Updated: April 13, 2022 05:04 AM GMT
This past Palm Sunday, I celebrated the ninth anniversary of my baptism and reception into the Catholic Church, which took place in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Yangon, Myanmar, in 2013, just 11 days after the election of Pope Francis.
I had been inspired — and was then received — into the Church by Yangon’s Archbishop Charles Maung Bo, who two years later would be appointed by Pope Francis as his country’s first cardinal. I have written about my journey in many articles and in my book From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church.
Yet my celebration of that special spiritual anniversary in my life was tinged with profound sadness not only at the overall tragedy into which Myanmar has been plunged as a result of the military coup in February last year but specifically at the news that last Friday — a week before Good Friday, when we remember the Passion of Christ — Myanmar soldiers stormed the compound of Mandalay's Sacred Heart Cathedral while a Lenten prayer service was about to begin.
Even more outrageously, soldiers detained Archbishop Marco Tin Win of Mandalay, vicar general Domenic Kyo Du and others for several hours, occupied offices within the compound, and detained worshippers within the cathedral itself. Then the troops decided to sleep overnight in the cathedral.
The soldiers apparently claimed that weapons, gold and cash were being stashed in the cathedral, providing support for the country’s resistance movement.
Knowing the Church in Myanmar as I do, I would say such a charge is absurd. Many of the Church’s clergy and laity offer spiritual and moral support to opponents of the coup, but I simply cannot imagine that sacred places of worship would be stashing weapons. It is an outcome of coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing’s crazed, febrile mind rather than having any basis in truth.
He is a champion of justice and peace, a pioneer in interfaith dialogue and a much-loved friend of Mandalay’s Buddhists, Muslims and other faith communities
This raid on the cathedral in Myanmar’s second-largest city is an affront to human decency, human dignity, human liberty and human rights on multiple levels.
Firstly, because I know Archbishop Marco Tin Win and admire him very deeply. Sadly, due to both Covid and the coup, I have not had a chance to see him since he became archbishop, but I met him regularly when he was a leading priest in the diocese. He is a champion of justice and peace, a pioneer in interfaith dialogue and a much-loved friend of Mandalay’s Buddhists, Muslims and other faith communities. He is a man who should be honored and celebrated, not detained and questioned by soldiers. The world — and the pope especially — must appeal for his well-being.
Secondly, because I know the cathedral. Many times over the past decade, I have worshipped at Sacred Heart Cathedral. It is a sanctuary of peace in the heart of a throbbing city. The thought that the place I used to go to for quiet prayer was violated by rapists and murderers is a heartbreaking abomination.
This incident has wider ramifications. Until now, while churches — Catholic and Protestant — in Myanmar’s ethnic conflict areas have often been targeted, a military occupation of a cathedral in a major city has been almost unknown. Now, it seems, Myanmar’s military regime is escalating its hostility towards religious minorities and its violations of freedom of religion or belief.
That is why the international community must act tough, act fast and act now for Myanmar. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has understandably consumed almost all the global attention, but Myanmar — which is another Ukraine in slower motion — must not be forgotten.
And the military occupation of Mandalay’s Sacred Heart Cathedral and the detention of its wonderful archbishop, his clergy and flock cannot be allowed to stand. It was an assault on sacred space — where I, among others, found my homecoming spiritually — and I won’t stand by and let it happen unchallenged. It’s time to act, and I hope the attack on the cathedral is a wake-up call for the world.
* Benedict Rogers is a writer, human rights activist and senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organization CSW. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including ‘Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads’. His story of becoming a Catholic in Myanmar is told in his book ‘From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church’.
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