By Robin Gomes
A new initiative sees the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) urging Catholics across the nation to pray for the people and the Church in Myanmar. “On May 30, next Sunday, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, and also designated as BEC [Basic Christian Community] Sunday, we include in all our Masses in our cathedrals and parishes, a special prayer for the suffering people of Myanmar and, in particular, for the Church in Myanmar,” wrote CBCP president, Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, in a letter on May 26.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military seized power with a coup on February 1, ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Since then, protests and a civil disobedience campaign have roiled the nation. In a brutal crackdown against protesters, security forces have killed at least 830 people so far.
Military targeting churches
The crisis has also re-ignited Myanmar’s old conflicts between the military and some of the armed ethnic organizations. Christians are a minority in the predominantly Buddhist country, accounting for 6.2 percent of the 54 million population. Areas occupied by the Kachin, Chin, Karen and Kayah ethnic groups, who have been facing oppression and persecution at the hands of the military for decades, are largely Christian. An estimated one-third of Myanmar’s territory – mostly the border regions – is currently controlled by 20-odd armed rebel outfits.
Many of the civilians caught in these conflicts have sought refuge outside the country, with others displaced within the country, a large number of them seeking shelter in Church institutions. But even churches, that have been deemed safe for civilians, have not been spared by the military.
Myanmar Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon called for an end to attacks on places of worship, after 4 people were killed and more than 8 were wounded after the army on Sunday night shelled the Sacred Heart Church in Kayanthayar, near Loikaw in the east of the country. In an appeal on May 25, the cardinal, who is president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar (CBCM) vehemently condemned the church attack, saying the country’s “great humanitarian tragedy” “needs to stop”.
Response to Card. Bo’s appeal
“This message of Cardinal Bo regarding this particular terrible act of violence committed against people gathered in a house of worship describes vividly and painfully the ongoing suffering of the people of Myanmar,” Archbishop Valles wrote in his letter. “We have been following in the news the very sad suffering of the people of Myanmar. Every day is a day of violence and misery for these beautiful people.” Archbishop Valles said the Philippine bishops have sent a letter of support to Catholics in Myanmar assuring them of their prayers.
Local sources say more than 300 people from at least 60 families had taken refuge in Sacred Heart Church in Kayanthayar, in Kayah state, due to fighting between the military and a local anti-coup resistance group known as the Karenni People’s Defense Force (PDF). All of them had disappeared in the jungle when church authorities came to inspect the church following the bombing.
According to UCA News, St. Joseph’s Church in Demoso town in Kayah state also came under military artillery fire on May 26. The church was damaged but there were no deaths reported.
Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Milan in northern Italy is organizing an interfaith event on Saturday, May 29, for peace in Myanmar. Buddhist monks, families and Christians have been invited to participate in the initiative of silent prayer and meditation at 12:30 pm (10:30 UTC). The event presided over by Archbishop Mario Delpini will be streamed live on the YouTube channel of Milan Archdiocese.
Solidarity of Churches worldwide
Pope Francis has made several appeals for dialogue, peace and a return to democracy in the troubled nation. His latest initiative was a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Ascension Sunday, May 16, for Myanmar faithful living in Rome. “Once partisan interests and the thirst for profit and power take over, conflicts and divisions inevitably break out,” the Holy Father said in his homily. “Dear brothers and sisters, today I wish to lay upon the Lord’s altar the sufferings of his people and to join you in praying that God will convert all hearts to peace,” he added.
Several Bishops' Conferences around the world have expressed solidarity with the people and the Church of Myanmar. ,
Cardinal Bo, who is also president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, has encouraged Myanmar's Catholics to pray the rosary and participate in Eucharistic adoration during the Marian month of May, for peace, justice, unity and human dignity in the country.