In September 2018, Myanmar's largest ethnic army began cracking down on Christians. Four Catholic schools remain closed in Maingmaw, Winkhaung and Panwaing townships. Catholic churches used for non-secular purposes.
Naypyidaw (AsiaNews) – Churches ordered closed last year in Shan State (north-eastern Myanmar) as part of a campaign to supress Christianity by the rebel United Wa State Army (UWSA) began to reopen last week.
Protestant churches are now back in operation; however, Catholic churches remain closed or converted to secular use.
Myanmar's largest ethnic army, which has historical ties to mainland China, started cracking down on Christians in September 2018.
Since then, it has arrested hundreds of Christians, closed scores of churches, forcibly drafted students and interrogated priests, bishops and nuns to see whether they engaged in development work or proselytising.
For UWSA, faith-based organisations and movements are a threat to its authority.
In October 2018, the Lahu Baptist Convention (LBC), complained that more than a hundred of its churches had been closed and at least three had been destroyed.
In the area of Mong Pauk alone, UWSA soldiers sealed off 52 churches. In Mong Mau, they ordered the closure of a Catholic mission run by Salesian nuns and ordered the Sisters’ expulsion.
The rebels control two mountainous regions in Shan State, on the border with China, where Christians are the majority.
About a century ago, American evangelical missionaries converted members of some local tribal groups to Christianity.
In 1991, Wa tribal leaders asked the Catholic Bishop of Lashio for help to develop their territory, through schools and clinics authorised by the authorities.
UWSA is free to govern its self-proclaimed Wa State since it signed a ceasefire with Myanmar’s central government in 1989.
Rev Lazarus, spokesperson for the Lahu Baptist community, told Radio Free Asia that in September 2019, UWSA began to lift restrictions in the towns of Hotaung, Mei Pauk and Pansang.
“All of our churches finally opened last week, and only a Bible study school is left still closed in Hotaung,” 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.”
Meanwhile, four Catholic schools in the Maingmaw, Winkhaung, and Panwaing townships meanwhile remain closed, said Mgr Philip Lasap Za Hawng, bishop of Lashio.
“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 areas, and many religious schools and residences have been converted to secular use, said Fr Mariano Soe Naing, director of the Office for Social Communication of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Myanmar.
“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 explained.