New restrictions placed upon Christian house churches in the Burmese capital of Yangon in January soon spread to established churches, threatening to close 80 percent of the city's congregations.
Government orders issued January 5 forced many Christians meeting in homes or apartments—a growing practice since authorities stopped issuing construction permits for new churches in the late 1990s—to cease gathering for worship. Weeks later, officials ordered several major Yangon churches, including Wather Hope Church, Emmanuel Church, and the Assemblies of God Church, to stop holding services.
Pastors from more than 100 Yangon churches were summoned to a meeting and told to sign documents pledging to cease operation of their churches, according to Mizzima, a Burmese news agency. The documents threatened punishment, including potential jail terms and the sealing of church facilities, for pastors who refused to obey the closure orders.
Some observers suggested the crackdown was related to Christian involvement in relief efforts for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Myanmar in May 2008. The country's isolationist military government initially banned foreign aid, but Christians delivering relief supplies to the Irrawaddy Delta region raised fears that Buddhists who accepted aid from Christians might convert.
The church closure orders may simply be an extension of Myanmar's existing religious policies, which elevate Buddhism—practiced by 82 percent of the population—in an effort to solidify national identity.
Reports from various mission groups suggest Christianity is flourishing under the regime, but believers must be creative in finding places to worship, particularly in rural areas.