A Baptist church in Burma has been closed after its pastor refused to wear an election campaign T-shirt supporting the ruling party.

Pastor Mang Tling was ordered by local police to stop holding worship services at Dawdin Baptist Church and to discontinue its nursery learning program for allegedly trying to influence voters in the recent elections.

Religious leaders are liable to be penalized for engaging in politics, according to Burma’s election laws.

During the election campaign Tling refused to take a T-shirt supporting the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USPD) from the Dawdin village headman, according to the Chinland Guardian.

Following the election result, which saw the USPD return to power amid widespread reports of voter manipulation, the village headman filed a report with the local authorities accusing the pastor of convincing Christian voters in the village to vote in favor of the opposition National Unity Party.

Tling was subsequently summoned by election commission officials and his church closed indefinitely by police. Although he has since been allowed to return home, church activities have not resumed.

The story is the latest to have cast doubt on the fairness of the Nov. 7 elections and highlights the discrimination faced by ethnic minorities, many of whom are Christian.

Organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, have stated the elections were “not credible,” with reports – particularly from ethnic areas – of serious voting irregularities, harassment, violence and arrests.

The Free Burma Rangers organization said that in the ethnic areas where its teams were training and providing humanitarian assistance, the election was viewed “as a farce.”

In addition, Christians are the majority people in Chin state, and along with other Christian majority ethnic tribes such as the Karen, have long faced discrimination and persecution from military rulers.

There is a ray of hope for ethnic minorities following the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The Baptist World Alliance hoped the release would lead to greater freedoms for the people of Burma.

However, any such optimism is tempered with caution.

“Aung San Suu Kyi should never have been imprisoned in the first place,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Her release now is a deeply cynical ploy by the military government to distract the international community from its illegitimate elections.”

This article appeared originally in The Baptist Times of Great Britain.

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