Displaced Kachin Catholics pray at Sunday Mass in Mai Ja Yang. At least 66 churches have been destroyed in the state since mid-2011 (photo by Steve Finch)
When government forces attacked Mansi township in northern Kachin state on October 22 last year, soldiers fired 60mm mortars at civilian homes for an hour before storming the village. Many of the thatched wooden buildings were burned to the ground.
To escape the shelling, 700 residents holed up in a nearby church where they remained trapped for 22 days. After state security forces finally left Mansi at the end of December, Christian relief groups that re-entered made a gruesome discovery: in a shallow grave lay three charred bodies. All showed signs of torture.
Since war erupted between state forces and the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in mid-2011, destruction of this predominantly Baptist region of Myanmar has ranked among the most severe of recent times against any Christian group in Asia.
At least 66 churches – 61 Baptist, four Catholic and one Church of God – have been destroyed in less than three years, according to Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) data collected last year. Many more remain crumbling and may well need to be demolished and rebuilt, said the KBC. As a result of the conflict at least 75,000 people have fled to temporary camps in KIA-controlled areas, leaving entire Christian communities wiped off the map.
Benedict Rogers, East Asia team leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, says the Kachin situation is more complex than in other Asian countries where persecution against Christians is also severe – by Islamists in Indonesia and Pakistan and hardline Hindus in India. Aggression against Christianity in northern Myanmar represents the collateral damage in a war designed to stamp out Kachin designs on autonomy, he adds.
“There is a religious dimension, in that successive military regimes have been hostile to non-Buddhist religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians, and have used religion as a political tool,” says Rogers. “But the war is primarily ethnic and political.”
Kachin Baptist Pastor Chyauchyi Tanggun says persecution against Christians in northern Myanmar is no less deliberate.
When he fled his village soon after the start of the war in November 2011, Myanmar soldiers looted donation boxes at his church, burned the altar and stole the electric generator, he says. The Catholic church in the village had already been abandoned after the military used it to store munitions and food supplies for battalions fighting against the rebels.
“It’s because we’re Christians that they intentionally do these things,” he says. “They wouldn’t even place a finger on a Buddhist temple.”
Chyauchyi is one of three Baptist pastors now living in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Mai Ja Yang, the largest KIA-controlled area on Myanmar’s border with China. His congregation remains scattered in different camps across this remote frontier.
In his bamboo and brick hut in the camp, Chyauchyi shows photographs of his looted home, his clothes and possessions strewn across the floor. He took the pictures four months after fleeing his village, sneaking back through military lines in an attempt to find out what was left of his congregation.
One deacon and two young Christian men who attempted the same dangerous trip never made it back.
“At first, we thought we had just lost contact with them,” says Chyauchyi. “But as time went on we assumed they were killed. Their bodies were never found.”
After more than two years living in the camp – a former lumber mill now with a school and a covered yard for church services – religious life here remains makeshift but structured. Every evening after dinner, Chyauchyi holds a prayer service in his sector of the camp. The dispolaced people huddle on plastic chairs clutching Kachin-language prayer and hymn books. A dangling light bulb illuminates the service.
Church masses across the pockets of KIA-controlled territory in northern Myanmar are not only for preaching the word of God. They have also turned into a platform for rebel politics.
Faith in resistance
On a recent Sunday, the camp’s Catholic leader Thomas Galau Thuring preached about the KIA but summarized with a message of forgiveness.
“We lost some of our KIA men, and the Myanmar army came back again with much force. That’s how they respond to the KIA soldiers,” he told the congregation of more than 120 people. “But we don’t need to care about what the Myanmar soldiers do – we need to love them and forgive them. It’s not an eye for an eye. God doesn’t want that, Jesus doesn’t want that. He wants us to love our enemies.”
In a bid to spur religious fervor in support of the insurgents, the Kachin Baptist Convention regularly declares prayer marathons across KIA-controlled territory.
Last month, the Mai Ja Yang church called a 12-hour prayer relay in which members of the congregation were instructed – by name – to pray in half-hour shifts in a prayer room built within the church compound after the start of the war. A notice on the door was clear on what the prayers were designed for – Kareng Kaw Ja, one of those involved, followed the instructions to the letter. Independence was again the order of the day.
“I prayed for the state to be righteous and holy in front of God and for religious leaders to be able to lead the people – the Christians – through the Holy Spirit’s guidance. And also for the leaders of the KIO and the KIA that they would be successful leading the state so that the people can be more prosperous,” she said after her prayer shift was over.
At Sunday Mass the following day there was yet more politics to attend to. Later this month, the Myanmar government will send out thousands of volunteer census workers door to door across the country, which has 135 officially recognized ethnic groups.
Many Kachins are furious that the census questionnaire subdivides their group into four tribes, which in the past have been at war, but then in 1961 united against the Myanmar military.
“We shouldn’t be separated,” said a female announcer at the end of mass, reading from a KBC statement. “If they’re going to do the census you need to put your nationality as ‘Kachin.’ This is to preserve our culture and our nation.”
The future of the Kachin resistance looks anything but bright. At the end of last month, the KBC ordered yet more prayer marathons as the Myanmar military surrounded Laiza, the KIA stronghold. Few expect government forces to take it over – Laiza lies right on the Chinese border and the international outcry would no doubt be loud. Myanmar’s government has become increasingly keen to appease the international community since the West ended a strict sanctions regime in response to recent political reforms.
On January 18, the government announced a unilateral ceasefire with the Kachin, the last of more than 30 rebel groups in Myanmar still fighting the military, but clashes have continued. The next round of peace talks are due in the coming weeks and a framework agreement is 80 percent complete, said a KIA commander who declined to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to media.
Many ordinary Kachins – aid workers, displaced people, Christian leaders and KIA – say that nothing will be solved unless the Myanmar government agrees to a federalist system, a common refrain from the many ethnic groups on the country’s restive periphery.
But some quietly admit there are signs things are getting better in Myanmar amid a shift towards civilian rule.
Seeking religious order
Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam of Bhammo, Kachin state’s second-largest town, says that when he sent a letter to the government asking to “please protect our churches” in August 2011, two months after the conflict began, the army did appear to respond.
Only four Catholic churches have been destroyed, and all of these were hit before the letter was sent, he says.
“After that, there was no response, but the army seemed to be more careful,” he adds.
he also says that, with the war ongoing and dozens of communities entirely abandoned, there are no immediate plans to rebuild any churches. The bill is likely to be considerable for a region among the poorest in the country, itself one of the least developed in the region: new brick churches in northern Myanmar start at about US$10,000 each and those made out of wood and bamboo around $5,000. Many will have to be demolished first, at a further cost.
In the past, Myanmar’s military regime would have been happy to smash churches down with no thought of helping with reconstruction, says Bishop Raymond. “But now the government might be different. If there is at least a chance, we will ask them to help us rebuild our churches.”