Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Rangoon's Christians banned from worshiping

What is the purpose of having a church if not allowed to congregate for praying?
by Mungpi & Phanida

New Delhi (Mizzima) - Christians in Burma's former capital of Rangoon find themselves in a precarious state as local authorities on Monday banned the holding of regular church services and threatened to seal off churches if congregations failed to comply.

The Kyauktada Township Peace and Development Council on Monday summoned a meeting of local church pastors from leading downtown Rangoon churches and informed them to stop the conduct of worship services in residential apartments.

"They [the authorities] warned us that our churches would be sealed off if we continue worshipping," said a pastor of a church in Pabedan Township who attended the meeting.

The pastor, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, told Mizzima that nearly 50 church leaders and pastors who attended the meeting were made to sign more than five papers of pledges concerning the cessation of church services.

"The papers also said that we could be punished [and could be jailed] if we fail to obey the order and the church would be sealed off," the pastor said.

When contacted by Mizzima, an official at the Kyauktada Township Peace and Development Council office confirmed a meeting was held on Monday but declined to further elaborate on the substance of the ensuing dialogue.

However, according to the pastor, authorities sent an invitation to representatives from over 100 churches, mostly located in the downtown Rangoon area, and informed them of the new order.

"We received the meeting invitation last Sunday," said the pastor. "Now we don't know what to do with our Sunday services."

Burma's military authorities had long stopped issuing permits to religious organizations and churches for the possession of land and the building of churches, forcing several local churches in Rangoon to conduct worship services in residential apartments, which are often rented or purchased in the names of private owners.

"Since the late 1990s authorities have stopped issuing permits [to churches] to purchase land or construct church buildings," the pastor said, adding that he himself bought an apartment in Pabedan Township for use as a place of communal worship.

According to church leaders including the pastor, there are at least 100 churches located in residential apartments in downtown Rangoon, including those in Kyuaktada, Lanmadaw, Latha, Pabedan, Bothathaung, Minglar Thaung Nyunt, Dagon, Tamwe, Hlaing, Kamayut, Ahlone, Sanchaung and Bahan Townships.

A Christian youth in Rangoon in an email message to Mizzima said the order virtually puts a stop to Christians worshiping, as most churches in Rangoon are convened in apartments.

"Eighty percent of the churches in Yangon [Rangoon] are included in the order. Only a few churches have their own land. Most churches use rented buildings, houses and office style rooms for worship places," the youth explained.

"We need your prayers for Christian communities in Myanmar [Burma]," the youth added.

While religious persecution and the prohibition of religious rites are not uncommon in military-ruled Burma, the new order, according to another pastor, is an attempt to stop Christians from regularly meeting.

In September 2007, Burma's military junta, in its determination to suppress the people and sustain their rule, violently crushed Buddhist monk-led protests, killing what opposition sources say were hundreds of monks, a highly revered population in the predominantly Buddhist country.

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