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Seeds of hope

"Seeds of hope" Continued...

Issue: "The brain trust," June 30, 2012

But with the changes, persecution remains. "It is still very difficult to get a building permit for a church. Christians in the army are passed over for promotion. And the government actively promotes Buddhism," said the pastor. The government has financed a new Buddhist monastery in Chin state and paid monks to go there. "But things are definitely better than before, and we are hopeful they will continue to improve," said the pastor.

From my perspective as a foreigner, one big change is no longer having to secure a visa in advance from the Myanmar consulate: I worked through an online travel agency to obtain a visa on arrival. Access to money remains a problem, as there are no ATMs to withdraw funds from foreign banks. And to fund projects or support orphanages in Myanmar, we cannot wire funds from abroad to a local bank account but must work through a private agent who manages to get the money to our contacts inside the country.

On this visit I ventured outside Yangon for the first time, taking a domestic flight about 620 miles northwest to Kalaymyo to teach at a pastors' conference. While the international terminal of Mingaladon Airport in Yangon is clean, spacious, comfortable, and efficient, the domestic terminal is anything but. With no computers in sight, all check-ins are done by hand.

And despite the positive changes, certain areas of the country remain off-limits to foreigners or require special ­permits to visit, particularly states such as Chin and Kachin where tribal groups are engaged in armed conflicts with the government-and where persecution of Christians continues.

At the pastors' conference in Kalaymyo, the hotel offered free wi-fi access, and authorities have eased internet restrictions-like access to Google. About 200 pastors and local believers attended the conference. Some had walked for two days, then took bus rides of 12 to 15 hours in order to get there. Most were from the neighboring Chin State, where the population is 95 percent Christian.

Many of the pastors operate homes for abandoned children, a severe problem in Myanmar. Most children in the homes have similar stories: after one parent died, the other remarried but the new spouse did not accept the child. Usually the ­parents are from different tribes, so that other family members are unwilling to take in the children. Some children are orphans, others come from homes where one or both parents were incapacitated by drug use.

Expressive worship and intense prayer characterized the Kalaymyo conference. Years of struggling with poverty and injustice under a corrupt and oppressive regime have not robbed the pastors of their faith in God or their joy in serving Him. Many of the pastors take courage and hope from former dissidents like Aung San Suu Kyi, and many of the pastors at the conference were equally hopeful about the future, seeing recent changes as the beginning of God's answer to years of prayer for freedom, justice, and prosperity for Myanmar.

-Russell Board is a writer in Saitama City, Japan

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