Christians in Myanmar, including Baptists, planned prayer services for their country, while an American Baptist leader urged Christians everywhere to follow events and pray for peaceful resolution of a bloody government crackdown of pro-democracy demonstrations now in its second week.
Sparked by a 500-percent rise in the price of diesel fuel last month, the protests grew when Buddhist monks became involved by the thousands. Crowds of activists swelled to an estimated 100,000 last week in the streets of Yangon, before the ruling military junta stepped in with deadly force.
The government claimed 10 people were killed, but other estimates were much higher. The Associated Press quoted some dissident groups placing the death toll as high as 200. Foreign diplomats estimated that at least several hundred Buddhist monks and political activists were arrested in the protests, the largest in nearly 20 years.
Though 89 percent Buddhist, Myanmar is home to one of the largest Baptist populations in Asia and one of the fastest-growing Baptist groups in the world–the 1.1-million-member Myanmar Baptist Convention.
The Baptist World Alliance said Monday that as part of the crackdown, government agents were sent to “check out” Baptist offices to inquire about a recent meeting with foreigners. “I think they are checking and watching us because of the demonstrations by the monks,” one Baptist leader told BWA. Other Christian groups, including the Myanmar Council of Churches, were also screened.
American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. trace the existence of their international mission work nearly 200 years ago to the country known as Burma until officially renamed by the current military government that seized power in 1988.
Baptists in the United States first came together to form what is today known as ABC/USA International Ministries, following the arrival of Baptist missionaries to Burma in 1813, said Reid Trulson, executive director of International Ministries.
Baptist work started by Adoniram and Ann Judson grew, especially among ethnic minorities, whom Trulson said have faced persecution throughout the time Baptists have been in the country.
Foreign missionaries were forced to leave in the 1960s, Trulson said, but International Ministries maintains strong ties with the Myranmar Baptist Convention, which is more than 100 years old.
Baptist work in Myanmar is concentrated among the Karen, Kachin, Chin and other minority tribal groups often subject to harsh treatment by the government including arrest, interrogation and torture, according to the BWA release.
The government views Christians with suspicion, according to the BWA, believing them to be agents of western countries like the United States.
A part of the British Empire until 1948, Myanmar has been led by military dictators since 1962, following 14 years of democratic rule.
The Myanmar Baptist Convention sponsored a week-long “program” of special prayer in all Baptist churches through Oct. 4, but for security reasons declined to say what the prayers were about, according to BWA.
The BWA General Council in 2006 passed a resolution affirming “solidarity with the civil populations of Myanmar as they suffer under hardships imposed by the military regime in power since 1962” and requesting the United Nations to “take appropriate action for the protection of the lives and rights of Myanmar citizens, including their right to religious freedom.”
The BWA resolution also called for authorities to life the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, the legally elected president in 1990, and ensure “that she be allowed access to adequate, independent medical care, in the light of her deteriorating health.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.