ROME – What Pope Francis on Easter Sunday referred to as the “cruel violence” in Sri Lanka, targeting churches and hotels and leaving more than 300 people dead, is obviously an affront to humanity, but it’s also the latest wake-up call about the urgency of defending religious freedom worldwide.
In comfortable Western settings such as the United States, battles over religious freedom can seem abstract and largely political, such as well-documented tensions under the Obama administration with the U.S. Catholic bishops over mandates for contraception coverage as part of health care reform.
Whatever one makes of such issues, they’re hardly matters of life and death.
Elsewhere, the situation is far more dire. Globally speaking, religious freedom isn’t just a matter of principle but an urgent security priority, because places that start eroding the rights of religious minorities almost always end up engulfed in violence that threatens stability well beyond their borders.
Thus it is that news on Tuesday out of Myanmar, also known as Burma, ought to be of concern.
What happened is that the country’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal by two reporters for Reuters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were sentenced to seven years in jail last September for violation of the Official Secrets Act related to their reporting on human rights violations against the largely Muslim Rohingya minority.
The two reporters had exposed the massacre of 10 Rohingyas in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in September 2017. According to their findings, local Buddhist villagers had dug a mass grave and hacked two Rohingyas to death. The others, based on their reporting, were shot by the Burma army.
According to the watchdog group Christian Solidarity Worldwide, last year a police officer confessed that secret documents had been planted on Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. That policeman, Moe Yan Naing, was then arrested himself for breaking the Police Disciplinary Act. Another police officer admitted the documents had already been published in newspapers, and so were not secret. Yet another police witness said he had burned his notes of the case.
Despite all that, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have already spent sixteen months in prison with no prospect of a quick release in sight. On the basis of their reporting, by the way, the two won a Pulitzer Prize last week.
While the case raises obvious freedom of the press issues, it’s also a religious freedom matter because the Rohingya are targets in part because of their Muslim identity. Denied citizenship in Myanmar, the Rohingya have been subject to periodic military crackdowns, with hundreds of thousands now living as refugees in neighboring Bangladesh and other places. Since the present cycle of violence began in 2017, Médecins Sans Frontières estimates that the military and hardline Buddhists in Myanmar have killed at least 10,000 Rohingya.
When Pope Francis traveled to Myanmar in December 2017, he pointedly avoided even using the term “Rohingya” to avoid provoking his hosts. As soon as he arrived in Bangladesh, however, his caution dissipated as he met a group of Rohingya refugees.
“The presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” the pope said after speaking to an interfaith audience in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka.
“Your tragedy is very hard, very big. We give you space in our hearts,” the pope told the refugees. “In the name of everyone, of those who persecute you, those who hurt you, and especially of the world’s indifference, I ask for your forgiveness. Forgive us.”
For the record, it’s not just Rohingya Muslims who suffer.
Christian churches have been closed and burned by the Communist-inspired UWS Army, with scores of believers detained and abducted. More than 100,000 Myanmar Christians reportedly live in IDP (internally displaced person) camps, deprived of access to food and health care. Radical Buddhist monks, generally tolerated by the government, have invaded church properties and built Buddhist shrines on church premises.
Communities and neighborhoods that aim to stay “Buddhist only” also make life for Christian families difficult or impossible by refusing to allow them access to community water resources.
In reaction to Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling, an official for Christian Solidarity Worldwide issued a call to action.
“This decision is a very dark day for press freedom in the country, and another setback to hopes of democratization,” said Benedict Rogers. “Upholding their conviction despite clear evidence they had been framed … is a serious setback to the rule of law.”
“The international community must protest clearly and loudly and demand the immediate release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,” Rogers said.
Myanmar may seem far-away and inscrutable, its problems beyond our control and its culture beyond our understanding. Yet here’s the thing: Problems we choose to ignore rarely solve themselves. Typically they metastasize, siphoning off considerably more blood, toil, tears and sweat than it would have required to face them earlier.
In that sense, the global community might be well advised to respond to Rogers’s call – not only because it would be good for the two reporters involved and for the cause of human rights in Myanmar, but because it likely would save us far more grief down the line.