The Rohingya weren’t the only religious group hoping for an intervention from Pope Francis

A woman prays Nov. 28 at St. Anthony Church in Yangon, Myanmar. Pope Francis will celebrate Mass Nov. 29 at Kyaikkasan sports ground in Yangon. (CNS photo/Jorge Silva, Reuters) 

Pope Francis is completing his historic visit in Myanmar, and much of the global media has focused on whether or not he would speak up for the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority. More than 620,000 of them have been driven out of Myanmar’s Rakhine State into Bangladesh in recent months.

Drawing far less international attention are long-running conflicts that endure in the country’s border regions near China, particularly in Kachin State and northern Shan State, where clashes between government forces and armed ethnic independence movements have continued off and on for decades. Adding to the complexity, in this majority-Buddhist state many members of the various ethnic resistance movements, especially among the Kachin, are Christians.

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Many Christians in Myanmar—Catholic and Baptist alike—hoped that he would speak up for all religious minorities in Myanmar.

The finer details of the unscheduled tête-à-tête between Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Pope Francis on Nov. 27 have not been made public, but many Christians in Myanmar—Catholic and Baptist alike—hoped that he would speak up for all religious minorities in Myanmar.

He indeed addressed some of these concerns in a speech on Nov. 28, calling for “respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group—none excluded—to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good.”

Tensions between the government and restive religious and ethnic minorities have persisted in Myanmar since its independence from Britain in 1948.

Tensions between the government and restive religious and ethnic minorities have persisted in Myanmar since its independence from Britain in 1948. Last year on Dec. 3, the feast day of St. Francis Xavier, a church named after the saint in northern Shan State was allegedly hit by a Myanmar military airstrike. No one was injured; the parish priest, nuns and local villagers had already fled across the border with China because of previous clashes in the area. But the St. Francis Xavier Church in Mong Ko Township was badly damaged—reports at the time cited a church leader who said only the bell tower remained intact.

State media suggested that the church had been heavily damaged because of the explosion of ammunition that rebels had been storing in the church—an allegation firmly rejected in statements issued by the church.

The roof was subsequently repaired by the army, and the church was repainted in time for Christmas. However, church sources say the structure was not completely restored.

The Baptist community of Kachin State hoped Pope Francis would raise the issue of the heavy sentences handed down to two of their pastors when he spoke with Myanmar government and military officials. It was not clear if Pope Francis discussed these issues during his private meeting with Min Aung Hlaing.

Langjaw Gam Seng, 35, and 67-year-old Dumdaw Nawng Lat from the Kachin Baptist Convention were sentenced last month for taking journalists to a number of buildings in Mong Ko Township damaged during clashes between rebels and the Myanmar military, including the site of the bombed-out church.

The pair were initially held incommunicado for almost a month. After a drawn-out, 10-month trial, they were convicted on charges of unlawful association. Government prosecutors alleged they had ties to the Kachin Independence Army. The sentence was two years and three months for each. Nawng Lat received an additional two years’ sentence for defamation because he provided information about the aerial campaign being waged in the area in an interview with Voice of America.

Fighting has been ongoing in Kachin State since 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar military broke down. There has also been an uptick in fighting in northern Shan State in the last year or so, where a new alliance of rebel groups has clashed with the “Tatmadaw,” as Myanmar’s armed forces are known in Burmese.

One on-the-ground monitoring group, the Free Burma Rangers, estimated that between August and December of 2016, there were over 140 aerial assaults in Kachin and northern Shan states. According to research from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a U.K.-based rights monitor, over 60 churches have been destroyed since the abrogation of the Kachin ceasefire in 2011.

According to U.N. figures, almost 100,000 civilians remain displaced by conflict in Kachin and northern Shan states. While in Rakhine State much has been made of the restrictions by Myanmar authorities on relief efforts from international agencies, large civilian populations in Shan and Kachin states are also under an effective humanitarian blockade.

In a bulletin released earlier this month, the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that over the past year their officials have experienced a dramatic deterioration in the access granted by Myanmar authorities for humanitarian workers in Kachin and Shan states. According to the report, “most UN agencies and international N.G.O. staff have not had access to areas beyond government control—where about 40 percent of displaced people are located—since May 2016.”

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