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Baptist pastor rearrested in Myanmar after mere hours of freedom

Myanmar Baptist Pastor Hkalam Samson, shown with his wife, was rearrested hours after his April 17 release that appeared to be among more than 3,300 amnesties granted during the Myanmar New Year.

KACHIN, Myanmar (BP) – A Baptist pastor and religious freedom advocate in war-torn Myanmar was rearrested by junta leaders April 17 after mere hours of freedom, the Associated Press reported April 18.

Hkalam Samson, former head of the Kachin Baptist Convention in Myanmar and a civic activist, had been released April 17 from a six-year prison sentence alongside 3,300 other prisoners in a mass amnesty customarily granted at Myanmar’s New Year, celebrated April 13-16 this year.

But authorities rearrested him hours later at 10 p.m., whisking him away from his home in Myitkyina reportedly for his own safety, the AP said, referencing a relative who spoke on condition of anonymity. A member of the Baptist convention, who also requested anonymity from the AP, said Samson was taken to Myitkyina Prison with his wife and a fellow civic activist, reportedly to answer questions.

The Independent Myanmar news group The Irrawaddy, based in Thailand, reported the time of Samson’s rearrest as early April 18.

Alongside prisoners given amnesty, ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from prison under house arrest because a heat wave with temperatures surpassing 102 in Myanmar adversely impacted her health. Suu Kyi is serving a 27-year sentence on a variety of criminal convictions which her supporters said were concocted by the junta.

Samson, arrested in December 2022, was sentenced in April 2023 to six years in prison after being convicted of terrorism and inciting opposition to the Tatmadaw junta currently ruling the country. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and other advocates said Samson was arrested in retaliation for his religious work and have advocated for his release.

Samson was briefly in the U.S. spotlight in July 2019 when President Donald Trump invited Samson and about 20 others attending the Ministerial to Advance International Religious Freedom in Washington to the White House. Meeting with Trump, Samson spoke of Myanmar’s persecution of Christians who comprise about 8 percent of Myanmar’s population, and thanked Trump for sanctions that had been imposed on four military generals there.

“As Christians in Myanmar, we are very being oppressed and tortured by the Myanmar military government,” the New York Times quoted Samson as saying to Trump “We don’t have a chance, many, for religious freedom.”

In August 2019, a Tatmadaw military officer filed a complaint against Samson over the comments, International Christian Concern reported, but the exact nature of the complaint was unclear. The World Kachin Council was among those who backed Samson’s comments as accurate.

“There is no freedom of expression for Myanmar citizens wherever you are because you can get in trouble even when you talk about the truth in the White House,” Samson said after the complaint was filed.

Myanmar’s minority Christian population has suffered heightened persecution since the February 2021 military coup in the majority Buddhist southeast Asian country.

Open Doors ranks the country 17th on the 2024 World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians suffer the most persecution, noting a “very high” persecution level characterized first by violence, followed by national persecution in national life. Open Doors numbers Myanmar’s Christians at 4,479,000 among a population of more than 57 million.

“Christians are part of the generally peaceful resistance movement, but fighting has increased across the country, and although not all ethnic minority armed groups are involved, some Christian ones are,” Open Doors wrote in January. “Government forces have continued to disproportionally attack Christian villages and churches and also killed Christian aid workers and pastors, often in aerial attacks.”