- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 1999

"Only Luke is with me. At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them." 2 Timothy 4: 11,16

To the visitor, it seems a cruel and godforsaken place: a refugee camp at the epicenter of pestilence, poverty and fighting on the border of Thailand and the country once known as Burma, now Myanmar. The people, tens of thousands of them, live in an endless subdivision of huts on stilts, their dwellings stitched together with bamboo walls and leaf roofs, all crammed into a narrow space between towering hills and a stream at the bottom that periodically floods and washes even this bare existence away.

There is no sign of plumbing at the camp and only the crudest drinking water supply system. There is no work, no way to make a living, no way to help themselves. Nor is there any protection from marauding Burmese soldiers who freely cross into Thailand to burn and loot and kill and terrorize camp residents who fled Burma precisely to escape such tyranny. If civilization ever made it as far as the camps, it quickly hopped the first plane back to the commerce pots of Bangkok.

And yet, and yet. The people there are incomprehensibly rich in faith, not the political kind but religious. No Grinch has ever heard such song from children gathered on a concrete slab under a corrugated metal roof to praise God. This is one of miracles that James Jacobson, a former Reagan administration official and now the president of a nonprofit missionary group, has brought his journalistic visitors half way round the world to see. Other miracles await inside Burma, where Mr. Jacobson and others will dodge land mines and armed troops to carry medicine and Bibles to refugees trapped there.

He wants the world, and particularly Christians, to know their plight. On the web page of his Front Royal, Va.-based organization, Christian Freedom International, he displays prominently the quote above, saying, "The apostle Paul wrote these words from a Roman prison around 65 A.D. They could have been written today by any of thousands of our persecuted brothers and sisters in Burma.

Members of the Karen tribe, who now populate the camp, weren't always so persecuted. A proud people, they once fought freely and ably alongside allied troops against Japanese forces retreating through Burma during World War II. When Burma gained its independence from Great Britain shortly after the war ended, the Karen and other tribes thought they would gain states and self-rule of their own. The Burmese government decided otherwise. In 1962, a military junta boasting a new, improved Burmese Way to Socialism seized power, setting the country on a course that has helped make Burma the economic and human-rights basket case it remains to this day.

Out of one of the many totalitarian permutations the country suffered came a particularly grim organization known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC. No one, not even adherents of the Buddhist faith that government claimed to promote, has escaped the violence. But the group, since carefully airbrushed and renamed the State Peace and Development Council (imagine the horror of the PR consultant who discovered he was having to defend an organization with a villainous acronym like SLORC), has made it a special point to repress, abuse and even kill the predominantly Christian Karen.

Newcomers to the refugee camps gave journalists first-hand accounts of what they had endured at the hands of the Burmese forces. A 50-year-old man from a village north of Rangoon said he was taxed to help build a Buddhist pagoda despite the fact that he was Christian. A rice farmer, he didn't have enough money to pay the tax and was forced to provide labor for the project himself. On another occasion, troops forcibly relocated his entire village, burning his house and slaughtering his livestock. When the chief of his village warned him that government soldiers were seeking to kill him, he was forced to flee the country with his wife and children.

According to other accounts, Burmese troops routinely force the Karen to participate in Buddhist ceremonies, take their sons and impress them into training as Buddhist monks, interrupt Christian ceremonies and destroy Christian churches. For such acts, the U.S. State Department has labeled Burma as one of the worst offenders of religious liberty in the world. That raises the prospect of U.S. sanctions against Burma, which might someday encourage Burma to rejoin civilization against its better judgment, but are certainly no help to the children singing hymns in a refugee camp now.

They must take what joy and strength they can from a faith born about this time 2,000 years ago. And from the Jim Jacobsons and Christian Freedom Internationals who believe that no place in the world is truly godforsaken and are willing to take enormous risks to prove it by delivering the Good News to places that haven't had any in a long time.

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