By Robin Gomes
Myanmar’s leading Catholic Church figure has vehemently condemned the military shelling of a Catholic Church, Sunday night, that killed and injured innocent civilians, saying the country’s “great humanitarian tragedy” “needs to stop”.
Attack on unarmed civilians
“It is with immense pain that we express our concern over the attack on innocent civilians who took refuge in the Church of the Sacred Heart on the night of May 23", said Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon in an appeal on Monday on behalf of the country’s Catholic bishops. “The violent acts, including continuous shelling, using heavy weaponry on a frightened group of largely women and children, resulted in tragic death of four people and wounding more than eight,” he said, referring the mortar attack on the church in Kayanthayar Parish near Loikaw, the capital city of Kayah state, on the border with Thailand.
Local sources say more than 300 people from at least 60 families had taken refuge in the church compound due to fighting over the weekend between the military and a local anti-coup resistance group known as the Karenni People’s Defense Force (PDF).
According to the Vatican’s Fides news agency, 75 percent of Kayah’s population belong to ethnic minority groups and is the state with the highest percentage of Christians. There are over 90,000 Catholics, almost a third of the 355,000 inhabitants of the State.
The families least suspected a place of worship coming under attack, and that too in the dead of the night when most people were asleep. Father Soe Naing, a spokesperson for Loikaw Diocese, said all those sheltering in the church had fled by the time church officials checked the damaged building on May 24 morning. He said thousands of people have taken refuge at churches, priests’ centers and nuns’ convents because they thought they were safe.
Poverty, virus stalking the poor
Cardinal Bo, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar (CBCM), said “The church suffered extensive damage, bearing witness to the intensity of attack on a place of worship.” “The midnight attack made the hapless people to flee to the jungle.” “Their fate is still not known to the outside world. Food, medicine and hygiene are urgent needs but there is no way of reaching them.” Many among them are children and old people, who are forced to starve and are without any medical aid, he said, denouncing it as “a great humanitarian tragedy”.
The attack becomes even more heinous considering the fact that unarmed people took shelter in the church to protect their families. “Every heart in this country weeps for the death of the innocent people,” the cardinal said. “Now, hundreds die; thousands become refugees and displaced. More than 20,000 have been displaced in the recent conflict in Loikaw,” he lamented.
“This needs to stop,” the cardinal appealed, urging everyone “not escalate the war”. Millions of poor people, deprived of their livelihood because of the Covid-19 pandemic, he said, are facing starvation, while another wave of infections is imminent.
Respect for international law
Cardinal Bo, who is also the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), reminded all parties in conflict that places of worship as cultural property of a community, are covered by International Protocols. “Churches, hospitals and schools are protected during conflict through the Hague Conventions,” he pointed out, pointing to the military that those who have been killed and injured are not enemies but “citizens of this country”.
Cardinal Bo said the Catholic bishops of Myanmar were making an urgent appeal for peace, not as politicians but as a group of faith leaders, not as politicians. “We are praying for Peace in this great land and hoping all of us can live as brothers and sisters in this great nation,” the cardinal wrote in his appeal.
Jesuits condemn church attack
The Jesuits of Myanmar have also denounced the church attack. While condemning these "heinous crimes in the strongest possible way" they also demand that "the Burmese military be held accountable for what happened”. "The military must immediately stop the attacks against civilians and churches,” they told Fides.
In a Facebook post, the Myanmar Jesuits lamented that “nowhere is safe now as the war has come to town”. “Since the regime's forces are snatching and murdering innocent civilians arbitrarily, there's no other option for the people but to defend themselves with whatever means they can get.” The people don't have the firepower of the military, such as machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, artillery guns, tanks and helicopters, but they have the “will and the determination to resist evil”. The security forces are firing their heavy weapons towards the homes and looting whatever they want.
The Jesuits also denounced the Pa-O National Organisation (PNO) as traitors “for collaborating with the regime's forces and fighting against their own kins”. “The people are in need of some basic necessities and the spiritual support as soon as possible. Justice, truth and peace must prevail!” Myanmar Jesuits wrote.
Protests and ethnic conflicts
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the Feb. 1 military coup that ousted the elected government and detained its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Protests and a civil disobedience campaign of strikes against the coup have paralyzed parts of the economy.
Fighting is also raging in ethnic areas of Karen, Kachin and Chin states, which have large Christian populations. The military is stepping up its offensive against ethnic guerrillas and anti-coup resistance groups by deploying fighter jets and heavy artillery.