Nyapyidaw (AsiaNews) – For days, members of the Myanmar Baptist Convention (MBC), an association of Baptist Churches in Myanmar, have been protesting the construction of a Buddhist stupa* next to their church in the village of Mi Zine, Karen state.
Since the construction of the Buddhist shrine began on 21 August, regular religious services at the Baptist house of worship have been disrupted.
A few days ago, MBC leaders met with Kyee Ngu Myaing Sayadaw, a prominent Buddhist leader who is in charge of the stupa project, to ask him to stop the construction because it is causing tensions.
"Sayadaw told us that pagodas and stupas stood in the area at the time of King Ashoka*, and that it was his duty to build a stupa because of events in his previous life,” said MBC member Mann San Thein Tun.
The Baptist church was built in 1919. Michael, the parish vicar since 1980, said that the members of the congregation have been so upset that they are no longer coming to the church.
Members of the congregation “cannot pray in the church since construction of the stupa began,” the pastor said. “So they have started to come to my home because the Buddhists recite their prayers out loud and use loudspeakers next to the church. When we asked them if they could turn down the volume for an hour during our prayers, they said no."
On 7 September, Christian leaders turned to Religious Affairs Minister Soe Win, who promised “to speak with Kyee Ngu Myaing Sayadaw and settle the matter at the appropriate time so as satisfy the Christian side,” said Mann San Thein Tun.
In Mi Zine, home to some 150 families, people fear the situation might degenerate into religious tensions and violence.
"There are many other free places where they [the Buddhists] can promote their religion,” said a local, who asked that his name not be used. “Why don’t they choose one of those places? Why did they did not inform the church that they were planning to build a stupa? That is a strange thing."
Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist. Since 2012, it has been the scene of sectarian clashes that have left at least 300 dead and 140,000 displaced, mostly Muslim Rohingya.
However, even Christians have sometimes suffered at the hands of the Buddhist majority. Most Christians in fact belong to ethnic minorities, who are often marginalised by majority ethnic Buddhist Burmese.
* A stupa, from the Sanskrit stūpaḥ, tuft of hair, crown of the head, summit, is a dome-shaped monument used as a Buddhist reliquary or commemorative shrine.
** Ashoka Maurya, also known as Ashoka and Ashoka the Great, was an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled most of the Indian subcontinent from circa 269 BC to 232 BC.