As world news focuses on the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, several people have asked us whether Christians are also persecuted in Myanmar. The answer is yes – they suffering appalling persecution and violence at the hands of the military, but unlike the Rohingya they are largely ignored by the world’s press. However, a new threat is now emerging as jihadists head to the region to “support” Rohingya Muslims.
Several months ago, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom commissioned a report on the persecution of Christians in Myanmar. Entitled Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma, It makes shocking reading. There is large-scale violence and intimidation of Christians by the army. To quote just one short section of that report:
“The military routinely occupies churches and summons entire congregations for interrogation. Tatmadaw (Burmese Army) troops have desecrated, damaged, and destroyed churches. The military continues to perpetrate grave human rights violations with near-total impunity, including sexual violence in church compounds and the torture of pastors, church workers, and ordinary civilians. To date, approximately 120,000 people have been forced to flee.”
The military use Buddhism as a means of legitimising their oppressive rule, claiming to be defending Buddhism and the Barmar (Burmese) majority against Muslims and Christians, who are predominantly from ethnic minority groups. As well as direct attacks by the Burmese military, they have empowered a group called The Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion (better known as Ma Ba Tha), and other ultra-nationalistic monks, to incite violence and attacks on Christian pastors.
The predominantly Christian people-groups are the Karen people who mainly live in the east near the border with Thailand, the Kachin and Naga who mainly live in the north, and the Chin, who mainly live in the south-west, particularly Chin State.
However, now a new threat to Christians is emerging as a direct result of the Rohingya crisis. Last October, Islamic militants from a newly formed insurgency group called Harakah al Yaqin launched a series of attacks on police posts in Rakhine state. Harakah al Yaqin was created by a group of Rohingya emigres based in Saudi Arabia and therefore represents a dangerous new development. The army responded in its characteristic heavy-handed fashion causing tens of thousands of Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Then on 25 August, Harakah al Yaqin coordinated attacks on an army base and 30 police posts in the north of Myanmar’s Rakhine state. In response the Myanmar army launched what they termed “clearance operations” against Rohingya, a euphemism for the terrible atrocities now being perpetrated against Rohingya civilians.
Now Al Qaeda is urging jihadists to flock to the region to fight for the Rohingya Muslims. This is not an idle suggestion. It is, in fact, almost exactly what happened a few months ago in the southern Philippines when Islamic State (IS)-linked jihadists from across South-East Asia quietly infiltrated Marawi city and then seized control of it, killing a number of Christians; despite an ongoing battle with the Philippines military, the jihadists remain in control of Marawi. In January, Malaysian authorities claimed to have arrested an IS-linked jihadist heading for Myanmar to fight in the Rohingya area. As IS loses military control in Syria and Iraq, Al Qaeda sees itself as having an opportunity to regain its claim to lead the global jihadi movement. That is why a few days ago Al Qaeda issued a statement telling jihadists in neighbouring Bangladesh and India, as well as Pakistan and the Philippines, that they have a “sharia obligation” to go to Myanmar and fight for the Rohingya.
How does this affect Christians in Myanmar, who are already suffering appalling persecution and violence from the state? The attacks which the Islamic militants from Harakah al Yaqin carried out three weeks ago were in the North of Rakine state. This is right next to Chin state, which is the only state in Myanmar that is majority Christian. In fact, one of those attacks, at the town of Maungdaw, was only about 30 miles away. If, as now seems likely, foreign jihadists arrive and turn a local Muslim insurgency into an Al Qaeda-linked jihadi struggle, as IS have just done in the Philippines, there is a very real danger that jihadists will attack Chin state.
If they do, that will put the Christians there in an impossible situation, suffering terrible violence at the hands of the Myanmar army AND being attacked by jihadists. In other words, there is the very real prospect of Christians in this part of Myanmar facing a humanitarian catastrophe that is even worse than the horrific levels of violence currently being suffered by Rohingya Muslims.