The U.S. government is calling for the immediate release of imprisoned Baptist bishop Hkalam Samson, who was arrested in December 2022 by authorities under the military junta two years ago.

Samson is the former head of the Kachin Baptist Convention, an organization located in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state that represents much of the nation’s Christian minority.

Prominent NGO Human Rights Watch called on the military junta, which has controlled the country since the February 2021 coup, to drop the “politically motivated” charges against Samson. The charges included meeting members of an ethnic armed group under Myanmar’s Unlawful Associations Act and an indictment relating to a prayer meeting between Samson and members of Myanmar’s parallel civilian government.  

Rev. Samson is one of the country’s leading religious figures. He is an advisor to the Kachin Baptist Convention after having served for a decade as president and general secretary of the group. The Convention has an estimated 400,000 members, the majority of whom are ethnic Kachin. He is also President of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly.

Rev. Samson is a prominent advocate for human rights, including religious freedom, for people of all faiths. He is also known for his humanitarian work.

“We condemn the Burma military regime’s arrest and detention of prominent ethnic Kachin Christian leader, Reverend Dr. Hkalam Samson,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a recent press briefing.

The conflict between the military, locally known as Tatmadaw, and ethnic minority militias has escalated since the military’s coup in February 2021, as the ethnic militias have been supporting pro-democracy protesters. The junta has killed more than 3,000 people and arrested nearly 20,000 others, as of last Friday, according to The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Regime authorities in Burma detained him on December 4, 2022, before he was to leave for Bangkok for medical care. He faces three charges, including under the country’s Counter Terrorism Law, which includes incitement to violence. His lawyer told Radio Free Asia that the court said Reverend Samson was charged under terrorism laws because he had met officials of Burma’s National Unity Government. If convicted on all charges, he faces more than 10 years in prison.

“We are extremely concerned for his wellbeing and safety and urge our partners and allies to join us in calling on the regime to drop all charges and immediately and unconditionally release Reverend Samson,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said. “Reverend Samson’s incredible work advocating for religious freedom, justice, peace and accountability should be celebrated and replicated, not condemned.”

Samson, who previously served as KBC president and secretary, is president of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly, a group of local religious and political leaders who help foster communication between the Kachin Independence Organization, or KIO, which is the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army, and the local community.

The Southeast Asian country is home to the world’s longest Civil War, which began in 1948.

The conflict zones are along Myanmar’s borders with India, Thailand and China.

Human rights groups and civil society organizations have joined in calls for his release, including Human Rights Watch, who called the charges against Rev. Samson “politically motivated,” and “a heavy-handed attempt to chill all dissent among ethnic minority leaders.”

In its most recent report on international religious freedom, the State Department noted that senior U.S. officials have consistently raised with the Burma military regime “ongoing U.S. concerns about religious freedom, including the plight of the majority Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State, hardships facing Christian minority religious communities in Kachin, northern Shan, and Chin States amid ongoing violence.”

Christians comprise just over 7% of the majority-Buddhist nation but are a majority in Chin State, which borders India, and Kachin State, which borders China. Christians also make up a substantial part of the population of Kayah State, which borders Thailand.

The detained bishop arranged the funerals of more than 60 victims of the junta’s airstrike on a KIO anniversary concert in Hpakant township last October and tried to arrange for the seriously injured to receive emergency medical treatment at the nearest hospitals.

A month after the incident, he participated in a prayer meeting in Myitkyina, organized by the Myanmar Council of Churches, which represents the country’s Christian groups, to commemorate the victims.

State Department Spokesperson Price said, “We urge the regime to cease it unconscionable repression against religious actors and communities in Burma and end the violence.”

Price praised Samson’s “incredible work advocating for religious freedom, justice, peace, and accountability.” He said it “should be celebrated and replicated, not condemned.”

“We additionally urge the regime to cease its unconscionable repression against religious actors and communities in Burma and end the violence.”

Last November, the military junta bombed a Baptist seminary in Shan State, injuring at least four men in the dormitory.

Last June, multiple reports, including by the U.N., revealed that the junta had disproportionately targeted religious minorities, including Christians, and brutally attacked and killed hundreds of children since the military coup.

Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said in a report at the time that “the junta’s relentless attacks on children underscore the generals’ depravity and willingness to inflict immense suffering on innocent victims in its attempt to subjugate the people of Myanmar.”

Focusing on the killing of children, the U.N. rapporteur said during his fact-finding for the report, “I received information about children who were beaten, stabbed, burned with cigarettes, and subjected to mock executions, and who had their fingernails and teeth pulled out during lengthy interrogation sessions.”

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