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Kachin Catholics make their mark on Myanmar's strife-torn frontier
Challenging violence, poverty and lack of education, Kachin Catholics have emerged from the shadows of foreign missioners
Kachin Catholics make their mark on Myanmar's strife-torn frontier
Father Paul Awng Dang with the only Catholic family in a village in his parish in Kachin state in northern Myanmar, bordering Yunnan province of China. (Photo supplied)
Published: December 01, 2021 03:53 AM

These days Father Paul Lahpai Awng Dang worries less about the spillover of armed conflict between the military and ethnic Kachin rebels into his parish territory on the Myanmar-China border.

The 46-year-old diocesan priest has grown up witnessing how violence overshadowed ethnic-majority Kachin state in northern Myanmar, just across from Yunnan province of China.

“Our mission is faith formation, education and the China mission, which prioritizes pastoral care for the ethnic Kachin in Yunnan province,” said Father Awng Dang.

The priest takes care of about 3,000 mostly Kachin Catholics in 587 households in Panghkak Parish covered by Banmaw Diocese.

Banmaw, about 800 kilometers from Yangon, sits on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, a lush green mountainous region known as a hotspot for teak logging, wooden houses and tourism.

For years, it has been part of a battleground for the Myanmar military and ethnic Kachin rebels, who allegedly have backing from their allies in China for their armed struggle for an independent Kachin homeland.

There is a growing number of Catholics in China’s Yunnan province as many ethnic Kachin have converted from animism

In June 2011, violence erupted between the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the military, forcing tens of thousands into dozens of makeshift camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). The fighting has intensified since the Feb. 1 military coup that dethroned the elected civilian government of the National League for Democracy (NLD).

A major pastoral priority of Panghkak Church is to offer humanitarian support to the thousands of displaced people in seven IDP camps within the radius of the parish in collaboration with Catholic charity Karuna (Caritas).

The parish also runs a boarding school for students from grade five to 10, said Father Dang, who has been serving the parish for three years.

The priest says the China mission offers great hope for the growth of the church as five Kachin priests have already been ordained and they serve the region under the state-approved church.

“There is a growing number of Catholics in China’s Yunnan province as many ethnic Kachin have converted from animism. Catechists serve the community and we provide pastoral and social care for them. We have direct communication with them,” he said.

The predominantly Christian region of Kachin state has witnessed sporadic fighting for decades. Renewed fighting since 2011 between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has displaced more than 100,000 people (Photo: UCA News)

Watering the plant of faith

For Father Dang, a major challenge is to keep a balanced, functional relation with three major groups — the KIA, the government and Chinese authorities. Other challenges include ensuring the participation of laypeople in parish activities.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a difficult roadblock. The China mission was suspended a year ago after authorities closed the border because of the pandemic.

“Due to Covid-19, we were forced to suspend the boarding school and the mission in China. We continue to travel from one place to another amid strict restrictions,” Father Dang said.

Father Dang, Panghkak Parish and Banmaw Diocese bear the legacy of Western missionaries, especially the Missionary Society of St. Columban, popularly known as the Columbans, who evangelized in the area and cemented the foundation of the Catholic Church.

Father Dang said he was baptized by a Columban missionary in a community dominated by Baptists. “The Bible inspired me to choose priestly life,” he said.

Nearby Pangkat village, located on highlands just eight kilometers from the China-Myanmar border, is the birthplace of Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam, the first prelate of Banmaw Diocese.

Bishop Gam, a son of farmer parents, became a priest encouraged by Irish Columban priest James Fitzpatrick, who served as a local parish priest. The missionary supported the young boy to join a seminary in Yangon. He become a bishop in 2006.

Late Archbishop Paul Zinghtung Grawng of Mandalay was also a student of Father Fitzpatrick.

Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam of Banmaw is seen opening a new school building in Kachin state. (Photo: Banmaw Diocese)

Columbans make their mark

Father Fitzpatrick arrived in the area in 1946 at the age of 33.  He was part of a band of 12 Columban missionaries to arrive in what was then known as Burma.

In Bhamo (former name of Banmaw), Father Fitzpatrick worked tirelessly to serve about 1,000 Catholics who lived up and down the hills, requiring him to undertake long treks and pony rides to offer spiritual and pastoral services.

Poor health due to tuberculosis and high blood pressure constantly bothered him. He died on May 22, 1963.

Bishop Gam says that during his childhood he was afraid to meet and greet Columban foreign missionaries because he saw them as strange people having a different skin tone and speaking an unusual language.

Thanks to the great life example of the missionaries and their moral support, he got an education and became a priest in 1981. The Columbans not only focused on formal education but also on moral formation and catechism for the faithful.

“They prioritized evangelization among the Kachin people and transformed their lives through Christian education,” Bishop Gam told UCA News.

Bishop Gam recalled an old saying that the Columbans had watered the plants of faith in Kachin, where missionaries from the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP) had sowed the seeds in the 19th century.

The first footprints of Catholicism were marked in 1856 when French MEP Bishop Paul Bigandet visited the northern region of Burma including Myitkyina, the Kachin state capital. In 1873, three MEP priests arrived to carry out missionary activities.

The extreme weather including scorching heat made the mission extremely difficult. In three decades until 1901, a total of 14 priests either died or returned home in poor health due to a deadly enemy in those days — malaria.

The arrival of the Columbans from Ireland in 1936 gave new impetus to the mission, eventually spreading all over Kachin state.  

By the 1950s, Burma was known as one of the richest countries in Asia, exporting rice, jade, gold, rubber and teak wood. Thanks to high-quality education in Christian mission schools, many considered Burma the best-educated nation in Southeast Asia.

Sadly, everything collapsed after the 1962 military takeover. Starting from 1965, military ruler General Ne Win nationalized all schools and hospitals, and in 1966 he ordered the expulsion of all missionaries who arrived after 1948.

Such pathetic moves coupled with iron-fisted military rule and a long-running ethnic insurgency made a once-prosperous nation one of the poorest in Asia. 

Kachin Catholics take part in a Marian procession on the streets to pray for peace. (Photo supplied)

Animism to Catholicism

Despite the setbacks, Catholics still remember great missionaries who enlightened communities with the light of education.

Nhkum Tang, an ethnic Kachin Catholic from a remote village in Kachin state, recalled the great endeavors of Columbans to take education to local communities.

Tang studied in a school set up by the Columbans and graduated from a university in Mandalay, the second-largest city in Myanmar.

“Without help from Columban priests, especially financial support, it would have been difficult for us to join the universities and get a degree,” Tang, a father of eight, told UCA News.

The 75-year-old catechist says life was extremely challenging for the Kachin people those days. They lived in remote areas and relied on agriculture for a living. No one went to school as there were no schools.

Tang said his grandparents were animists and his parents became Catholics before he was born.

His native village was so remote and impassable that his parents told him how during Japan’s occupation of Burma in World War II its troops would not go there.

Missionaries came to the village riding ponies, usually once a year, with food and medicines stacked on their saddles.

“It was a joyful moment for Kachin people when Columban priests visited the village despite all challenges including poor transportation, mountainous terrain and a shortage of priests,” he recalled.

After finishing education, Tang attended a catechism course in a church-run school. For more than five decades, he served as a member of the pastoral council in Banmaw Diocese.

“It’s a privilege for me to get an education and serve in the church thanks to great help from the Columbans,” Tang said.

“I can’t express my deep gratitude to them. The Columbans and the Church in Kachin cannot be separated as their contributions to our land are so impressive.” 

Father Paul Awng Dang of Banmaw Diocese talks with parishioners during a pastoral visit in Kachin state. (Photo supplied)

A vibrant church begins

The Columban mission started among ethnic Kachin in 1936, marking a new era of evangelization.

Thanks to the efforts of Columban missionaries, the Banmaw area gained the status of an apostolic prefecture by 1939. Some 38 priests served the territory under the leadership of Columban Bishop Patrick Usher.

In 1961, the Diocese of Myitkyina was created with Columban Bishop John Howe as the first bishop.

The Columbans faced enormous challenges in serving Kachin people who lived scattered in a sparsely populated territory of rugged mountains. Each priest was responsible for looking after a huge parish area with as many as 38 villages and a central mission station, church records say.

Prior to colonial rule, animism was the main belief system for the Kachin people. Agriculture on hill terrain has been their mainstay for ages. In recent times, mining jade and gold has become a major livelihood for many.

The priests and catechists traveled on ponies to visit outlying stations, meet communities, administer sacraments and treat ailments such as fever, skin rashes and colds. 

The missionaries set up new parishes and schools as the number of Catholics started to grow significantly. Within a few years, the area had 13,000 Catholics and some 7,000 catechumens, prompting the Columbans to erect 19 brick and wooden churches and several clinics and schools.

They also started a catechist school in Banmaw in 1939 that later moved to Tangphre in Myitkyina in 1957. The school was meant to train catechists to serve the faithful amid a shortage of priests.

In 1978, the school was transformed into St. Luke’s College-Socio Pastoral Formation Center. Currently located in Edin, Myitkyina, it has trained over 700 catechists.

A community volunteer teacher takes a lesson at an IDP camp in Banmaw Diocese, Kachin state. (Photo: Banmaw Diocese)

More local priests ordained

The last three Columbans left Myanmar in 1979, two years after the first Kachin priest, Paul Zinghtung Grawng, was ordained bishop of Myitkyina. The diocese then had only 10 Kachin priests.

The Columban legacy continued as churches and boarding houses were named after St. Columban. Local priests and religious made renewed efforts for evangelization. The number of Catholics and religious vocations continued to increase steadily. 

Eventually, a new Banmaw Diocese was created from Myitkyina Diocese

The local Church has produced three Kachin bishops including the late Archbishop Grawng, about 80 priests, hundreds of nuns and catechists to serve about 116,000 Catholics in Christian-majority Kachin state of 1.7 million people.

More church-run boarding schools and hostels have sprung up in various parishes to offer education to children in remote areas. In some areas where the government operates schools, the Church runs boarding houses to provide accommodation and supplementary tuition for rural children. 

Bishop Gam says the local Church took over the role of missionaries after they were forced to leave the country.

“As a result, a vibrant and growing church has emerged, thanks especially to good priestly and religious vocations, dedicated catechists and baptized Catholics,” the prelate said.

“For the local Church, it is easy to communicate with the faithful as we know the language and culture, and transportation is better in comparison with the time of the missionaries.” 

However, like other ethnic Christian-majority states such as Shan, Kayah and Chin, Kachin also suffers heavily from fighting between the military and rebels.

“Sporadic fighting in the region restricts our movement, so we fail to respond to the needs of the people and to implement the development of young people,” Bishop Gam said.

Violence has engulfed the northern state since Burma gained independence from British rule in 1948. Since the military takeover in 1962, the Kachin have been fighting for self-determination and autonomy in the Buddhist-majority nation.

Fighting has intensified since 2011, displacing more than 100,000 people, mostly Kachin Christians in IDP camps in Kachin and Shan states. As peace remains elusive, the displacement continues to linger.

Kachin Catholics outside St. Columban Cathedral in Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin state, where some 80 local priests serve 116,000 Catholics. (Photo: UCA News)

The return of the Columbans

Sister Susanna Choi was among the Columban nuns who returned to Kachin state in 2003 in Myitkyina after an absence of almost 40 years.

Sister Choi from Korea founded Community Healthcare and Development (CHAD), which has reached out to people in remote villages providing basic health care and training for community health workers.

Catholic Peter Myo Aung has worked at CHAD in Myitkyina for nine years.Due to repressive military rule and forcible expulsion of missionaries, both education and health services remain seriously neglected, underfunded and weak, he said.

The services of CHAD are vital in remote areas where they fill gaps in health sectors by responding to the urgent needs of people.

“The local team has moved on with its service and network by collaborating with other organizations. It’s a legacy of Sister Choi, who had already left the country,” Aung told UCA News.

The Kachin man hailed the Columbans for “giving hope to the hopeless” — especially the young people who were drug and alcohol addicts and unemployed.

In 2015, following the return of minimal democracy in Myanmar, retired Bishop Francis Daw Tang of Myitkyina invited the Columbans to resume their mission in the state. The news enthralled the faithful who geared up for a warm welcome.

On July 1, 2016, a new Columban team composed of priests and lay missionaries arrived and resumed their mission once again, albeit on a small scale. The local Church has already filled much of the vacuum left by the departure of missionaries.

Today, a small group of foreign missionaries are active in Myitkyina, Banmaw and Mandalay. They hail from a range of countries including Ireland, the Philippines, Korea and Chile and are dedicated to carrying out the mission of watering the plant of faith just like their predecessors.

Enthusiastic local priests like Father Dang continue the legacy of Catholic faith and mission that foreign missionaries brought to the Kachin land.

Father Paul Awng Dang works with young people to place a water pipe to his parish in Banmaw Diocese. (Photo: Father Awng Dang)

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