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A song in the shadows

Daniel had only heard the rumors, but as he entered his hotel in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, a young man invited him to witness the event himself.

“Want to come play music with us?” the security guard asked.

“Right now?” Daniel said.

“Yeah,” the guard replied.

Daniel exited his hotel, following the twenty-something young man. Street traffic lessened as darkness fell and shops closed. Tall street lights illuminated a gathering of other young men around cracked plastic chairs. From somewhere, a guitar appeared. From somewhere else emerged an index card-sized booklet, clearly worn, with guitar chords and Burmese song lyrics. The men strummed loudly, and they sang even more loudly.

A young man in a nicely pressed striped shirt led the singing the following night as a similar scene replayed. Daniel was surprised to recognize the melody of a worship song. As he later found, the well-dressed man led the worship and youth group for the Kachin church on the top floor of his hotel. Daniel smiled, humming along with who he now knew were his fellow brothers-in-Christ and marveling at the freedom to do so.

Daniel’s astonishment at the believers’ boldness came from an understanding of Myanmar’s strong affinity for Buddhism, practiced by 89 percent of the population. The Bamar people (often simply referred to as Burmese) comprise two-thirds of Myanmar’s population and predominantly adhere to Buddhism. Yangon’s city streets speak to Buddhism’s influence. Sellers of dried bird seed bushels encourage buyers to feed the birds as a way to make merit. At a stand by the lake, merit-seekers can buy a loaf of bread with which to feed the fish. Another means to favor: buying a caged bird and setting the animal free.

As for the presence of Christianity in Myanmar, less than one percent of the ethnic Bamar majority confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Of the seven largest minorities in Myanmar, which include the Shan, Karen, Arakanese, Chin, Kachin and Mon, only a few groups have significant numbers of Christians: the Chin, the Kachin and the Karen.

Though Christians and Buddhists technically enjoy equal religious freedoms under law, Christians have hesitated to fully embrace their freedoms amid scattered accounts of church vandalisms, Bible burnings and forced conversions to Buddhism.This opposition reveals the continued opposition from the Buddhist majority, which has cultivated a mindset that to be Burmese is to be Buddhist. Myanmar is now ruled as a presidential republic but the military still has an enormous influence.

Though resistance to the gospel’s spread in Myanmar can be attributed in part to opposition from Burmese authorities, ethnic prejudices among Christians also play a part.

Christians from minority groups like the Kachin hesitate to share Christ with the ethnic Burmese because of residual hurt from decades of Burmese oppression. In spite of Christ’s example of reaching across borders of prejudice to invite others into the kingdom, some believers from ethnic minorities do not want to tear down their self-imposed barriers to evangelism.

Signs of hope are emerging, however, in people like the Kachin worship leader that Daniel met in Yangon. In an effort to reach out to the Bamar people, his Kachin church holds a service in Burmese, the language of the majority. Also, the Myanmar Council of Churches openly expresses a desire to unite Christians in the country and to reach out to those of other faiths.

Christianity has a visible presence as well, at least in Yangon. Church buildings erected during British colonial rule are seen throughout the city. Many are even alive with congregations that meet for services weekly.

Pray for Myanmar’s leadership, that they would desire and defend true religious freedom in the country and one day confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Pray also that Christian minority groups would be compelled by Christ’s love to share the gospel with all people.

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