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Spreading the C-Virus in Burma
“To be Burmese is to be a Buddhist.” In the country where the military rules, Christianity is a “virus” to be eradicated.

The tourist guides call it the land of the golden pagodas. The world knew it as Burma, until the military regime changed its name to Myanmar. That regime has a saying, as the nation’s 1.8 million Christians are discovering to their cost: “To be Burmese is to be a Buddhist.”

A leaked government memo outlines the junta’s program to destroy the Christian religion in Burma. It decrees: “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced.”

Co-workers of The Voice of the Martyrs recently went into Burma under cover and filmed in secrecy. To speak to Westerners at all in a land where there are government informers everywhere required courage. That some Christians were willing to appear is a testament to both their determination and their desperation. Every name has been changed.

Burma is green, lush and fertile with a gentle people who welcome visitors with the warmest of smiles. Yet the will of these people was shoved aside by the military junta which trampled over the landslide vote for democracy in 1990.

Most in the West are aware of the plight of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for ten of the past 17 years. For good reason Amnesty International has described this country as a “prison without walls.” But it is not just democrats who are tasting persecution.

After the abortive elections, 100,000 Muslims fled the country. As to Christians, the authorities restrict them in the cities and persecute them in the country. The regime’s brand of nationalism has a religious dimension. If to be Burmese is to be Buddhist, to be Christian requires a daily decision to overcome fear.

“In this country there is a saying: ‘If you are Christian and you are Chin, you have the C-virus,’” says Barnabas, who leads an underground Bible school.

Chin State, home to the Chin people, claims the highest proportion of Christians in Burma. Here, the infamous Tatmadaw, the Burmese military, have destroyed churches, burnt Bibles, torn down crosses and put up Buddhist pagodas in their place. They then made the Christians contribute to their cost.

“As a Chin and a Christian, you are automatically considered a second-class citizen,” says Barnabas. “You will not get promoted in any government employment, so you do not have much hope.”

“The government considers Christianity to be a Western culture – and they don’t want Western culture to influence the country. Most of the ethnic groups in the country are Christian.”

There is a heavy troop presence in Chin State. The government has banned the printing of Bibles and refused permission to build any new churches since 1994. Buddhist soldiers are offered promotion if they marry Christian women, and written permits are required for any gathering of more than five people.

A Chin farmer who converted to Buddhism to gain privileges (and later converted back again) was handed a government pamphlet with the injunction: Attack Christians by any means: violent or non-violent – all a far cry from the usual picture presented to Westerners of peace-loving Buddhism.

The faded former capital, Yangon, may seem innocuous, with few signs of surveillance, but every road has a representative who reports up a chain linking straight back to the government. There are eyes and ears everywhere. It can mean having to worship in a whisper.

“We are oppressed, afraid of being overheard by people outside,” says Pastor Joshua. “So many times we tell our people: ‘Don’t sing loudly; don’t pray loudly.’”

Yet no-one could accuse Pastor Joshua of timidity. He has turned his forceful personality to setting up several underground churches and a Bible college. The work is growing, despite the long list of restrictions he reels off: “We are not allowed to hold a worship service at a house; not allowed to build a church; not allowed to build a Bible college…,” the list continues. “But as one door closes we find another.”

That’s also the experience of Pastor Andrew, who has been summoned to the local authority many times. “They said, “No more practice in this town.” We cannot worship, because worship is noisy. I have to go to a hotel room and worship there. Then we have to move from one hotel to another.”

“We are waiting for persecution,” Pastor Joshua continues. “We are waiting for problems from the authorities. If nothing happens to us we are surprised.”

Pastor Andrew, who claims to have led many Buddhists to faith in Christ, says the persecution takes many forms: “They watch and they check out home and guest lists. No guests are allowed to sleep overnight in our house.” He was held behind bars for 25 days for breaking that rule, before the charge was finally thrown out.

“We are not allowed to have meetings except in authorized areas. Our church is not registered. The Religious Ministry is Buddhist and is against other religions.” So is the persecution in Myanmar religious or political? “The government is Buddhist,” shrugs Pastor Andrew. L “It is the same thing.”

For 14 hours government officers tortured Paul to get an answer to one burning question: “Why are you converting Buddhists to Christianity?” Afterward they suspended him above the ground by his wrists and ordered him to preach. He did so for the next three hours.

Paul – who chose his pseudonym with care – hated Christians. For years he trained as a Buddhist monk, until idealism gave way to violence.

He was cold drunk through most of the service, but he left sobered up by the preacher’s words…

But all that changed when he was taken to church and heard the Gospel. He was cold drunk through most of the service, but he left sobered up by the preacher’s words: “If you don’t believe in Jesus Christ, you will go to hell.” Within five days Paul had become a Christian and was zealously leading others to the Lord. His reputation as a preacher grew, until the military arrested him for preaching in Chin State.

They took him to a torture room and demanded to know why he’d converted from Buddhism. They spent the next 14 hours interrogating him – changing shift every two hours to avoid tiring out the torturers.

But eventually it was those torturers who broke under pressure. Paul had been taking every opportunity to give them the Gospel, so they finally gave in to him. He could preach to his heart’s content but under certain conditions.

“They handcuffed me and hoisted me above the ground by my handcuffs until my feet no longer touched the ground, and there I preached the Gospel that I loved so much for three hours.”

“After I finished they let me down and my body was covered with blood, especially from my wrists. I passed out.”

They threw Paul into a cell with 35 other prisoners. There he led all but three to the Lord.

Paul was proving more troublesome in jail than out of it. So the authorities offered to release him if he signed a paper saying he would no longer preach about Christ. He chose the freedom of a prison cell.

He was eventually charged with using his Christian faith to oppose his country. He spent 11 years in jail.

“I had no regrets, but praised God, read the Bible and talked with God in prison. I had no disappointment at all.”

In 2002 Amnesty International put pressure on Myanmar and Paul was released. His zeal for the Lord is undiminished and his purpose clear. “Up to today I preach all over Burma and I praise God for letting me live for His glory.”

Paul’s aim is to preach the Gospel to his own tribe, the Rakhine, which is almost wholly Buddhist.

To the north of Rakhine State lies Chin State. Pastor James grew up here with a clear sense that God was calling him to be a Bible teacher. And that’s a tough call, in a land where the military junta backs Buddhism with the barrel of a gun.

Three times the authorities have shut down his Bible college. Three times he has had to rebuild his work. He has been knocked down, but not destroyed.

It began with a Bible college in the very centre of Myanmar. “We were told by the local authority to close down the school. So we fasted and prayed to open the way. Yet the Lord allowed it to happen. Our school was closed. That year was the hardest in my experience.”

Then it happened again. So he decided to move the work to Yangon. But his trial of faith still had a way to run.

“Our neighbours reported that we were persuading children to become Christians, so we were summoned by the local authority four times. They made us sign that we would not give any more teaching to young people. For two months we closed our school down. And this was one of the hardest times in my life – again.”

But this hardest of hard toil is finally bearing fruit. Buddhists are coming to know the Lord. And in Christ they say they have at last found what they were looking for:

“What they say is they have ‘Nirvana’ – they have peace in their lives as a result of accepting the Lord Jesus Christ. Everywhere we go we see people are receptive to the Gospel. More and more people are eager for the knowledge of God. They are searching for the truth that can save them. The time has come for us to reap.”

Like many others, James was unwilling for his face to be seen for fear that discovery and arrest could jeopardize the ministry.

“The authorities are very intelligent. They look always into the Internet and are trying to catch people. Frankly speaking, I am afraid. If the authorities and leaders of this country recognize my face they could put me in prison and I would not be able to serve God.”

“But by the grace of God, we are also privileged not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him. Though in Myanmar we are not worthy to say that we suffer, as these are very small things we are facing.”

“I love my country. Pray for Myanmar, that we can have freedom of religion.”

“I love my country!” Despite decades of oppression, “I love my country” was what these Christians told us again and again.

Today, for all the restrictions and secrecy, Pastor James’ underground Bible school is thriving, as students gather from around Myanmar, eager to grow in the faith and take the Gospel back to their own people groups.

Pastor Joshua’s churches are growing rapidly. “God has been so good to us that we are not afraid of difficulties,” he says. In fact, he embraces them.

“We sometimes ask God to give us persecution, to send us difficulties – so the church may grow and have a prayer life and be stronger and stronger.”

Their courage is astounding. As is their resilience. Please pray for our brothers and sisters in Burma. For protection, encouragement, and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to equip them to be witnesses. And help us to help them.

Originally published in the Voice of the Martyrs, June 2007.

 

 
 
 
 

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