Chins in Burma are being denied the freedom to practice the Christian religion, said a new report by the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) released this week.
|Construction of Kanpetlet Baptist Church was halted by orders of local authorities. Photo: CHRO|
“Despite strong government reforms, these efforts have yet to be extended to religious freedom,” he said.
The report, titled Threats to our Existence: Persecution of Ethnic Chin Christians in Burma, said the mainly Christian Chins are under pressure to convert to Buddhism as a result of state policy.
The mountainous Chin State, in western Burma, is also one of the country’s least developed regions. Chins number about 500,000 people.
“The government needs to recognize that a multi-ethnic Burma needs to be a multi-religious Burma,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch.
“This is a challenge the government has to face.” The 2012 US State Department’s International Commission on Religious Freedom categorizes Burma as a country of “particular concern.”
On July 31, Mizzima reported that the 2012 US report on religious freedom in Burma said that the government has made political reforms, but it did not demonstrate a trend toward either improvement or deterioration in respect to the right to religious freedom.
The government maintained restrictions on certain religious activities and limited freedom of religion, although it generally permitted adherents of government-registered religious groups to worship as they chose, the report said.
The Christian community reported a notable easing of restrictions on church building and a positive relationship with the Ministry of Religion, including the ministry’s organization of interfaith dialogues. The government also passed a new law to protect freedom of assembly and procession and provided greater access to ethnic minority areas for U.S. officials and organizations, it said.
However, it said religious activities and organizations were subject to restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly.
“The government continued to monitor the meetings and activities of virtually all organizations, including religious organizations, and required religious groups to seek permission from authorities before holding any large public event,” it said.
The government continued to restrict the efforts of some Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom, it said.
“The government also actively promoted Theravada Buddhism over other religions, particularly among ethnic minorities. The government continued to monitor Muslim activities closely,” said the report. “Restrictions on worship for other non-Buddhist minority groups also continued. Although there were no new reports of forced conversions of non-Buddhists, authorities in some cases influenced the placement of orphans and homeless youth, preferring Buddhist monasteries to Christian orphanages.
“Adherence or conversion to Buddhism was an unwritten prerequisite for promotion to most senior government and military ranks,” it said.
It said widespread prejudice existed against citizens of South Asian origin, many of whom are Muslims.
According to official statistics, approximately 90 percent of the population practices Buddhism, 4 per cent practices Christianity, and 4 percent practices Islam. These statistics almost certainly underestimated the non-Buddhist proportion of the population. Independent researchers place the Muslim population as being between 6 and 10 per cent. A very small Jewish community in Rangoon has a synagogue but no resident rabbi.
Religious organizations are not required to register with the government, but if a religious organization wants to engage in certain activities (religious education, charitable work, etc.), it needs to obtain government permission, said the report.
“The government discouraged proselytizing by non-Buddhist clergy, often through the use of censorship. These restrictions mostly affected some Christian denominations and Islam. The government generally has not allowed permanent foreign religious groups to operate in the country since the mid-1960s, when it expelled nearly all foreign missionaries and nationalized almost all private schools and hospitals. The government was not known to have paid any compensation in connection with these extensive confiscations,” the report said.
The report said it remained extremely difficult for Muslims to acquire permission to build new or repair existing mosques, although internal maintenance was allowed in some cases. In Arakan State, government officials reportedly denied permits for the renovation of mosques with one exception: a large mosque in Maung Daw Township near the border with Bangladesh. Historic mosques in Mawlamyine, Mon State and Sittwe, Rakhine State, as well as other areas, continued to deteriorate because authorities did not allow routine maintenance.
The government openly supported Buddhist seminaries and permitted them to construct large campuses, said the report. Buddhist groups generally did not experience difficulty in obtaining permission to build new pagodas, monasteries, or community religious halls.
Government authorities continued to prohibit Christian clergy from proselytizing in some areas, it said.