A Rohingya Muslim man prays in Ohn-Taw-Gyi, an internal displacement camp near Sittwe in Myanmar's Rakhine state, on Oct. 18. (Photo by ucanews.com reporter)
Hard-line Buddhist groups in Myanmar have escalated their anti-Muslim campaign ahead of the country's Nov. 8 elections, forcing Muslims near Yangon to halt sacred Friday prayers at local madrasas.
Pressure from a Buddhist group and an anti-Muslim party forced local authorities in Thaketa Township, on the outskirts of Yangon, to stop Friday prayers at madrasas on Oct. 16. This included the involvement of the Myochit Dhamma Network, a Buddhist nationalist organization that often participates in anti-Muslim protests.
Ko Ko Latt, an executive committee member from the Yangon-based Myanmar Muslim National Affairs Organization, said that on Oct. 20, township authorities forced leaders from the local madrasas, or Islamic schools, to sign pledges promising not to hold prayers.
"We urge school leaders to be calm and patient to avoid problems and solve [the issue] peacefully," Ko Ko Latt told ucanews.com Oct. 21.
There are nine madrasas in the township, but one has been closed since 2013 after rumors spread that it was being converted into a mosque. Authorities have not allowed mosques to be built in the township since 1962.
Muhadris, a professor from the Islamic University in Sittwe township, said Muslims in Myanmar continue to face problems in the Buddhist-majority country.
"We feel that our Muslims have been targeted and discriminated," he said.
Catholics in Myanmar have also spoken out against religious discrimination, particularly ahead of the coming Nov. 8 elections.
"All the religious leaders have already agreed on freedom of religion and tolerance but some opportunists seem to use religion for political games in the run-up to the election," said Father Thomas Htang Shan Mong, director of the bishops' conference's Justice and Peace Commission.
Religious violence has flared in recent years in Myanmar, particularly since 2012, amid growing anti-Muslim sentiment. This has been spearheaded by hard-line Buddhist monks from the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, known as Ma Ba Tha.
Ma Ba Tha swiftly pushed for the legislation of restrictive race and religion laws. Some of its influential members have publicly endorsed President Thein Sein and urged people not to vote for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, which opposed the race and religion laws.
However, Ma Ba Tha was not involved in the madrasa issue in Thaketa township, according to sources monitoring the situation.
There is a growing concern that the divisive issue of religion is being used for political gain in the run-up to the Nov. 8 election, which observers have said will be the freest poll in a quarter-century.
"Some groups have given pressure to halt prayers by targeting Muslims so the trend is that religion is used for political purposes ahead of the election," Aye Lwin, chief convener for the Islamic Center of Myanmar, which carries out interfaith and outreach programs.