Church in Burma challenges visiting Canadians

Published February 1, 2006

Tun Tun Naing, from the Church of Myanmar, meets with Ian Gibbs, British Columbia’s youth ministries co-ordinator, and Karen Hogg, chair of British Columbia’s companion diocese committee, in Yangon.

The church in Burma thrives, despite operating under difficult circumstances in a largely Buddhist nation that is under military rule, reported Bishop James Cowan who visited Burma recently with a delegation from the diocese of British Columbia.

The Canadians met with the Church of Myanmar, or Burma, as it is also known, which has had a companion relationship for nine years with the Victoria-based Canadian diocese, said Bishop Cowan in an interview. “They were having an Anglican Gathering outside the city of Toungoo, in the diocese of Toungoo. It was the first time they got permission to hold such a gathering since the change of government in the mid-1960s,” he noted.

Burma has been a military dictatorship since 1962. The most recent elections were held in 1990, but despite a popular victory by the National League for Democracy party, military rulers refused to hand over power. The league’s leader, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, is currently under house arrest.

The Anglican Gathering was held in conjunction with the church’s General Council meeting and included partners from Malaysia, the British diocese of Winchester, St. Stephen’s church in London and the Episcopal Church in the United States, Bishop Cowan said. The Canadian group also included Ian Gibbs, diocesan youth ministries co-ordinator, and Karen Hogg, chair of the companion diocese committee.

Although the Canadians visited for three weeks, from Nov. 10 to 30, “we did not do anything we were formally invited to do,” said Bishop Cowan. The church was not allowed by the government to have international partners attend its council meeting, he said. “We were taken to a hotel – you do not stay in people’s homes. There were about 15 of us. We had their agenda and we decided to follow it in parallel. So when they were scheduled to have morning worship or Bible study, we did it when they did. We were also taken to the bishop’s house and people from the gathering would come and meet with us,” he said.

The conversations were intense, he commented. “We talked about the church in Myanmar and met with representatives from every diocese,” said Bishop Cowan, adding the group also met with the Mother’s Union and all six diocesan bishops. “There was a very exciting sense of church. In the ’60s, all foreign church folk were expelled, so the church in Myanmar had to look at self-sufficiency, determination and propagation. They are in some ways in a healthier situation than in this country because they’ve had to do things on their own,” Bishop Cowan said. The Burmese population is roughly 89 per cent Buddhist, four per cent Christian and four per cent Muslim.

The Burmese church asked their foreign visitors for support “primarily by prayer and the knowledge we are walking together. Visits are important. The companion diocese relationship is important,” Bishop Cowan said. Last year, several youth leaders from Myanmar visited the diocese of British Columbia and one of the Burmese bishops told Bishop Cowan that the young people returned with “a changed sense of who they were, a new confidence.”

The Burmese government was not the only one putting roadblocks in the way of church gatherings. The Canadian government initially refused to grant visas to the Burmese youth, suspecting that they would “jump ship” when they got here and stay in Canada illegally, said Bishop Cowan. Canadian church leaders were able to get the decision reversed.

He has invited Assistant Bishop Philip Aung Khin Thein of the diocese of Mandalay to British Columbia in April or May and to the meeting of the Canadian house of bishops in late April – “if he can get permission.”


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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