Challenges of the Chin; Myanmar’s Only Christian Tribe
Out of the eight major ethnic-nationalities in Myanmar, the Chin tribe is the only one that has embraced Christianity. Ninety percent of the Chins are believers, and they take pride in being the only Christian tribe in Myanmar.
The Gospel spread among the Chin in the 19th century due to the work of Western missionaries. For decades, their religious identity within a state-sanctioned Buddhist context, has caused them to endure forced labor, rape and violence at the hands of the Burmese army, the Tatmadaw. Countless times, the Chin people have been verbally and physically abused, and pressured to recant their Christian faith.
When Prime Minister U Nu of Myanmar declared Theravada Buddhism the state religion in the 1960s, the Tatmadaw began trampling on the Chin Christians’ right to worship. Thousands of Chin took up arms in protest. The Burmese government still views them as agents of the West, deviants to the country’s goal of Buddhist unification.
Despite the end of military rule and the Burmese government’s transition to a democracy in 2011, the Chin remain overlooked – deprived of many modern conveniences, and still victimized for being a religious minority. “The military changed their clothes, but they’re still the same ‘person’,” expressed a local pastor. “We still get the same oppression. They would extort money from us. They would insist on it, and if we refuse them, they would threaten to stop our church.”
Chin pastors say that by 2020, everybody in the country must be Buddhist. Muan*, a local pastor, shares with Open Doors, “Recently, the officials built a Buddhist temple beside our church. We were forced to contribute stones to build it. Officially, we are never allowed to build a church. We must resort to bribing local officials.”
All citizens are required to attend mandatory village meetings that conflict with their Sunday worship services. They believe that it is an attempt by the government to distract church members and continually decrease church attendance. “From my village, it takes two days to walk to the public meeting,” a pastor shares. “It’s difficult but we’re afraid of what might happen if we don’t go. Everyone is afraid of not going because we might receive a red mark on our government papers. Those papers are our lifeline.”
Myanmar’s Chin State is a region characterized by political instability. The frequent insurgencies make it extremely difficult for believers to travel to the neighboring state to buy their necessities. Sometimes, local authorities deny them permits because they are suspected of being revolutionaries. “But most of our resources come from the other states, even access to medical services,” Muan shares. “We won’t have anything if we don’t travel. We are powerless before the armed revolutionaries who freely roam around our area.
Aside from the insurgencies, the Chin State is also the poorest region in Myanmar. According to UNICEF, 73% of Chin State residents live below the poverty line. “Extreme poverty is a major problem in our area,” says another pastor. “Poverty drives mothers to marry off their daughters to insurgents who are, of course, not believers.”
According to an Open Doors field worker, the Chin are forced to work in the poppy farms owned by the insurgents due to extreme poverty, leading many of them to become drug addicts. A pastor commented that Chins don’t have to work long in the poppy farms before becoming an addict. “In harvesting, they cut the poppies to get the seeds and use their fingers to collect the sap,” he says. “The fingers then become dry. In cleaning their fingers, the workers would need to lick them. That’s how they become addicted.” Muan adds, “In trying to get high dosages, they use needles. This creates infections and some end up having their legs or arms amputated.”
Open Doors continues to reach out to the Chin tribe; reminding them that God is sovereign despite persecution and poverty, and training them in areas such as marriage and family life, biblical discipleship, church growth and administration, biblical stewardship, livelihood and financial literacy. Open Doors works to assure them that believers around the world love, remember and pray for them.
In May, Open Doors celebrated with twenty-two Chin pastors as they graduated from a pilot Lay Leaders training program. For three years, these tribal pastors trudged across mountains and raging rivers to learn more about God.
Phyo*, a pastor for 17 years shares, “I didn’t know how to study the Bible. I never applied it to myself. I only applied it to others. After I started coming here, I realized that I must be the first to apply the Word. Now, I am able to guide others.”
“Whenever we pray, everything is so formal,” Phyo continues. “After the service, we go home and that’s it. When the Open Doors worker came, she taught us to pray while washing the dishes or cleaning the house. We are doing that now. I encourage the church to pray while they travel, while they work, and while they do other things.”
Thanga* says the Lay Leaders Training has changed their lives for the better, “If we didn’t have this training, we would have been totally destroyed. We were already destroying ourselves. Now, we have hope.”
*Names changed for security reasons
Father, every week as we read story after story of the struggles of Your church, we would lose heart except for the sure hope we have in You, and that Your purposes are being accomplished. Father today, we lift up this faithful group of believers in Myanmar. They have stood strong in You for years; but have suffered greatly because of this. Father provide for their needs, both physical and spiritual. Their deep poverty concerns us. Father, provide suitable opportunities for employment for Your flock; opportunities that are respectable and not harmful to themselves and others. And for the pastors, we praise You that some have received extended training. May the knowledge gained be exponentially shared among Your people, and may more opportunities be made available for future pastors. In the name of Jesus, who calls and empowers His church to love and serve Him well. Amen.