By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
RANGOON, BURMA (BosNewsLife) -- Burma anticipated a nationwide boycott of upcoming Buddhist religious exams Thursday, March 20, amid reports that thousands of Buddhist monks have turned to Christianity.
Some "4,700 Buddhist monks accepted Christ as their [Lord and] Savior," ahead of Easter said Christian Aid Mission (CAM), a major mission group representing native missionaries in Burma, also known as Myanmar. CAM told BosNewsLife that many monks have turned away from Buddhism, "after more than a decade of political cruelty toward certain Burmese ethnic minorities," by the military government of this predominantly Buddhist nation.
CAM said about 3000 villages in eastern Burma have been destroyed and villagers, including Christians, were either killed or driven into remote mountainous areas. "Some were able to escape to neighboring countries, although they were not particularly welcomed there."
Frustrated Buddhist monks played a key role in anti government protests since August, when authorities doubled the price of fuel and food, already priced at what missionaries described as "exorbitant rates."
At least 31 people were killed when the country's military rulers broke up the demonstrations, although some dissidents and advocacy groups have said the death toll may be as high 200. "It was in the midst of this darkness that Buddhist monks and nuns began inviting Christian missionaries to come and share the Gospel in the privacy of their monasteries," CAM added. Despite "the dangers involved," missionaries went to several monasteries, and visited each one several times, the group explained.
"In recent weeks, 4,700 Buddhist monks were led to Christ through our ministry," a missionary said in a statement speaking on condition of anonymity. "It appears that the Holy Spirit had urged these monks and nuns to call our evangelists to come and share the Gospel of hope and love. After several intense discussions, close to 80 percent of the monks present in each of the monasteries raised their hands to accept Christ, and then kneeled down to pray and receive Christ as their Lord and Savior."
CAM said local missionaries have been quoting from the Bible's New Testament verse Galatians 6:9: "And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not."
There have been baptisms, done discreetly with no more than three monks at a time, "for the sake of the safety of the converts as well as our workers," CAM told BosNewsLife. The military government views Christianity as a threat to its powerbase, fuelling more attacks against villagers, several rights groups and locals told BosNewsLife.
News of the apparent massive conversions came as another group of Buddhist monks in Burma called for a nationwide boycott of upcoming religious exams to protest last year's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
The All Burma Monks Alliance, which helped organize last year's protests, said Wednesday, March 19, that religion could not prosper under a military regime that "kills and arrests monks and desecrates religious buildings."
Thousands of monks and nuns across the country take the examinations each year, usually in April and doing well is considered a great honor. A successful boycott would likely be seen as a powerful symbol of resistance to the ruling junta, observers said.
The monks have historically been at the forefront of protests, first against British colonialism and later against military dictatorship, in a country where nearly 90 percent of 47 million people are Buddhists. "There is a monastery in most villages. Children are often educated in monasteries, so even if they do not actually become monks themselves, they have been thoroughly indoctrinated with Buddhist beliefs and practices," CAM added.
Burma has been under military rule since 1962. The military government, known as the State Peace and Development Council, held a general election in 1990 but failed to hand over power to the victors, the National League for Democracy party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently under house arrest.
In a surprise announcement, the junta said last month it will hold a referendum on a draft constitution in May and a general election in 2010, the first specific dates it has set for what it calls a "roadmap to democracy." Dissidents, diplomats and human rights groups have dismissed the roadmap as a sham designed to consolidate military rule. (With BosNewsLife Research and reporting from Burma).
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