When we think of religious persecution, the Middle East usually comes to mind. But things have also gotten nasty in Southeast Asia.
According to a report issued by the International State Crime Initiative, the Rohingya ethnic group in Burma is facing “the final stages of genocide.”
Whether what’s happening in Burma meets the exact definition of genocide, it’s undoubtedly a horrific violation of human rights and a humanitarian catastrophe. It’s also part of a larger and very troubling pattern: religious-based persecution in South and Southeastern Asia.
Until a few months ago, most of us had never heard of the Rohingya. So here’s some overly simplified background: To speak of Burma as if it were a nation-state like, for instance, the Netherlands, is a misnomer.
There are actually eight officially-recognized “major national ethnic races” in Burma. They speak languages belonging to four different, mutually unintelligible major language families. While the overwhelming majority of Burmese citizens are at least nominally Buddhist, some of these “national ethnic races” are predominately Christian.
That brings us back to the Rohingya. The Rohingya, who are Muslims, are not one of the recognized “major ethnic races.” Since 1982, they haven’t even been Burmese citizens.
It’s impossible to understand what’s going on with the Rohingya without taking into account the Burmese government’s abysmal treatment of religious minorities. Open Doors USA characterizes the level of religious persecution in Burma as “very high.”
It wasn’t only Open Doors who took notice of the treatment of Burmese religious minorities. Persecution of Burmese Christians was the subject of, believe it or not, the 2008 movie “Rambo” starring Sylvester Stallone. While Rambo was able to save one group of fictional Burmese Christians, for our brethren in the real world what the United States Conference on International Religious Freedom calls the “Hidden Plight [of] Christian Minorities in Burma,” continues largely unabated.
That plight includes “discrimination, forced conversions, violence and desecration of churches and Christian communities.” While Burma’s persecuted Christian minority are, on paper at least, citizens, and, thus, entitled to reside in the country, the Rohingya are not. So, the Burmese government is taking drastic measures to make them leave.
They’ve seized on the actions of a handful of Rohingya militants to collectively punish more than two million people. And prior to the recent crackdown by the Burmese government, nearly one million Rohingya had already fled Burma in the past few decades.
And as if to confirm that there’s no depth to which human depravity will not sink, some refugees who reached places like Thailand have been held for ransom, caught in sex trafficking, or even murdered.
Father Thomas Reese, the Chairman of the Commission on International Religious Freedom, articulated one of the many reasons that Christians should be concerned and moved to action. “The plight of both Rohingya Muslims and Christians results from successive governments that have both perpetuated and supported religious violation . . . It’s time for Burma to defend religious freedom.”
Furthermore, the persecution of these groups is part of a troubling rise in religious nationalism throughout the region. In Burma, the government’s biggest cheerleaders are militant Buddhist monks.
It isn’t only Burma. In countries such as Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos, Bhutan, and, India, Christianity—and also Islam—is increasingly seen as an “alien” religion which must be repressed so that Buddhism and Hinduism can assume their “rightful” place.
We need to stand firm against the forces of what Open Doors calls “religious nationalism,” even if the victims aren’t Christians. Because tomorrow they probably will be.
Genocide in Burma: Why a Persecuted Muslim Minority Should Matter to Christians
Read more about the plight of Burma’s Rohingya population, and learn about organizations that work on behalf of persecuted minorities around the globe. Click on the links in the “Resources” section.