The military regime in Burma is intent on wiping out Christianity in the country, according to claims in a secret document believed to have been leaked from a government ministry. Entitled “Programme to destroy the Christian religion in Burma”, the incendiary memo contains point by point instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state.
The text, which opens with the line “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practised”, calls for anyone caught evangelising to be imprisoned. It advises: “The Christian religion is very gentle – identify and utilise its weakness.”
Its discovery follows widespread reports of religious persecution, with churches burnt to the ground, Christians forced to convert to the state religion, Buddhism, and their children barred from school.
Human rights groups claim that the treatment meted out to Christians, who make up six per cent of the population, is part of a wider campaign by the regime, also targeted at ethnic minority tribes, to create a uniform society in which the race and language is Burmese and the only accepted religion is Buddhism.
Burma is one of the most oppressive countries in the world and the Church has suffered greatly there. We did a story in Catholic World Report several years ago on Burma, also known as Myanmar, called “Behind Iron Doors.”
Christians are a minority in Myanmar, certainly. But their numbers are not as small, proportionately, as in many other Asian countries. Here Christians account for about 6 percent of the land’s 56 million people (Catholics make up just over 1 percent of that total). But in a land where Buddhists constitute the solid majority, and where the society has been in the iron grip of a ruling military junta for more than four decades, the Church has virtually no visible public presence. After the military takeover in 1962, all major institutions, including schools and hospitals, were nationalized by the new regime. The Burma Socialist Program Party (BSSP), which came into power with the backing of the military establishment, forced churches and other private groups to hand over hundreds of schools to the government. The BSSP saw government control as a necessity; the country’s new rulers feared that private schools could produce “unpatriotic” citizens.
The Christian community in Myanmar endured a second shock in 1966 when the regime instructed all foreign missionaries to leave the country. That blow fell especially heavily on the Catholic Church; unlike the Baptists who form the country’s largest Christian denomination, the Catholic Church relied heavily on missionaries to lead parishes. Nearly half of the priests and nuns in Myanmar at the time—about 500 in all—were among the missionaries expelled.
A BLESSING IN DISGUISE
“We never thought we would be able to meet this crisis,” admits Bishop Sotero Phamo, who doubles as apostolic administrator of the Yangon archdiocese and Bishop of Loikaw. Yet the Church has managed to fill the vacuum that was created when the missionaries left. Today, in fact, the Catholic Church in Myanmar has over 800 priests and 2,000 nuns at the service of her 600,000 faithful.