Burmese Christians in India and a possible clue to why Europe's Muslim refugees are converting to Christianity
Though forced to relocate because of religious differences, Burmese Christians in India find solace in religion and community support, and their situation possibly explain why Muslim refugees are converting to Christianity in Europe
Maybe the purpose of religion is bigger than resolving existential dilemmas. Maybe religion is a way of life or the orientation of a lifestyle. Perhaps, religion is identity. And, the divine gain from it is as definite as it is abstract, as personal as it is general.
Is that the reason why those who have been displaced by religiopolitical violence still harbour a wish to practice or even preach a faith? On 27 November, Pastor Matthias Linke of the Evangelisch-Freikirchliche Gemeinde church baptised a newly converted Muslim refugee during a ceremony in Berlin. Reading reports about conversions to Christianity that are taking place in Germany, one of the spin-offs of what is the bloody modern day reality of Syria and Iraq, Cung Dawt feels the need to talk about the ironies of life.
A Burmese refugee from the Christian Chin community, Dawt lives in a ghetto in Janak Puri and has grisly tales to tell. "I was born a Christian in Burma and never felt safe in my country. Not all (Burmese) refugees are Muslim. If one religion uses state funds to propagate its tenets, other faiths will be wiped out," says the 30-year-old who was a student of BSc at Kaley University in the Chin region of Burma when Buddhist monks set his neighbourhood on fire during a demonstration.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are about 5,000 Chin refugees and asylum seekers living in the capital. Dawt got here in 2008. He says people come here from different Chin tribes, including Zomi, Tedim, Falam, Cho, Hakha, Mara and Mizo among others (Mara and Mizo tribes share their ethnicity with tribes from North East India). They live in urban villages in West Delhi like Hastsal, Vikas Nagar, Sitapuri and Bindapur. They mostly work in factories producing emergency lights, in mobile repairing shops, or as housemaids. Since the UNHCR "blue card" is not recognised by employers in the formal sector, most families are surviving on less than Rs 6,000 a month.
Earlier this month, The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published a report titled Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma. This states that "Christian denominations strongly opposed the Religious Conversion Law, one of the package of bills for the so-called 'protection of race and religion'. Originally proposed and drafted by Ma Ba Tha and signed into law by President Thein Sein in 2015, each of the four discriminatory laws — regulating monogamy, marriage, birth spacing and religious conversion — restrict religious freedom and undermine women's rights. The Religious Conversion Law unlawfully restricts the right to freely choose a religion, interferes with proselytising, and could be used to criminalise such activities. Although the law is not currently being implemented — as there are no accompanying bylaws (usually required before a law can be enforced in Burma) — it is already having an indirect impact."
Deep inside Chin ghettos in the Indian capital, entire families live in rooms not bigger than five bathtubs put together. There are pictures Jesus Christ pasted on pink or green walls of the ghetto, several of them badly scratched by wind and time. You find shops barely stocked with blankets and bed sheets. Along the reedy streets, some of the refugees have spread out frogs cooked with bitter leaves, some offer fried batches of Burmese samosa (same filling as the Indian one but square-shaped). The community heads to the night bazaars for purchasing rejected vegetables at cheaper rates. A majority were below the poverty line even in Burma where the price of vegetables, fish, meat and rice skyrocketed along with the violence.
In the ghetto, tribal structures, offices, churches and pastors protect the community's sense of belonging. The Jesuit Refugee Society (JRS) is an international catholic organisation that provides assistance to refugees in 50 countries. In Delhi, it engages the Chin community in livelihood training programmes featuring skill-imparting courses in tailoring, computers and English. As per its observations, the Church is a unifying factor and every tribe is well-organised under the Churches.
Attending Church services is considered to be a sacred obligation in the lives of the Chins. Practically all the Chin members attend the Church services without fail. Some families also consider it a good Christian practice to give 10 percent of their earnings every month to the Church. Apart from fulfilling religious services, some pastors try to help the families in whatever ways possible.
"We, the Chins, have great community spirit. In our small homes, we meet and greet each other. Sometimes, our level of freeness and warmth is misunderstood by the landlords and they feel our women do business with their bodies," informs Dawt.
The community depends on landlords for their voter IDs along with electricity and water bills that have to be submitted to the Foreigner Regional Registration Office (FRRO) to get a residence permit. In some cases, the UNHCR card doesn’t even help them secure a phone connection. The closest hospital is Deen Dayal Upadhyay, where, they say, doctors usually belittle their illnesses and prescribe paracetamols even in cases where they require serious medical attention.
Prem Kumar, assistant director at JRS (Delhi), points out that the difficulty in fully empowering the Burmese refugees is the language barrier; there is a diversity of dialects even among the tribes. Although they are free to attend government schools, Chin refugee children attend community schools set up by the Church. These schools do not have a fixed syllabus and children of different age groups learn together without gradations. The older the child is, the harder it is for him or her to gain working knowledge of either Hindi or English.
In 2013, JRS identified that among the Chin refugees in Delhi, the literacy levels of the children was lower than that of their parents.
Back in Burma, the USCIRF report goes on to state "there are no state-run universities in Chin State, and bureaucratic hurdles such as changing household registration documents plus other associated costs of relocating elsewhere in Burma for further studies are prohibitive for many Chin. Instead, many choose to study at Christian institutions in Chin State. However, the government does not officially recognise degrees and other qualifications offered by Christian theological colleges and universities, which means graduates from Christian institutions can't secure employment in the government sector."
It adds, "Kachin, Naga, and Chin Christian employees are routinely overlooked for promotion within the civil service and other government sectors in favour of Buddhists. For example, in the Chin State capital of Hakha, all but two of the department heads within the state-level administration are Burmese Buddhists. When Christians do hold government positions, they face sanctions if they refuse to support Buddhist activities. In some cases, the authorities take contributions from Christian civil servants' salaries for Buddhist activities, such as building pagodas and organising Buddhist New Year (Thingyan) celebrations, a practice continued from the time of military rule until today."
Some kilometres away from Janak Puri is Vikas Nagar where Rohingya Christians are giving tough competition to the Chins. The Rohingya Christians (not more than 150) live in 30 tents. These Rohingyas are converted from Islam to Christianity and hail from the Burmese Rakhine state. The plight, persecutions and trafficking of Rohingya Muslims, considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh by many in the Burmese state, is common knowledge.
Recently, a UN official said that Myanmar is carrying out "ethnic cleansing" of Rohingya Muslims as stories of gangrape, torture and murder emerge from among the thousands who have fled to Bangladesh. The Rohingya Christians, however, are scattered and scarce.
Shona Mia, the leader of the community in Delhi, says he was born stateless in 1980. He informs that out of the 60 children in their community in Delhi, only six to seven attend school. Their language is different from the ones spoken by the Chins and hence their children benefit from the Chin community schools. Rohingya children work as rag pickers and the adults mainly segregate waste or work in paper factories.
In one of these tents, people with distinctly Muslim names — Anwar, Salam, Iman Husain — swiftly quote from the Bible while making Christmas decorations out of crumpled waste paper.
“The bible saves us. It keeps us together in troubled times,” they say.
However, for these believers, the Grinch has stolen Christmas and Santa doesn’t exist.
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