Fear that two pastors who testified at last month’s State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom might face arrest on their return to Myanmar prompted letters of concern from Baptist leaders in the United States.
Leaders of American Baptist Churches USA sent letters this week asking both the United Nations and U.S. to “speak strongly against any possible action against” two Baptist Kachin leaders upon their return to the Southeast Asian country also known as Burma.
One of the pastors, Lanjaw Gam Seng, while in America spoke to reporters describing harsh treatment during his 16 months in prison after helping journalists document military attacks on civilian targets including the 2016 bombing of a Catholic Church.
The other, Pastor Hkalam Samson, is president of the Kachin Baptist Convention. American Baptist leaders advised political leaders that the pastor has long criticized policies of Myanmar’s government and military, which have led to more than 100,000 Kachins being driven from their homes and the destruction of more than 200 churches in Kachin State.
“During the recent Ministerial he dared to publicly support the sanctions imposed upon some of the military leaders by the U.S. government as a step toward accountability to the standards of justice,” the Baptist leaders said.
American Baptist Churches USA General Secretary Lee Spitzer; Sharon Koh, executive director/CEO of International Ministries; and Jeffrey Haggray, executive director of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies, sent letters Aug. 7 to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and to officials of the government of the United States.
“It has been reported to us and widely shared on Burmese social media that the military has ordered the arrest of both Dr. Samson and Pastor Gam Seng upon their arrival at the Yangon International Airport on Tuesday,” the Baptist leaders said. “We know that since their appearance on U.S, television there has been an increase in official rhetoric against ‘traitors against Myanmar’ within the country, and a mass rally was held against such traitors on Aug 3, 2019.”
“We believe that these two Christian leaders are in imminent danger and we call upon the United Nations, the U.S. government and other concerned powers, and human rights advocacy groups to add your voice to ours and speak strongly against any possible action against Pastor Gam Seng and Dr. Samson upon their return,” the letter said.
American Baptist News Service reported Aug. 14 that the two pastors arrived safely at the Yangon airport and were greeted there by a U.N. official. After a church service, they were scheduled to meet Wednesday with the U.S. ambassador to Burma before returning to Kachin State.
Nicholas J.C. Snyder, a special adviser on East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific to Vice President Mike Pence, responded to American Baptist leaders that “the White House is well aware of the situation and tracking closely.”
“At this time, we have not seen evidence that they will actually be arrested on their arrival but we will continue to have the US Embassy check in with them,” said Snyder, who has served 17 years as a foreign service officer in the U.S. Department of State.
A spokesman for Sam Brownback, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said they are also tracking the situation closely.
The two pastors met with White House representatives Aug. 8, Brownback’s office said. “We remain in contact with the delegation and will make every effort to urge the Burmese government to respect their fundamental freedoms upon return to Burma,” they said.
Elijah Brown, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, also voiced concern about the pastors’ safety in a letter dated Aug. 14.
“The United States government recently hosted an International Religious Freedom Ministerial that brought together key individuals from around the world,” Brown said. “As part of this initiative, they invited pastors Hkalam Samson and Langjaw Gam Seng to attend and participate. They were then further asked by the United States Department of State to meet with United States President Donald Trump to share their experiences.”
“The pastors spoke with open honesty, which is now leading to their direct endangerment,” Brown said. “Pastor Langjaw Gam Seng spoke on his experiences of persecution. He was arrested and tortured for 16 months for reporting the bombing of St. Francis Xavier Church to journalists. His torture included being shackled and blindfolded, while being given minimal food and no blankets to keep warm in the immense cold.”
Merritt Johnson, director of communications and media for the Baptist World Alliance, said Aug. 15 their office had received word in the previous 24 hours that the pastors arrived safely in Mynmar, were met by representatives from the U.N. and U.S. embassy and were not arrested.