Last August, a Myanmar Air Force fighter jet dropped two bombs on the village of Ramthlo in Myanmar’s Chin State. One bomb hit the spacious Ramthlo Baptist Church, blowing a gaping hole through its roof and covering the wooden pews with dust and debris. The other bomb damaged nearby houses, injuring seven people.
The bombings were originally reported by Khit Thit Media, one of the few independent news outlets in the country, and the nonprofit Myanmar Witness recently verified the attack using geolocation and digital data collection. The investigation confirmed claims that churches in Myanmar’s majority-Christian Chin State have faced extensive damage amid the current civil war.
This January, Myanmar Witness (a project of the UK-based Centre for Information Resilience) published a report analyzing 10 claims of physical damage to Chin churches between March and August 2023, most of which involved airstrikes. All of the incidents occurred in areas under martial law.
The Myanmar military has destroyed at least 107 religious buildings, including 67 churches, in Chin State since the military coup began nearly three years ago, according to the Chin Human Rights Organization. Elsewhere in the country, the destruction of houses of worship, including Buddhist temples and churches, is also growing. In mid-January, junta soldiers burned down a 129-year-old Catholic church in Sagaing Region.
While the Myanmar Witness report did not comment on whether the military is deliberately targeting churches, Chin Christians and rights activists believe it is. They claim the government sees churches as a symbol of Christian identity, a sanctuary for the resistance, and a haven for the displaced.
“The military pilots feel so free to attack churches … because we have practiced a religion different from theirs,” said a Chin Christian scholar who asked not to be named due to security concerns. “There is a long history of religious persecution against us.”
Ethnic minorities in Myanmar, including the Chin, have long fought with the military junta, desiring increased autonomy for their communities. At the same time, Buddhist nationalism is deeply ingrained in the country; former Burmese prime minister U Nu famously touted the idea that “to be a Burmese is to be a Buddhist” in 1961.
This ideology resulted in the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya people, killing thousands and forcing 700,000 to flee to Bangladesh. Buddhists make up 88 percent of the population, while 6 percent of Myanmar is Christian and 4 percent is Muslim.
Although Myanmar started to open up and become increasingly democratic in 2010, in 2021, the military overthrew the elected government, setting off an ongoing war that pitted the well-funded Myanmar military against the People’s Defense Force (civilian militias) and ethnic armed groups. Yet since late October, the tide seems to be turning as three ethnic armed groups have started to gain control of towns in the country’s north, west, and southeast, stretching the military’s capacity.
The Myanmar Witness report conducted five in-depth case studies (four Baptist and one Presbyterian church) to assess damage to churches in Chin State. Some of the cases included claims of multiple churches in the same town being bombed by airstrikes, damaging windows, roofs, and sanctuaries. Others included claims that government troops ransacked and looted churches following the air attacks.
It concluded that the attacks in all five case studies could be verified, indicating a wider impact on the cultural and religious landscape of Chin State. “The examples analyzed in this report reflect the degradation of Myanmar’s built environment, including sites with special protections under international law during armed conflict,” the report read.
The group also analyzed data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which collects information on violent conflicts around the world, and found 28 reports of damage to churches in Chin State between 2021 and 2023.
It also found that while in 2021–2022 churches were reportedly mostly damaged by arson and artillery attacks, in 2023, airstrikes were allegedly involved in most of the cases: “The Myanmar Air Force (MAF) maintains overwhelming air superiority across Myanmar, supporting the claim that the Myanmar military is responsible for the alleged airstrikes.”
“Airstrikes were pretty rare in Burma until about 2012, and they were mostly focused on the Kachin [ethnic group] … but then after the coup they have gone everywhere in Burma,” said Dave Eubank, director of the Christian humanitarian service movement Free Burma Rangers.
Eubank, who has worked extensively in the largely Christian state of Karenni, noted that their churches have also been targeted. “Just about every church I’ve seen in Karenni State has been either destroyed, burned, or hit by small arms, fire, airstrikes, and mortars,” he said. “Over 100 churches up here [have] been destroyed since the coup, it’s systematic destruction.”
He noted that before the coup, attacks on churches were “episodic” and depended on the military commander. Now, the churches are “deliberately attacked, bombed, and destroyed.”
Another factor as to why the military targets churches is that houses of worship are seen as providing shelter or assistance to resistance groups, Salai Mang Hre Lian of the Chin Human Rights Organization told the Associated Press.
“[The attacks] send a powerful signal to all civilians that even in places protected by international humanitarian laws, if they support non-junta groups, they will be targets,” he said.
David Moe, a lecturer of Southeast Asian studies at Yale University, said the fighting in Chin State is so intense because after the coup, the Chin were one of the first groups to resist the junta.
Church buildings have become a target because they “symbolize Christian identity,” which bristles against Buddhist nationalism, said Moe, who grew up in Chin State. Also, “the church has become a place to house refugees or internally displaced people,” Moe said. “The military is trying to stop people [from] joining the resistance and is trying to cause them to fear ordinary church people.” He said the military fears refugees would be more open to Christianity, which they consider to be Western.
Chin Christians are now among the millions displaced by the war, said the Chin scholar. Many live in camps on the border of Chin State as well as in Mizoram in northeast India.
“The military can destroy the church as the building, but the military cannot destroy the body of Christ,” Moe said. “Christians gather together at private houses like the early church did—quietly trying their best to worship. They might use Zoom or gather in the jungle.”
Eubank sees a similar story playing out in Karenni State. While the deliberate targeting of churches aims to deter people from participating in the resistance by causing fear, chaos, and confusion, there is hope and life among the persecuted and displaced believers.
“Christians don’t give up,” Eubank said. “We just had a church service [in a Karenni refugee camp] yesterday. … The first thing they do is build a church, which is also the school during the week, and they’re praying all the time. There’s going to be a wedding today among our team leaders here in a displaced community. They don’t give up praising Jesus.”