Canadian pastor charged in Myanmar for defying COVID-19 restriction on gatherings

David Lah said devout Christians could not get the coronavirus, then he got it himself. Now the Canadian who has been in Myanmar since at least February faces jail time for holding public sermons in defiance of government rules restricting large events.

David Lah has preached that 'virus will never come' to devout Christians

In this screengrab taken from video on the Child of God YouTube channel, Canadian Pastor David Lah speaks in Yangon, Myanmar, on April 1. Lah is facing jail time for holding public sermons in defiance of government restrictions on large events in an effort to fight the spread of COVID-19. (Child of God/YouTube/Reuters)

He's become known as the pastor who preached that devout Christians could not get the coronavirus, then he got it himself.

Now David Lah, a Canadian who has been in Myanmar since at least February, is facing jail time for holding public sermons in defiance of government restrictions on large events in an effort to fight the spread of COVID-19.

A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada has confirmed to CBC News that "a Canadian citizen faces charges for allegedly organizing mass gatherings in Myanmar," and that Canadian officials are in contact with that person and offering consular services. The department wouldn't provide any further details, citing privacy laws. 

Pastor Lah, as he is known, is the face of numerous online Christian video sites, often live streaming events and posting video of his religious services in his native Burmese language. 

His own David Lah Ministries Facebook page, not all of which is publicly accessible, describes him as a Myanmar-born pastor residing in Toronto and currently "touring around the globe to preach the gospel."

'Crowd' gathered for sermon

CBC News has found videos of Lah delivering sermons that date back to January 2011, linked to a church in the North York area of Toronto. More recent videos are more fiery and elaborate, and show Lah preaching in locations stretching across Europe, Asia and Australia. 

But it was content that was live streamed in Myanmar under his Dream Ministry International organization, founded in 2014, that drew the attention of authorities in Yangon, the largest city in the country and its commercial hub.

In this screengrab from a video on the Child of God YouTube channel, Lah, left, is seen leading an online sermon on March 30, more than two weeks after the government imposed restrictions on gatherings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Lah later tested positive for COVID-19, as did Myanmar rock star Myo Gyi, pictured next to Lah. (Child of God/YouTube)

CBC News has seen the police report connected to one of two sermons held in early April that have raised eyebrows. In one of them, held in Mayangone, a township in northwest Yangon, on the afternoon of April 7, police detail "a crowd" was present to see Lah deliver his religious teachings. It was more than three weeks after restrictions on mass gatherings were announced in Myanmar, and more than two weeks after Myanmar officially documented its first case of COVID-19.

The April 13 document identifies Lah and another man, the owner of a recording studio, as violating a section of the country's disaster management law. If convicted, they could be sentenced to a maximum of three years in a Myanmar jail. Another event around the same time prompted similar charges against two Lah associates.

'No infection' for those who follow Jesus

By then, Lah's sermons had been gaining attention, and not just from some in Myanmar's relatively small Christian community, said to be about six per cent of the Buddhist-majority country's population. He was preaching about Christianity as salvation from the coronavirus. 

In one video posted in late March, Lah tells worshippers, "If you hear the sermon of God, the virus will never come to you; I declare it with the soul of Jesus Christ."

At another event in April, Lah waved around a Bible and said, "I can guarantee that the church that goes by Jesus' teachings, there will be no infection."

The irony of the message in those sermons became apparent when police made their move to lay charges, because the document that spelled out his alleged offence also revealed Lah could not immediately be arrested because he was in hospital.

Lah had tested positive for the coronavirus. 

2 COVID-19 deaths linked to Lah's gatherings

In another document obtained by CBC News, dated the same day, April 13, authorities revealed that the Yangon neighbourhood where Lah had been staying was being put under lockdown because some residents had COVID-19. It names Lah as a 43-year-old Canadian citizen, even detailing the number of the ambulance that took him to hospital.

Reports quickly surfaced that more than 20 others who had gathered at Lah's early April sermons were infected, as well, including a famous Myanmar rock star named Myo Gyi. 

An April 13 police document that announces the lockdown of a Myanmar neighbourhood where Lah was living. Details include his age, 43, his Canadian citizenship, as well as the number of the ambulance that took Lah to hospital for COVID-19 treatment. (CBC)

As of Friday, according to Worldometer aggregated data, Myanmar had 181 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including six deaths. Local health authorities link at least two of those deaths to Lah's gatherings in early April.

The Canadian pastor's story has even embroiled the country's Second Vice-President, also a devout Christian, in controversy. 

Last month, photos emerged on social media of Henry Van Thio, the first non-Buddhist VP in Myanmar's history, in the company of Lah in the capital Naypyitaw, in February. Van Thio and some 30 others in his circle were hastily ordered to get tested for coronavirus, Myanmar's presidential spokesperson later confirming they all came back negative.

As for Lah, he was becoming infamous, his name trending on social media seemingly every time authorities had a new coronavirus development to report.

This image circulated on social media and widely credited to the Myanmar National Youth Conference shows Lah, left, with Second Vice-President Henry Van Thio at the conference in Feburary. Van Thio and some 30 others in his circle were tested for coronavirus after it emerged Lah had tested positive. (Thet Zaw Hein/Facebook)

Older videos of Lah began surfacing, as well, including ones that hilighted his reported anti-LGBTQ and Islamaphobic views. In one particular jab at Myanmar's majority Buddhist population, he preached that the teachings of monks would make humans "sinful."

Cut ties with Toronto church

By early May, Lah was out of hospital. Tests showed he was clear of the virus but not of the burden of having had COVID-19 in Myanmar: The country's Health Ministry regulations demand a further 14 days of quarantine, which he was told to serve in a Yangon hotel. 

And that is where Lah is now. Maybe.

Social media in Myanmar erupted again earlier this week when a local news organization said it had contacted the hotel and was told Lah had checked out. The hotel quickly backtracked and said it made the statement out of concern for its guests' privacy. And police pointed to tight security around the hotel.

The member of Parliament for the township where the hotel is located told CBC News over the phone that Lah is "still at the hotel." MP May Soe added that "his quarantine period will end on May 19."

A regional minister had earlier told local reporters that legal proceedings against Lah would continue after his quarantine was up.

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CBC News has not been able to reach Lah in Yangon, but did speak to somebody who once knew him in Toronto.

Rev. Solomon James, who is the senior pastor at the Toronto Myanmar Christian Church, called Lah a "good guy" but stressed he is a "former pastor" at the church. 

He said he hasn't spoken to Lah in many years, not since he cut ties with the North York church almost a decade ago to pursue a new direction.

James said Lah told him at the time that "God was calling him" and that "his gift is evangelism." 

(Yangon freelance reporter Cape Diamond contributed to this report.)

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