Burma’s Christian minority is suffering amid the military’s continuing crackdown on protesters opposed to its February coup, a human rights campaigner said on Tuesday.
Benedict Rogers told a webinar at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, on Sept. 28 that earlier this month the military killed a Christian pastor, Cung Biak Hum.
“One of the most recent examples of Christian persecution is the murder just 10 days ago, on Sept. 18, of a 31-year-old Baptist pastor in Chin State, Pastor Cung Biak Hum, who was shot dead as he tried to extinguish a blaze of fire after the military had fired artillery that had caused houses to burn,” he said.
“And not only did they kill him, but they chopped off his ring finger in order to take his wedding ring.”
The military seized power in the Southeast Asian country, officially known as Myanmar, on Feb. 1.
Security forces have fired on people protesting against the move. The advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reports that 1,136 people have died in the clashes as of Sept. 27.
There are around 4.4 million Christians in Burma, a predominantly Buddhist country of 54.8 million people bordering Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand. There are some 750,000 Catholics in the country, led by Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the first Burmese national to receive the red hat.
The Christian legal group ADF International estimates that more than 100,000 Christians living in internal displacement camps in northern Burma are currently denied access to food and healthcare.
Rogers, a senior analyst on East Asia for the human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), said it was important to recognize that Christians largely belonged to minority ethnic groups long targeted by a military that has “always pursued a Burman Buddhist nationalist agenda.”
The Burman people, also known as the Bamar, are the country’s dominant ethnic group.
Rogers said: “I think the question for the future of Myanmar, or Burma, is: Is it the multi-ethnic, multi-religious society that in reality, in its composition, it is? Or is it going to be a Burman Buddhist society in which ethnic and religious minorities are treated as, at best, second-class citizens?”
The webinar, hosted by Dutch European Parliament member Bert-Jan Ruissen, also heard from Alex Aung Khant, who stood as an independent candidate in the 2019 Yangon City Development Committee elections.
The young activist, who fled Burma after the coup, said that ethnic and religious minorities had suffered persecution for decades and discrimination persisted to this day.
“In Myanmar, the office to gain your national ID card concretely has two entrances. There is one entrance for Bamar Buddhists and another entrance for all the other ethnics, and all the other religions. So there is systemic discrimination from the very beginning, as citizens,” he explained.
“This is both in our administration and our economy as well, because your ID card defines who you are and what your rights are. Your right to vote is also one of them.”
“So, if an ethnic person even wishes to flee the country, he or she has to first go to a passport office, where there is already a separate line for all ethnics and religions. And so, from that stage already, they face systemic discrimination, where their line is much longer and the other line is much shorter.”
Also addressing the webinar was Adina Portaru, ADF International’s senior counsel in Brussels. She said that there was a pressing need for a new European Union religious freedom envoy, following the sudden departure this month of the incumbent, Christos Stylianides.
Pope Francis became the first pope to visit Burma in November 2017 and has repeatedly called for peace in the country.
In a speech to diplomats accredited to the Holy See in February, he expressed his wish that “the path towards democracy taken in recent years by Myanmar may be resumed through the concrete gesture of the release of the various political leaders imprisoned.”
The pope appealed to the international community on March 3 to “ensure that the aspirations of the people of Myanmar are not stifled by violence.”
He said: “I also kneel in the streets of Myanmar and say: ‘Stop the violence.’ I too stretch out my arms and say: ‘May dialogue prevail.’”
Speaking after the Regina Coeli on May 2, the pope endorsed an initiative “to pray for peace with a Hail Mary for Myanmar in our daily rosary.”
Pope Francis presided at a Mass for Rome’s Burmese community on May 16.
In his homily in St. Peter’s Basilica, he said: “Please, do not lose hope: even today, Jesus is interceding before the Father, he stands before the Father in his prayer. He stands before him with the wounds with which he paid for our salvation. In this prayer Jesus prays for all of us, praying that the Father will keep us from the evil one and set us free from evil’s power.”
Speaking at the webinar, Benedict Rogers sounded a cautious note of optimism.
He said: “If the military remains in power, for however long, then, without doubt, the human rights situation is only going to remain extremely grave and potentially get even worse.”
But he continued: “Having said that, I have some hope that if the military somehow can be removed and democracy can be restored, the unity of people in opposition to the coup is really extraordinary and gives me some cause for hope.”
“I think we’ve seen people of different religious backgrounds, different ethnic backgrounds, coming together across the country.”
“And we’ve even seen examples of Burman Buddhists, who had previously believed some of the regime’s propaganda against religious and ethnic minorities, actually apologizing for their attitudes in the past and recognizing that ethnic and religious minorities have been suffering a lot and share the same goal as them for democracy.”