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World News

Myanmar military coup 'terrible news' for country's 'forgotten' Christians, charity warns

by Will Maule

A leading religious persecution charity has warned that the recent military coup in Myanmar is likely to be "terrible news" for the country's oppressed Christian minority. Open Doors said that the military has been "systematically persecuting Christians" for the past 50 years and warned that the plight of believers may become even more severe now that total vested power is in the hands of the offending troops.

There are currently around 4.4 million Christians residing in Myanmar, which has been gripped by civil war for several decades. Following the coup on Monday, military chief Min Aung Hlaing assumed the position of head of state and declared a state of emergency for one year. The Myanmar state military, called the 'Tatmadaw', have hit the headlines in recent years for their brutal treatment of the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. They have also faced accusations of genocide against the Christian population in the northern Kachin state.

"Military rule could mean reinforced power for the dominant religion,” said Open Doors local partner, Brother Lwin*. “The military government of the past has always been protective of their Buddhist culture and tradition. This may have serious implications to the Church. We are expecting restrictions upon the Church to happen once again though we are unsure of the extent and the form it will take as of yet.”

The Buddhist nationalism advocated by the Tatmadaw has relegated Muslims and Christians to second-class citizens and has caused over one million people to flee the country. Many have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh and settled at Cox’s Bazaar refugee camp - the world's largest refugee settlement. 

The latest military coup saw State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the recognised leader of Myanmar, detained along with several other government officials. The military have also been cutting communications across the country. 

“As the military seizes power and detains the country's leaders, all communication lines like phone and internet have been cut off,” says another Open Doors’ partners in the region. “We are cut off from our contacts inside the country, but we are doing our best to monitor the situation.”

Lwin said he was concerned by what the military might be planning next: 

“The military also has the track record of devaluing the local currency. It may happen again. This will set the country’s economy to plummet. Financial support to the Church coming from outside the country will be impossible to bring in with banks being closed down." 

“We’re at a crucial moment for the future of Myanmar,” said Julia Bicknell, analyst of Open Doors’ World Watch List. “And it is the country’s religious and ethnic minorities, including the Christians that have most to fear from the current crisis. The plight of the Rohingya people has highlighted the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Muslim population. Christians feel forgotten, we need to make sure that they aren’t.”

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