The idea behind Baptist World Aid’s “Rescue 24” is to put an emergency team on the ground within 24 hours of any disaster anywhere in the world. When it comes to getting into cyclone-ravaged Myanmar, it might be closer to 24 days.
That’s the observation of a beleaguered team member from Australia at a staging area in Bangkok waiting days for a visa. “It is very frustrating,” firefighter Craig Allan said, quoted in Reuters.
Allan is one of six Baptist World Aid Australia members to drop what they were doing after the May 3 storm that devastated the country’s southern coast to join an International Rescue 24 team, led by Hungarian Baptist Aid, in Thailand, Myanmar’s neighbor to the southeast.
The 11-member team applied for a visa last Thursday. Baptist World Aid Australia said on a Web site members were received warmly at the Burmese and Hungarian embassies, and their visa applications were being processed with high priority. Still, they did not expect to get permission to enter the country until Tuesday at the earliest.
Myanmar’s military leaders have been criticized for allegedly obstructing international aid efforts. Suspicious of any outside influences that might undermine their tight control, the leaders reluctantly accepted relief supplies from the United States, but insisted on delivering them themselves, barring foreign experts with experience in managing humanitarian crises.
Terry Raines, disaster-relief coordinator for the Virginia Baptist Mission Board, planned to join Baptists from Hungary, Australia and North Carolina in Bangkok to help, but he canceled after learning Friday that the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok had closed for a holiday and would not reopen until Monday.
Raines said it did not appear Virginia Baptists would be able to send mission teams to help, but if Myanmar Baptist leaders need assistance in planning, organizing and developing a relief strategy, he will try to help. He also said Virginia Baptists would contribute funds to help local Baptists purchase supplies.
Charities like Baptist World Aid could have an easier time navigating political obstacles than governments. Baptist relief efforts around the world are being coordinated through the Myanmar Baptist Convention, which is recognized by Myanmar’s military government. With more than a million members, it is the largest Baptist group in Asia.
Bony Resu, general secretary of the Asia Baptist Pacific Federation, one of six continental unions of the Baptist World Alliance, pledged help in the form of food, drinking water, mosquito nets, temporary shelter, cooking utensils and basic medicines.
Kabi Gangmei of the APBF said efforts were underway to make telephone and Internet contact with the Myanmar Baptist Convention, but in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, the largest city in Myanmar, telephone lines and electric lines were down.
Founded in 1865, the Myanmar Baptist Convention is the country’s largest Christian organization, working with 16 regional language conventions.
About 6 percent of Myanmar’s 56 million citizens are Christians, and about two thirds of those are Protestants. Nearly half of the Protestant population is Baptist. Myanmar is 87 percent Buddhist.
Baptists minister largely among tribal groups with names like the Karen, the Kachins and the Chins. In all 135 ethnic groups make up just under one third of the population, while the majority Burman make up 68 percent.
The Baptist witness in the country formerly known as Burma began with the arrival of American missionaries Adoniram and Ann Judson in 1813. They labored six years before baptizing their first convert. Adoniram Judson gathered a group of local believers and worked nearly 40 years to establish the country’s Baptist work. His efforts included translating the Bible into Burmese in 1834.
While Baptist work in Burma has American roots, the Baptist World Alliance says growth is due almost exclusively to national Baptists, who have a burning commitment to missions. Overseas missionaries are banned by the military government, which took power in 1962.
The Myanmar Baptist Convention operates the Myanmar Institute of Theology, the leading Christian seminary in the country. Students from 23 ethnic groups receive training there. It serves Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans and other Protestants.
In addition to preaching the gospel, the MBC is involved in meeting human needs through development training to upgrade the poor and efforts to fight AIDS.
Because Myanmar’s Baptists work among minority groups, they often endure hardship imposed by the nation’s military regime. Members of the Karen state are reportedly regularly arrested, interrogated and even tortured. In 2006 the Baptist World Alliance passed a statement of solidarity with Myanmar’s citizens that called on the United Nations to take appropriate action for protection of human rights.
Last fall BWA leaders drew attention to a bloody crackdown of pro-democracy demonstrations in Myanmar fueled by protests led by Buddhist priests, saying government leaders were also sent to “check out” Baptist offices.
On Monday Myanmar’s government listed the official death toll from Cyclone Nargis at 31,938. Nearly 30,000 others are missing. The U.N. has said the death toll could rise to 100,000 or more. An estimated 1.5 million people are in need.
Myamar’s Christians have not escaped the carnage. One report said 7,000 Christians were among the dead, including 10 pastors, and more than 300 church buildings were destroyed.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.