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US Official Calls for Myanmar to Increase Protections for Religious Minorities

FILE - David Saperstein speaks during a debate on religion at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 25, 2013.
FILE - David Saperstein speaks during a debate on religion at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 25, 2013.

The U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom says Myanmar is facing a serious challenge regarding equality of non-Buddhists in the country.

Speaking with VOA in Yangon Sunday, David Saperstein said religious minorities face obstacles and challenges not imposed on the country's Buddhist majority.

"The country made some real progress towards democracy. But in the area of religious freedom, of religious tensions, of minority religions not having equal rights with the overwhelming Buddhist community, there are serious challenges that the country has," he said.

He added that the U.S. is pushing the Myanmar government to more assertively protect Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities.

"There have been sometimes attacks on minority religious communities and the government has not acted forcefully - or as quickly as it could have done - to try to put an end to those. Where the government has intervened in such cases, as they have done recently since the new government took office, it has really made a difference," said Saperstein.

During his time in Yangon, the U.S. diplomat says he met with government officials and representatives of religious groups.

One of those representatives, Muslim interfaith activist Myo Win, said he hopes the ambassador's visit can encourage more religious tolerance in the country.

"We never expect [help] from the outside, but that trip really encouraged the people inside Burma. At the same time, you know, globally we understand for this kind of activity, this kind of movement should be more prominent and overwhelm [intolerance]," he said.

K.D. Tu Lum, a senior pastor from the Kachin Baptist Church, said he is not optimistic.

"If possible, we can spread the good news through the air - TV and radios. But in this country, we could never hope that our Christians and Muslims and other minority groups can spread their own faith to the people," he said.

Saperstein met in the capital Naypyidaw Monday with Foreign Minister Wanna Maung Lwin. The Myanmar government has said in the past that it respects and protects minority religious rights. But officials have not commented on their meetings with Ambassador Saperstein.

Myanmar has been the site of several flare-ups of religious tensions in recent years, most notably violence between Muslims and Buddhists in western Rakhine state that left tens of thousands homeless.

The parliament has also begun debate on two controversial interfaith bills that critics say could escalate conflict between religious groups in the country.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Burmese service.