The United Wa State Army has forced Bible students to join its ranks of fighters, while closing and destroying churches in the remote Wa region in northern Myanmar’s Shan state.

An ethnic armed group has recently detained almost 100 pastors and forced Bible students to join its ranks of fighters in northern Myanmar’s Shan state, reports Radio Free Asia.

Witnesses who fled the state’s northern Wa region, which borders China, reported that 92 pastors were held by the armed group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a spokesman for the region’s ethnic Lahu Baptist community, Rev. Lazaru, told RFA.

“The UWSA has also forcibly recruited 41 male and female students who were taking Bible studies classes in various churches, and 52 churches in the Mongpauk area have been shut down, and three have been destroyed,” the pastor said.

The armed group also ordered a group of Catholic clergymen and lay teachers, including five nuns from the Missionary Society of St. Paul, to leave the region, another church leader told the Catholic news agency UCAN.

The unnamed priest said that the people living in the remote region were “very disappointed by the expulsions” of the group, who had been providing education and healthcare services.

The UWSA issued a statement on Facebook on 6 September, declaring that all existing churches, missionaries, school teachers and clergymen were to be investigated, with foreign church workers banned and those found to support missionary activities punished.

It also said that all churches built after 1989 (when the Communist Party collapsed) must be destroyed, with the exception of one built with the government’s permission, and that no new churches will be allowed.

Earlier this month, Nyi Ran, an UWSA communications official at the army’s office in the town of Lashio, said: “Wa military leaders believe there are religious extremists in Wa territory, including missionaries who have not obtained official permission and clergy members who are operating outside the law.”

According to UCAN there are no Catholic churches in the area from which the group was expelled. Instead, they had worshipped together in priests’ homes.

It also reported that Baptist pastors have been arrested for questioning and “all Baptist schools have … been closed”.

Wa is a self-declared autonomous state in Shan, bordering China and Thailand, which is not recognised by the Myanmar government. UWSA is Myanmar’s largest non-state army and is believed to be backed by China.

Last month the US government announced that it had imposed sanctions on Myanmar, accusing its security forces of crimes against humanity, including “ethnic cleansing”, against Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minority communities.

On 27 September, the UN Human Rights Council decided upon the creation of an international independent body to accelerate criminal prosecutions against Myanmar’s military commanders for crimes committed against Rohingyas, reported UCAN.

“It deals a blow to Myanmar’s deep-seated culture of impunity and moves victims closer to seeing Myanmar’s generals held to account,” John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.