Burma: Why Did Military Authorities Close Protestant Churches?

Three Protestant Full Gospel churches in the capital of Rangoon and a series of Protestant house churches elsewhere in the country have been closed down in the capital of Rangoon since early August, Burmese protestant sources told Forum 18 News Service. Churches reported closed are in the Shan, Chin and Karen states and in the divisions of Mandalay, Yangon (Rangoon) and Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy).

“Church leaders were called in by the military authorities and told to close their churches,” one Protestant told Forum 18. “The authorities are worried Christians are going out to the Buddhists, and that they are spreading Western ideas.”

However, one Rangoon-based protestant pastor told Forum 18 that the Full Gospel churches were closed because they used to make a lot of noise during services that disturbed neighbors. He said Catholic and other protestant denominations had not been affected.

Until its closure, one of the Full Gospel churches in Rangoon operated several programs, including Bible training courses, women's and youth meetings, weekly worship services, and monthly fasting and prayer. “At present we are not allowed to do any activities – even weekly worship service,” a pastor who wished to remain anonymous told The Irrawaddy on 9 September. The Irrawaddy is an exile Burmese news website based in Thailand.

Yet, the Rangoon-based protestant pastor who spoke to Forum 18 believes the recent church closures were not the result of increased religious persecution, but rather a consequence of cultural insensitivity on the part of the Full Gospel Church and its network.

“The problem over the past two or three years has been that the Full Gospel Church, which does not have its own buildings but rents buildings from other people, worships very loudly,” he told Forum 18. “They play drums, jump and dance—and so many neighbors have complained. They have held all-night prayer meetings where they pray and worship loudly. Almost the whole city complained. When people complained, the authorities acted and closed these churches down. Other denominations which worship more quietly do not have these problems.”

The pastor added that the churches closed down in Chin, Shan and Karen were “new” churches with a similar worship style. None are registered churches.

Although the closures appear to relate mainly to Full Gospel and other pentecostal congregations, the crackdown seems to be wider. One protestant leader in the north of the country from another denomination, whose church has not been closed down, told Forum 18 that he was summoned by a police intelligence officer in August and warned that worship can take place only in a registered church and not in private homes.

“If a church is not registered it is illegal,” the leader reported. “I was also warned that working with foreigners or inviting foreigners to preach in the church is likewise illegal.”

Several protestant pastors told Forum 18 that in the last three years it has become impossible for protestant congregations without their own building to build a church, or for ones that do have a church to enlarge it to accommodate new members. Six Baptist congregations across the country that have tried to build churches for themselves have been denied permission and were forced to find other places to meet. The Irrawaddy reported that construction on a new Baptist church in Tachileik, a town in Shan state near Burma's eastern border with Thailand, was recently halted. Although the Burmese government has a religious affairs ministry with a network of officials at the local level, protestant sources say it has little authority and that orders to close churches and warnings are delivered directly by the military.

Military authorities closed several protestant churches in 2002-2003, on the pretext of ending conflicts within individual congregations but sources told Forum 18 that the closing were mainly an attempt to halt the growth of the churches. Despite the halt imposed on new church buildings three years ago, this is the first major wave of protestant church closures since that time. Conditions continue to vary from one place to another. In some regions, only those who are already Christians are allowed to attend Christian churches, one source reported.

Most of the population of the country is of Buddhist background, while Christians—both Catholic and protestant—make up only 6%. Among protestants, the largest churches are the Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists and Assemblies of God.

Military intelligence routinely conducts surveillance on religious meetings and services. “They need to report back to higher authority,” one leading protestant told Forum 18. “They secretly bring tape-recorders to services or write down what is said. This is a regular thing – it's no big deal here.”

Asked how this was known, the protestant responded: “Our town is small, so we know all the spies.” The source believes that the military authorities find such covert surveillance more difficult in mosques, where the community knows other members. Instead military intelligence relies on spies within the Muslim community.

Religious publications are censored by the authorities, with permission required from the censorship board, then from the publications department of the central government in Rangoon, regardless of where the religious community is based in the country. “If I'm very far from Rangoon I need to go there to present the text of the proposed publication,” one source told Forum 18. “If the work is in a minority language it must first be translated into Burmese, then presented to the censorship board. That takes three to six months. Then it goes to the publications department. That takes between six months and a year. And this takes money. You have to pay bribes to each official.”

A protestant complained to Forum 18 that “there is no freedom to publish religious literature. If it is against the government it is refused—or if you use the term 'Eternal God' too often, they don't like that in books because of Buddhist teaching.”

The source estimates that about a third of proposed publications presented to the
authorities are refused permission.

This article was edited from the original story published by Forum 18 News.

Benedict Rogers writes for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human rights organization specializing in religious freedom.