related to the Indo-Aryan peoples of Bangladesh and India. Whatever their origin, the Rohingyans face an enormous identity crisis.

By far the largest concentration of Rohingyans lives in Burma. Numbering between 800,000 and 1 million people, they have faced persecution from the Burmese government for more than three decades.

The majority Buddhist population in Burma views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Muslim-dominated Bangladesh who do not qualify for citizenship. In the eyes of the government, it does not matter that the Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations.

The laws against them are harsh and highly discriminatory, including:

With no hope for a decent life, since 1978 over 300,000 disenfranchised Rohingyans have fled across the border into Bangladesh. They escape the oppression of the Burmese government—only to find themselves the subject of scorn and ridicule in Bangladesh.

Loving the unloved

Fishing net for Rohingya family

“They have no food, no work, no land, and no help,” said the spokesman for a Christian-Aid assisted ministry in Bangladesh that works with the Rohingya and other unreached tribal groups.

“Because they are an ethnic minority and they are unregistered with the Bangladesh government, the Rohingya are caught in a dual trap,” he said. “The Burmese military will not let allow them in their own homeland, and in Bangladesh they have no identity.”

Less than 10 percent of the Rohingya exiles are officially registered. Some live in refugee camps like the one in Kutupalong in southeastern Bangladesh. Thousands more flock to the government camp but are turned away because they lack legal status. Those refused access to Kutupalong have established their own makeshift camp nearby—a slum community that the ministry leader says is devoid of latrines, safe drinking water, and hope.

With limited education and job skills, the Rohingya typically find employment as rickshaw pullers or they work in the fishing industry. This summer Christian Aid donors made it possible for the ministry to provide fishing nets for nine needy families.

In a recent report, the ministry leader described the impact of the nets for those families: “They are very happy to get these nets because they did not have their own. That is why they had to share 50 percent of their fish with the owners who loaned them their nets. So it was very hard for them to support their family. Now they will be able to provide for them well by the grace of God.”

One of the missionaries is a Rohingya man who grew up in Burma and was raised in the Muslim faith. He was accustomed to dealing with animosity from the Buddhists, but the new convert felt a heavy blow of rejection from his Muslim neighbors when he and his family received Christ in 2005.

“People did not want to see our faces because they thought we were unholy. If they saw our faces, then they would have to take a bath again,” he said. “They forced the school teachers to forbid our kids to go to school, but the Lord provided a Christian school for them.”

Five years later he felt God leading him to leave Burma in order to serve his suffering people in Bangladesh. He also travels periodically to India to minister to Rohingyans living in the Bhikashpuri refugee camp established by the government in New Delhi.

His efforts are bearing fruit as Rohingya Muslims are hearing the good news of the Prince of Peace for the first time. In one village 15 Rohingya men gathered in secret to hear him share about Jesus. In another, a small fellowship has started and the believers have asked to be baptized.

History of hatred

Christian Aid also assists a ministry that works among the Rohingya and other tribal groups in the Rakhine state of Burma, where tensions between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims have resulted in violent clashes during the past two years.

Christian Aid helps support missionaries who minister to the Rohingya in Bangladesh, India, and Burma.

Years of simmering hostilities boiled over in May 2012 when an ethnic Rakhine woman was brutally raped and murdered, allegedly by three Muslim Rohingya men. Ten Muslims were killed in response, prompting massive rioting and the deployment of government troops to squelch the uprising.

The Burmese army was accused of targeting Rohingyans during the crackdown because of their suspected connections to radical Islamic groups.

As a result of the mayhem, some 90,000 Muslims and Buddhists were displaced and over 2,500 homes were burned. There were more than 80 deaths.

Fighting resumed in October, leading to the displacement of another 22,000 people whose homes were destroyed. An additional 80 people lost their lives.

Following the 2012 riots, the Burmese ministry sought to share the gospel with both Muslims and Buddhists in the area. They also assisted Christian villagers and missionary families caught in the middle of the conflict.

In addition to the 800,000 Rohingya living in Burma, 300,000 are in Bangladesh, 200,000 in Pakistan, and 100,000 in Thailand.

“Please keep praying for the Rohingya, that we can preach the gospel to them and win this people group to the Lord,” said the leader of the ministry in Bangladesh. “We can also stand beside them to provide their physical needs, especially food, housing, wells, latrines, medical care, and education for their children.”

“We are not afraid to preach the truth, and there is no truth except the Lord Jesus,” he said.