By Robert Dilday
American Baptists’ top policy-making body has expressed its “strongest concerns” over a restrictive religious conversion law being considered in Burma and has endorsed legislation in the U.S. Congress to withhold security assistance until the country, also known as Myanmar, has improved its human rights and religious liberty record.
The American Baptist Churches USA’s board of general ministries adopted the two statements June 13 at a meeting in Green Lake, Wis.
“While we rejoice in the progress that has occurred in Burma, these are matters that harm Baptist brothers and sisters in Burma. We ask for your prayers and your action,” said ABCUSA General Secretary Roy Medley in a press release.
American Baptists have maintained close ties with Burmese Baptists for 200 years, ever since missionaries Adoniram and Ann Judson landed there in the early nineteenth century. Though relations were interrupted in the 1960s by political unrest, last year the Myanmar Baptist Convention invited American Baptist International Ministries to renew its ministry there.
The conversion bill, which would require anyone wanting to change religion to seek permission from local authorities, is one of four bills the Burmese government has drawn up, the Economist reported this month. Anyone applying to convert “with the intention of insulting or destroying a religion” could be jailed for up to two years, and people who “compel” others to convert through “undue influence or pressure” could also go jail for a year.
The other proposed laws concern marriage between people of different religions, birth rates and polygamy. The legislation is seen to be aimed at non-Buddhist minorities.
The laws “would severely restrict the rights of Christians and other minority religions to share their faith with Buddhists,” the board of general ministries said in its statement. “The bill carries jail terms and other punitive measures for those who do so and clearly contravenes the guarantee of religious liberty in their own constitution. ABCUSA will be voicing its concern to both our government and the government of Myanmar ….”
The U.S. Senate and House are considering legislation to prohibit funds in 2014 or 2015 from being made available for security assistance to Burma unless the Secretary of State certifies to Congress that the country has established civilian oversight of its military, amended its constitution to include full participation by political opponents and ethnic minority groups, and improved its human rights record.
“For over 20 years now, Karen, Chin and other ethnic groups who are primarily Christian have been fleeing Burma because of the military’s onslaught against them,” the board of general ministries said. “The ruthless human rights violations of the military are well documented.
“When an ABC 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. … Simply put, we do not want our government providing support to a military that is murdering, raping and driving Baptist brothers and sisters from their villages.”