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Religious freedom improving in Chin state: UN envoy

Positive trip to Myanmar's only Christian majority state

Thomas Toe, Yangon and John Zaw, Mandalay

August 22, 2013

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The UN rights envoy to Myanmar Tomas Ojea Quintana said yesterday that Christian freedoms in Chin state have improved, although community leaders said religious inequality remains rife in this impoverished region.

Following his first visit to western Chin State as part of an overall assessment of the rights situation in the country, Quintana gave the first positive assessment of religious freedoms in Myanmar’s only majority Christian state since the government began reforms in 2011.

“Restrictions have eased in 2013 though there remain some shortcomings in terms of bureaucratic obstacles towards opening spaces for Christian worship,” he said at a press conference at Yangon airport.

Quintana urged authorities to address concerns at government training schools in Chin state, known as Na Ta La schools, following longstanding reports of efforts to convert Christians to Buddhism, Myanmar’s majority religion.

Rights groups including Christian Solidarity Worldwide have previously accused Myanmar of banning Christian worship at the schools.

Father John Paul, a Catholic priest in Mindat, a Chin town visited by Quintana, said that restrictions at the schools persist, citing the recent example of a Catholic government official who was forced to resign after attending a Mass and was now planning to flee to Malaysia.

“In terms of Na Ta La schools, they should be for developing education and social ethics, not for forcing Christians to become Buddhists,” he said.

Christians make up an estimated 90 percent of the half a million people who live in Chin State, one of Myanmar’s least-developed areas, on the border with India.

For years, rights groups have reported serious restrictions on religious freedoms including military intervention to break up religious ceremonies and the destruction of crosses under the former junta.

“We can see slight improvement in religious freedom under the new civilian government,” said Seng Hlei Mang, a spokesman for the Ethnic National Development Party which represents Chin tribal interests.

Permission to hold Christian ceremonies and celebrations had become easier, “but we expect equal religious rights for Christians,” he added.

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