Convert to Christianity in Burma? Get government permission first

by Julia A. Seymour
Posted 2/09/15, 12:25 pm

Persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in Burma, also called Myanmar, is expected to worsen if a new religious conversion bill makes it into law.

According to Christian Aid Mission, the upper house of Burma’s Parliament recently passed a bill that would require anyone wishing to convert from one religion to another to go before a registration board, supply personal information, and wait 90 days for government permission.

“Asking a person to go to the government for permission to change their faith, which is an inner personal choice, I think is quite ridiculous and that it would harm Burma in the long run,” said Corey Bailey of International Christian Concern (ICC).

Buddhism is Burma’s official religion. As in countries like India, many people in Burma view being Burmese as being Buddhist. Often, Burman Christians are viewed as traitors to Buddhism and to their country, said Bailey, ICC’s regional manager for Asia. This religious nationalism fuels severe persecution. Burma was ranked 25th on Open Doors’ World Watch List for 2014. 

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) condemned Burma’s package of race and religion bills that included conversion legislation and an interfaith marriage bill.

“Discrimination against non-Buddhists through law, regulation, and practice already is pervasive in Burma,” USCIRF Chair Katrina Lantos Swett said in a press release. “Instead of countering prejudices, these bills would further entrench and legalize discrimination.”

Christian groups worry that the “vague” wording in the conversion bill would lead to personal grievances being used to jail Christians, similar to what they have seen in Pakistan and other countries.

Bailey suggested an angry neighbor could accuse someone trying to convert to Christianity of insulting Buddhism, and they wouldn’t need proof to have the convert arrested. The bill “opens a Pandora’s box for them,” Bailey said.

Even without a religious conversion bill, Christians face persecution and government control. 

“One of the great quotes I’ve heard from one of our coworkers in Burma is that ‘Nothing is legal but everything is possible,’ when it comes to church work,” Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs said. He explained that although the government tries to control churches, the gospel is spreading and Christian churches are growing.

Nettleton said the government requires and rarely grants permission to build new churches, which has led to many congregations sharing church buildings that already exist.

Authorities recently arrested Tial Cem, a Chin Christian, for cutting down trees without permission. The trees, cut on private property, were used to erect a cross on a hill in Hahka Town in April 2014, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). 

Cem told the Chin Human Rights Organization he did not seek official permission for the cross because he did not believe it would be granted. The government ordered the cross removed by Jan. 30.

“The destruction of Christian crosses in Chin State has long been a policy of the Burmese authorities, often accompanied by forcing Chin Christian villagers to build Buddhist pagodas in their place,” said Mervyn Thomas of CSW.

Julia A. Seymour

Julia has worked as a writer in the Washington, D.C., area since 2005 and was a fall 2012 participant in a World Journalism Institute mid-career class conducted by WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky in Asheville, N.C. Follow Julia on Twitter @SteakandaBible.

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