Churches Open Again in Myanmar Areas Controlled by Wa Rebel Army

Christian churches ordered closed last year by an ethnic separatist army in northern Myanmar’s Shan state have begun to reopen, with 52 Baptist churches now again in operation, sources in the region said.

Restrictions on churches closed by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) began to lift in September in Hotaung, Mei Pauk, and Pansang townships, The Rev. Dr. Lazarus—bishop of the Lahu Baptist Christian League in the state’s Wa Self-Administered Region—told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Tuesday.

“All of our churches finally opened last week, and only a Bible study school is left still closed in Hotaung,” the Rev. Lazarus said. “We don’t know why they will not allow this one to reopen yet. I would like to appeal to them to reopen the school.”

Beginning in September 2018, the UWSA, a 30,000-strong ethnic armed group with close ties to China, began detaining Christian clergy members and shutting down dozens of their churches, questioning pastors, bishops, and nuns about whether they were engaging in development work or persuading people to convert to Christianity.

In a bid to keep out foreign missionaries and root out “religious extremists,” the UWSA also ordered that all religious leaders must be residents of the Wa region and conduct their work only with the permission of local authorities, sources told RFA in earlier reports.

Though Christians comprise the largest religious group in the region, inhabitants also practice Buddhism, Islam, animism, and spirit worship. Most officials of the self-declared Wa state, which is not officially recognized by Myanmar’s central government, are believed to be animists.

Assessments under way

Also speaking to RFA, UWSA spokesman Nyi Rang said that authorities are now conducting assessments to determine which churches will be allowed to reopen, adding that numbers will be made more clear when studies are completed.

Four Catholic schools in the Maingmaw, Winkhaung, and Panwaing townships meanwhile remain closed, said Pastor Phillip, bishop of the region’s Lashio diocese.

“We haven’t visited these areas in the Wa region, since the authorities haven’t invited us to go there,” he said, adding, “I heard that the Wa authorities are using the religious school where priests and nuns once lived for their own purposes.”

No Catholic church now operates in UWSA-controlled territories, and many religious schools and residences have been converted to secular use, agreed Catholic Pastor Soe Naing, also speaking to RFA.

“We don’t have any updates about these buildings,” Soe Naing said. “And even if they are returned to us now, I don’t know how much they will have changed.”

“We heard that the authorities converted the school in Winkhaung into a police station, and that they bulldozed the school in Maingmaw. We don’t know what the latest status of these buildings is,” he added.

Calls seeking comment from officials of churches belonging to the Kachin Baptist Convention, which also remain closed in UWSA-controlled territory, were not answered this week.

Reported by Wai Yan Moe Myint. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Richard Finney.