Karen people

Photo: A young Karen girl

Photo: A young Karen girl

Introduction

The story of the Karen people group in Burma and Thailand is long and intricate. What we call the “Karen” in the west is really a collection of 20 + sub-ethnic groups, the largest being the Sgaw and the Pwo.[1] When the British arrived nearly 300 years ago in what would come to be called Burma, they began to intentionally group smaller sub-groups into more cohesive people groups, and it was then that the “Karen” identity began to form.  What is fascinating about the growing ethnic Karen identity is Christianity was introduced during the formation of this growing ethnic cohesion, so in some segments of Karen society, Christianity is genuinely seen as part of a Karen tradition.[2] In fact, it can be said that Christianity – along with Buddhism in other Karen segments - provided the cohesion and knowledge to unite the various scattered Karen groups.[3]

The Karen accept Christianity

The Karen – like many similar tribal groups in SE Asia - have an oral tradition that says they were given a Golden book of wisdom that taught about the One true, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God. But the Karen lost their book either in a field or it was eaten by ants.[4,5] The oral tradition says their white brothers across the sea retained the Golden book from God, however, and would one day bring the Golden book of wisdom back to the Karen.  Additionally, the Karen also believed they were being menaced by an evil spirit and were waiting for the One True God to come back and save the Karen and humanity from sin.[5]

Buddhism was introduced to the Karen 1500 years before Christianity and was mixed with traditional animist beliefs to form a type of hybrid Buddhism by the time the British arrive in Burma.  Buddhism was seen by some Karen as the fulfillment of the oral tradition of the return of the Golden book of wisdom and salvation, yet other Karen readily accepted Christianity and Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the promises of their oral tradition when western missionaries brought the gospel to the Karen in the 1830’s.  For the first Karen who accepted Christianity, the crucial turning point for them were the core components of Christianity; the Bible being seen as the Word of God; the Holy Spirit coming in power to break sin and the bondage of their animist traditions; and Christianity being the religion and source of knowledge of God that they had lost and then retrieved.[6] 

A fight for Identity

Karen state, Myanmar (Burma). Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

Karen state, Myanmar (Burma). Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

Burma, like its surrounding neighbors - is a country made up of many ethnic minorities.  By one count over a third of the population in Burma belongs to ethnic minorities and within these ethnic minorities, at least 100 different languages are spoken.[7] For nearly 125 years, control of Burma was either fought over by the British (1824 – 1885) or governed by the British as a British colony (1886 – 1942).  During that time a number of ethnic minorities became allies of and supported the British, and thus began to be seen as “loyalists” with the British, to the scorn of the majority people group, the Burmans.[8] The Karen were one of these groups who allied themselves with the British system for nearly a century and fought with the British against the invading Japanese during WWII.  Like many minority people groups in SE Asia – the Hmong and the Khmu for example in Vietnam and Laos – when the ethnic majority sought independence from their colonial masters following WWII, those minority people groups who were previously allied with the Western powers, were the ones who fell into disfavor by the new ruling parties once independence was achieved.  The Karen were one of the many minority people groups who fell into disfavor following Burma’s independence in 1948.

As the new independent Burma was taking shape during the late 40’s onward, the Karen began fighting first for recognition as an indigenous people group, then as an independent Karen nation, and finally as an autonomous Federal region within Burma. While this fight at first occurred around the political table, it shortly turned into a military insurgency against the authoritarian military regime ruling the country.  This insurgency has been waged for the better part of the last 60 years and continues to this day with atrocities occurring on both sides.  

Current situation

What the insurgency has meant over many decades is 1. a large displaced Karen refugee population living within Burma and on the border of Burma and Thailand, 2. Those Karen who are genuine Christians are doubly persecuted for being both Karen (a minority people group who were once allied with the British and are now fighting an insurgency) and Christian (In Burma, religious violations and abuses occur against Christians on a regular basis [9]).  Many Karen are simply caught in the middle of the decades long, brutal power struggle; these are the ones who suffer most.  There are many, many Karen who are true followers of Jesus Christ who live in this doubly difficult plight.  Because of the Karen's situation as a persecuted people group, in a war torn region with many refuges, with a government who is hostile to the Christian faith, the Karen have no access to God’s Word – the very Word that they believe to be the Golden book promised to their people for thousands of years! Biblia Global exists to serve brothers and sisters like these and to come alongside those Christians who are asking for God’s Word but don’t have a way to get it![10] Bibles can be purchased and delivered for $35 - Will you pray about giving to our Bibles for Asia project so Karen Christians and other persecuted Christians like the Karen may have their own copy of God's Word?


Pictures and testimonies from the 2017 delivery

Biblia Global donors funded 1000 Bibles for the Pwo Karen which were delivered in the spring of 2017 (see below).  Thank you to all who give to our Bibles for Asia project who made this possible!


Miss Su Ton, Pwo Karen student, Burma

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My name is Su Ton.  I am a student.  Both of my parents are farmers.  I am their oldest child.  My parents raised me to believe in Christ and I learned so much about him in my Sunday school class and I really love God.  I’m not a nominal Christian.  When I was young I accepted Jesus.

After I accepted Jesus Christ I really wanted to read the Bible, but there weren’t any Bibles available to me.  So often I prayed to God, because I worried that I would be distant from my Lord. With a life of prayer I experienced God’s answers and protection.  Once I was drowning in a river and God saved me.  When I have problems He brings me through them all.

Thank you so much for giving me my first Bible.  I can’t wait to start reading it. My favorite Bible verse that I learned in Sunday school is Psalms 121:8:  “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forever more.”


Mr. SA, Assistant Pastor at a Pwo Karen Church, Burma

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My name is Mr. SA.  I am an assistant pastor in our church. I was raised in a Christian family in the Irrawaddy Delta region of Myanmar.  I am the oldest of six children in my family.  My parents were farmers.  In 2008 the Nargis Cyclone killed both of my parents and 4 of my siblings.  Only my sister and I survived.  This was devastating to us.  We both suffered physical injury and deep emotional pain.

When I was a child I never practiced any religion and I lived my own way.  I loved to go fishing and to drink alcohol.  My parents always told me that God is my refuge and I should seek to rest under his care.  But I didn’t care about what they were saying. But then on May 2, 2008, Cylone Nargis hit our area and many people died without help.  I wondered why I was still alive.  Maybe I survived because I would not have gone to heaven if I had died then.  I decided to start seeking God.  I found a church and started attending.  They gave me a Burmese language Bible and I started to read it.  I didn’t understand everything in the Burmese language, but I did learn that God loved me very much.  I realized God let me live to give me one more chance to live for His glory.  I confessed my sin and turned back to God.  It was amazing to me that I had to come back to God though I had never denied God.  Though I had neglected God and perhaps by my actions I had denied Him.

My favorite scripture verse is 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.  God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” I am so grateful to receive a free copy of the Bible and Hymnal in my own Pwo Karen language.  God bless you all. Amen


Miss Htoo, Pwo Karen Church planter and evangelist, KLT church, burma

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My name is Htoo and I am an evangelist from our church.  I came to know Christ through the teaching of my Christian parents.  They shared so much about God’s love, so I put my faith in Jesus as my savior and my Lord and I trust in Him that He will take care of me in every situation. 

I wanted to read the Bible and pray most of the time, but life was so busy that I didn’t have time to do much of either.  When I had a job, I could take a few minutes at break time to read from my New Testament.  I also prayed that God would give me more time to read the Bible.  And He answered by giving me an invitation to attend Bible school.  I was so happy and all day I could read the scriptures.  I grew in knowledge and faith, and after graduation I returned to my village as an evangelist. 

One day one of my uncles encouraged me to serve God by serving the neediest people in Padautgone Village.  “They don’t have a church or even a Sunday school class,” he told me.  So I prayed to the Lord about moving to Padautgone Village.  I felt the Lord release me to move there and serve Him by sharing the good news, so I did.

When I arrived there, I found that most of the people were atheists and drunks and they had never paid any attention to God or shown Him any respect.  I prayed to God to convert the sinners and to start a church in that village.  But to be honest, it was so hard for me as a lady to try to do this.  But God is greater than my weaknesses and He is greater than the problems that I had to face.  And God is so amazing.  After one year three people accepted Christ and were baptized.  Now almost thirty people have accepted Christ and are baptized and we have our church.  And now, thanks to you, we have scriptures to give to all the new believers.  I am nothing, but God is everything and the Lord has done great things for us. My favorite scripture is the whole chapter of Psalm 91.


Miss Sa Naw, Pastor Pwo Karen church, burma

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My name is Sa Naw. In 2000 I graduated Bible school and was recognized as a minister. In 2011 I was appointed a pastor of a small church. But it was difficult to lead the church without a copy of the Bible. I was concerned about the wellbeing of the church members, but I didn’t know how to lead them properly. Because of this I suffered inside, both spiritually and emotionally. Sometimes I became depressed and sometimes I considered resigning my position.

But then I received a Pwo Karen Bible with hymnal and it strengthened me and it taught me how to lead my church members. I gained knowledge learned of God’s promises for us. So in all situations now I trust the Holy Spirit to show me the way through all problems. Now I am overcoming all the problems by reading the Bible and praying to God. Receiving the Bible and reading it every day has made me feel spiritually more mature and bless by God.

I really appreciate all the donors who gave us the Pwo Karen Bible with Hymnal. God bless you all.


Notes:

[1] Jessica Harriden, “Karen Identity and the Politicization of Ethnicity,” Journal of Burma Studies, no. 7 (2002): 85.

[2] Gravers, Mikael, “Conversion and Identity: Religion and the Formation of Karen Ethnic Identity in Burma”, in Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma, Ed. Mikael Gravers (NIAS Press, Malaysia, 2007), 232

[3] Ibid.

[4] Paul Keenan, “Faith at a Crossroads: Religions and Beliefs of the Karen People of Burma,” Karen Heritage, Vol. 1, Issue 1: 3.

[5] Ibid, 233 – 234.

[6] Ibid, 234 – 235.

[7] Gravers, Mikael, “Preface”, in Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma, Ed. Mikael Gravers (NIAS Press, Malaysia, 2007), vii.

[8] Jessica Harriden, “Karen Identity and the Politicization of Ethnicity,”: 99.

[9] Rachel Fleming, “Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma,” U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (December 2016), accessed June 6, 2017, https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Hidden%20Plight.%20Christian%20Minorities%20in%20Burma.pdf