(CP) Myanmar's military has destroyed at least 47 churches and more than a dozen affiliated buildings in its attacks in the predominantly Christian states of Chin and Kayah since it staged a coup last February, human rights groups have said.
About 35 churches and 15 buildings associated with churches were destroyed in Chin State and about 12 churches were destroyed in Kayah State (formerly known as Karenni) between February 2021 and January 2022, The Irrawaddy reported, citing the Chin Human Rights Organization and the Karenni Human Rights Group.
Christians are a majority in Chin State, which borders India, and make up a substantial part of the population of Kayah State, which borders Thailand. Christians in conflict zones, including these two states, are ethnic minorities who live in the various conflict zones across the country's borders.
Formerly known as Burma, the Southeast Asian country is home to the world's longest Civil War, which began in 1948.
The conflict between the country's military, locally known as Tatmadaw, and ethnic minority militias escalated after the military coup on Feb. 1, 2021, as the ethnic militias have been morally supporting pro-democracy protesters.
Since late last year, the Buddhist nationalist junta has carried out artillery and airstrikes on civilian areas in Chin State and Kayah State because of strong resistance from local people in those areas, the Irrawaddy said, adding that religious buildings in Christian areas — and Buddhist areas — were targeted because civilians often take shelter in them when clashes erupt.
Most recently, troops from Light Infantry Battalion 266 operating under Hakha-based Tactical Operations Command late last month vandalized and looted Sang Fen Memorial Church in Zokhua Village in Chin State's capital of Hakha, the CHRO reported.
On Christmas Eve last year, the military burned alive at least 35 internally displaced people, including elders, women and children, in a village in Kayah State.
The KHRG said it discovered the victims' bodies the day after the massacre near the Mo So village of Hpruso town. "We were so shocked at seeing that all the dead bodies were different sizes, including children, women and old people," a commander from the Karenni National Defense Force, one of the largest of several civilian militias opposing the junta, told Reuters at the time.
"I went to see this morning. I saw dead bodies that had been burned, and also the clothes of children and women spread around," a local villager was quoted as saying.
"They are attacking the churches intentionally to suppress the spirit of Christian people by attacking their sacred churches. I condemn their bad intentions," the Irrawaddy quoted a Karenni Christian leader as saying.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians, many of them Christians, have been displaced due to the escalation of conflicts.
The presence of the military makes civilians and militias in conflict-ridden states nervous. The military has been accused of vandalizing places of worship and civilians' homes, raping girls and women, abducting civilians to be used for forced labor and shooting civilians to death.
Christians make up just over 7% of the majority-Buddhist nation.
Myanmar is ranked No. 12 on Open Doors USA's 2022 World Watch List of 50 countries where Christians face the most severe persecution. The persecution level in Myanmar is "very high" due to Buddhist nationalism. Burma is recognized by the U.S. State Department as a "country of particular concern" for egregious violations of religious liberty.
"The military is notorious for its relations with the ultranationalist ultra-Buddhist group the Ma Ba Tha," ICC's Southeast Asia Regional Manager, Gina Goh, said in a statement earlier. "The military together with Ma Ba Tha (a Buddhist nationalist movement) has targeted the Muslims in the country, but they also go after Christians. Once they get a hold of the power, they might resort to things they were doing before they passed the power to the civilian government. They kill. They rape minority Christians."