New census shows Christianity spreading in Burma

Burma | Amid persecution and poverty, pastors work to share the gospel
by Julia A. Seymour
Posted 8/08/16, 12:34 pm

The spread of the gospel has faced huge obstacles in Burma, including bloody civil war, violence against ethnic minorities, and radical Buddhist opposition. In spite of all that, Christianity has grown in Burma (also called Myanmar), according to new figures.

The United Nations Population Fund released new census data in July showing Christians made up about 6.3 percent of the population, up from 4.9 percent in 2004, World Watch Monitor reported. The country is 89.9 percent Buddhist; Chin state was the only majority-Christian region.

Pastor George (who’s name was changed to protect his safety), the director of a mission in Burma, said growth happened because of “the grace of God, foreign aid, our missionaries, evangelists, and pastors.”

“I have been involved in reaching the unreached people groups since 2000. We have planted 69 churches among the unreached people groups,” a church planter named Timothy (name also changed) said. “What I have seen is the spirit of God has laid a great burden to the Chin Christian leaders.

Timothy explained that those leaders started mission organizations and Bible schools and trained Christians from multiple ethnicities to be “frontline missionaries.” He also attributed the increase to fervent prayer.

“Persecution caused Christians to pray more, and the ministry is stronger and stronger and growing,” Timothy said.

American missionary Adoniram Judson first evangelized in Burma in the 1800s, but in recent decades, indigenous missionaries took over after Ne Win’s socialist government expelled foreign missionaries in 1966.

Pastors and missionaries must trek through dangerous terrain to reach villages with the gospel, according to Christian Aid Mission. The Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian group, traverses mountains and jungles to reach needy, remote villages and camps with medical help, supplies, and Christianity.

Civilians have suffered in the war between the military and rebel groups for more than 60 years. CNN reported the conflict may be the longest civil war in the world and involves at least 15 armed rebel groups. The military has sometimes targeted Christians because of their religion and ethnicity.

“Our sources have spoken to the exhaustion of the Christian community. There’s been no stability for most Christians in Burma,” said Open Doors USA director of advocacy Kristin Wright.

Because of the military violence and opposition from Buddhist extremist groups, Open Doors ranked Burma 23rd in the world on its list of nations with severe persecution. Buddhist groups reportedly use their influence to try to make conversions and interreligious marriage difficult for religious minorities.

George said while influential officials support Buddhism, Christians must rely on foreign assistance and request permission to build churches or hold conferences. Families sometimes reject relatives who convert to Christianity. Timothy said local authorities and Buddhist nationalists still persecute Christians in smaller towns.

Wright, Timothy, and George agreed the democratic election in 2015 of Aung San Suu Kyi brought some hope to Christians, although it has not yet ended the fighting or persecution.

“There are hopes, but Myanmar will not have complete freedom for a long, long time. It can be a happy land, just a prayer away; so let us all pray fervidly for Myanmar to become a happy land, and for the ramification of the kingdom of God in Myanmar,” George said.

Timothy added, “There is hope for more freedom with a new government. But Buddhists are not happy with the new government, and what will happen, we do not know.”

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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