PATHEIN, Irrawaddy Region — A court in Irrawaddy Region’s Kyonpyaw Township on Friday sentenced five leaders of an alleged Christian cult to a year in prison with hard labor for blasphemy.
In June 2016 the Kyonpyaw chapter of the Myanmar Council of Churches (MCC) filed a lawsuit against the five under Section 295 (a) of the Penal Code for preaching sermons that do not conform with the teachings of the Bible. After a trial lasting two-and-a-half years, the township court convicted and sentenced them last week.
“They taught wrong things in the name of Christianity and sowed discord between parents and their children and siblings. Their actions therefore negatively affect the Christianity that preaches love. So I filed a lawsuit on behalf of the MCC,” said Mann Htaung Sein, public relations officer for the council’s Kyonpyaw chapter.
Two of the five defendants, Mann Win Myint and Daw Nilar Tun, were sentenced to three years in prison by the same court in May under Section 363 of the Penal Code for kidnapping.
All five are serving their time in Pathein Prison.
“They not only attacked other Christian sects but also Buddhism. We are not happy that they were only sentenced to one year in prison while there was strong evidence that their actions not only defamed Christianity but also disrupted regional stability,” said Mann Htaung Sein.
“So we’ll submit an appeal to the Pathein District Court, and we will also ask the government to abolish [the group],” he added.
Section 295 (a) is punishable with two years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both.
The five were the most senior leaders of the Christian group, called the Soul Family, led by Mahn Kyaw Soe, an ethnic Karen with Singapore citizenship.
The Soul Family conducted 40-day classes for “would-be” disciples, during which it persuaded students, most of them in their 20s, to shun their parents and relatives, and arranged marriages for them without their parents’ consent, according to followers who have left the group.
There were brawls whenever parents came to retrieve their children from any of the three centers the group had in Kyonepyaw and Kyaunggon townships. In November 2017, parents from Yangon, Bago, Irrawaddy regions and Karen State met Irrawaddy Region authorities in Pathein and asked them to abolish Soul Family.
According to residents of Kyonepyaw, there were clashes between the group’s followers and local villagers whenever members of the Soul Family said prayers in their villages.
According to the accounts of those who have left the group, members were asked to do unpaid work, sometimes in Singapore, on the pretext of making offerings to God, raising accusations of human trafficking and forced labor.
The group has branches in Singapore, Thailand’s Mae Sot District and the townships of Thantaungyi in Karen State, Loikaw in Kayah State, Toungoo and Pauk Kaung in Bago Region, North Dagon and Sanchung in Yangon Region and Kyonpyaw, Kyaunggon, Kangyidaunt, Myaungmya and Pathein in Irrawaddy Region, according to the MCC.
The MCC estimates that Soul Family may have hundreds of followers.
Relatives say the group moves its members from branch to branch, making it difficult for them to find their kin.
“It is now almost four years since my sister joined the Soul group. We have visited her three times and asked her to come back home, but she refused. Now we cannot find out where she is, so we are constantly worried for her safety. I would like to urge the government to abolish the group that preaches extremism and that separates families,” Nant Aye Aye Aung, from Yangon’s Hlaingtharyar Township, told The Irrawaddy.
The MCC and Myanmar Baptist Convention have long distanced themselves from the group.
In May, the Irrawaddy Region government banned the group from gathering for prayers at its Hlel Seik Village branch in Kyonepyaw.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.