Friday, 1 August 2008

'You could still see bodies floating about'

(Fileymercury) -Rev Jeff Hattan, who has previously been to Ghana, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, was originally due to visit Burma last November, but the trip was postponed following the monks' demonstrations.

Rev Hattan said: “After the cyclone, in one sense I wanted to go even more and stand with those people who had a hard enough life as it was. Life for everyone is hard, but for Christians it’s even more so.”

According to Christian organisations such as the charity Release International, which arranged the trip, the Burmese government ignored “whole groups of people” in the wake of the disaster – not least the mainly Christian communities, which have traditionally suffered.

Rev Hattan said: “There are people who have still had no help in re-building, food or clean water, and we were speaking to another Christian organisation that had been to another part of the Irrawaddy Delta where you could still see bodies floating about.

“We’re not a relief organisation, but we were giving rice to villagers, supplying building materials and everything needed to completely re-build a school for 140 children. We made up 1,364 children’s backpacks with uniforms and pencils and reading books, and we were supporting church leaders whose churches had spent just about all their money on helping others.

“There’s also a huge need for counselling, and we paid for 15 young Christians to attend counselling courses so they could work with people on a basic level. Sometimes it’s just about being there and talking to people – saying ‘you’re not alone’. You can’t comprehend what a boost it is for people to know you’ve come all that way.”

Rev Hattan said the persecution of the Christian population was more psychological than physical, but he had spoken to church leaders who had been imprisoned “on a whim”.

He added: “Burma hasn’t got a good record for human rights at the best of times, but the Government says to be Burmese is to be Buddhist. They say Christians have the ‘C-virus’ and put out that it must be eradicated by all and any means.

“There are ethnic groups that are 60 to 70 per cent Christian and they’re often the ones at the forefont of the pro-democracy movement, so to be part of those groups is to be automatically targeted.

“We spoke to church leaders who said they had regular visits by the authorities, sometimes two or three times a night, checking up on what they’re doing and who they’re with. Churches are routinely closed down and Christians are made to do jobs that are disgusting and live under the constant pressure of being harrassed or threatened.

“It also happens to Buddhist Burmese – it’s a country of intolerable suffering – but if you’re Christian it’s much worse.”

Rev Hattan said unlike other western visitors, his group was given a suprising amount of freedom to travel, partly because they were working with Burmese people who “knew what they were doing”.

He said: “We never felt we were in danger, but you were aware that people were encouraged to pass on to the Government anything that was unusual.

You’ve no idea if people are on the payroll of the Government – it’s like the old Soviet Union.”

l Release International, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, was originally formed to support Christians living in the old Communist world, but now operates in countries like Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and India where Christians may be persecuted by the Government, other religious groups or even drug barons – as in Colombia.

Rev Hattan has been involved with the charity for about 12 years and sometimes travels with his wife, Angie.

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