The Burmese government is going where it ought not in matters of faith and conscience.
In December of 2013, something remarkable happened. More than 30,000 people — including many Baptist leaders from around the world — gathered in Burma to celebrate the life and legacy of a man and woman they'd never met.
Two hundred years earlier, Ann and Adoniram Judson arrived in Burma to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and to make disciples. Equally, if not more, remarkable than this celebration is the fact that beginning in 2006, as refugees from Burma1 began arriving in the United States, many sought Baptist churches in which to continue the practice of their faith. The mission that began with the efforts of the Judsons had returned full circle to the land of its origins.
As we celebrate this legacy and the deep bond between American Baptists and the people of Burma, we also lament the current state of affairs in that country including abuses targeting ethnic minority Christians and Muslims and a proposed "Religious Conversion Law" currently being considered by Burma's parliament.
In its 2014 report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that "political reforms in Burma have not improved legal protections for religious freedom and have done little to curtail anti-Muslim violence, incitement and discrimination, particularly targeting the Rohingya Muslim minority." The report went on to indicate that "state-sponsored discrimination and state-condoned violence against Rohingya and Kaman ethnic Muslim minorities also continued, and ethnic minority Christians faced serious abuses during recent military incursions in Kachin state."
When an American Baptist delegation traveled to Burma in December 2013 for the 200th anniversary Judson celebration, the delegation heard firsthand testimony from the Kachin about the ongoing atrocities against them by the military. Based on these violations of basic human rights and freedoms, USCIRF continues in 2014 to recommend that Burma be designated as a "country of particular concern," a designation the State Department has maintained with respect to Burma since 1999.2
Meanwhile, Burma's parliament is considering legislation that would create a governmental registration board to approve all religious conversions. While stating that "everyone has the freedom to convert from one religion to another," the law would require that an individual seeking to do so supply a registration board with an extensive list of personal information and answers to intrusive questions. The legislation includes penalties of up to two years in jail for those applying to convert "with intent to insult, disrespect, destroy or to abuse a religion," though it remains unclear how such intent would be proved.3
Responding to these developments, the Board of General Ministries of the American Baptist Churches, USA, at its June 2014 meeting took action to support legislation currently being considered in Congress (S. 1885 and H.R. 4377) that would require advances in human rights and religious liberty by the government of Burma as a condition of security assistance. In addition, the board has expressed its strong concern to the governments of Burma and the United States over restrictions of religious liberty in the proposed religious conversion law.
As Baptists, we stand in a long line of those who have sought to defend and extend religious liberty. As early as 1611, we held, "The magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel anyone to this or that form of religion or doctrine, but to leave the Christian religion free to everyone's conscience, and handle only civil transgressions, for Christ only is the King and lawgiver of the church and conscience."4
The government of Burma is clearly meddling with religion, not only with respect to ethnic minority Christians, but also with respect to other ethnic minorities, including Rohingya and Kaman ethnic Muslims. The government is going where it ought not in matters of faith and conscience.
As the mission of the Judsons has returned full circle to the land of its origins, let our concern for religious liberty return to the people of Burma. With thanksgiving for the freedom we enjoy, let us exercise it on behalf of all those in Burma who now suffer and struggle to practice their faith freely.
(1) According to a fact sheet from the Department of State, the military government in Burma changed the country's name to "Myanmar" in 1989, but "[i]t remains U.S. policy to refer to the country as Burma in most contexts."
(2) USCIRF Annual Report, 2014 (p. 43)
(3) USCIRF Deeply Concerned by Draft "Religious Conversion Law," June 11, 2014.
(4) The Amsterdam Confession of 1611 as cited in the American Baptist Policy Statement on Church and State.
OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.