YANGON, Burma, Jan. 5, 2018 (Morning Star News) Government military operations in northern Burma (Myanmar) escalated in December, culminating in civilian casualties on Christmas Eve that left Christians feeling attacked in part for their faith.

Offensives against rebel groups in Kachin state, where predominantly Christian, ethnic Kachin live, displaced dozens of villagers and seriously injured two civilians on Christmas Eve, local sources said.

Burma army artillery fire on Dec. 24 struck a village near Laiza, headquarters of the rebel Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), seriously injuring a schoolteacher and a student, according to the local sources.

Sin Gau, assistant pastor with the Kachin Baptist Convention in northern Kachin state, said fighting should have halted on Christmas Eve, when many celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

“They launched attacks when Christmas approached – it happens almost every year,” Sin Gau told Morning Star News. “So, we even felt as if they deliberately did it.”

Area Christians felt the fighting disrespected their religious rights, he said.

“As we are Christian, Christmas Eve is the most important thing for us, but we couldn’t fully enjoy Christmas as fighting continued,” Sin Gua said.

The Burma army and KIO’s military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), have been fighting since 2011 following the breakdown of a bilateral ceasefire.

Clashes also broke out on Dec. 22 and 23 between KIA and the Burma army in Mansi Township, northern Kachin state, forcing more than 100 villagers to flee their homes. They are now staying in Man Wing Gyi village tract, according to local humanitarian organizations.

Thang Zua, a Kachin refugee in Tanai township, northern Kachin state, said he was saddened as the fighting continued into Christmas Eve.

“We as Christians should have had celebrated Christmas without fear, but we couldn’t fully enjoy Christmas,” Thang Zua said.

The Burma army has intensified offensives on KIA military outposts in Hpa-Kant, Tanai and Mansi townships since early December. Local sources said the Burma army wanted to gain control of those areas, which are rich in natural resources such as jade and other precious gems.

The fighting that escalated in early December in Kachin state has spread to Shan state, in northeastern Burma, where the Burma army reportedly also used helicopters and jets, according to rebel sources. Shelling further spread in Shan state on New Year’s Eve, forcing more than 900 local villagers in Kyaukme Township and Namhsan Township to flee, according to the Relief and Resettlement Department in Kyaukme.

KIA is one of some 20 ethnic rebel groups that have fought for self-determination, autonomy, freedom and other fundamental rights since Burma gained independence from the British in 1948. The Burmese government and ethnic rebels have been in peace talk since 2011, and eight rebel groups have signed bilateral ceasefire agreements and a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the Burmese government.

More than 10 ethnic rebel groups, including the powerful KIO and ethnic Wa, Kokang and Palaung peoples, haven’t signed the agreements.

Ethnic groups believe the fighting in Kachin state is meant to pressure the KIO to sign the ceasefire agreement.

Christian ethnic minorities have long suffered in Burma, where the government has recognized the special status of Buddhism and promoted it as a means to consolidate support. Burma is about 80 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian.

The Burma military routinely occupies churches and summons entire congregations for interrogation, according to a report the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released in December 2016.

“The Tatmadaw [Burmese armed forces] occupied Chin, Naga, and Kachin areas and routinely occupied, desecrated, or destroyed places of worship, Christian crosses, and other sacred sites,” the report states. “This practice continues today in active armed conflict zones.”

The military continues to perpetrate grave human rights violations with near total impunity, including sexual violence in church compounds and the torture of pastors, church workers, and ordinary civilians, according to the report, “Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma.”

After more than five years of intensified conflict since Burma violated the 17-year cease-fire in 2011, many Kachin face protracted displacement and are desperate to return home, according to the report.