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Benedict Rogers

Keep the faith: Pope's message of hope for devastated Myanmar

A true friend to Myanmar asks its suffering people not to plunge into the despair of those who no longer see a way out
Published: May 17, 2021 04:04 AM GMT

Updated: May 17, 2021 05:34 AM GMT

Keep the faith: Pope's message of hope for devastated Myanmar

Pope Francis is a true friend to Myanmar. Throughout his pontificate he has taken a close interest in the country, beatifying Myanmar’s first Blessed, Isodore Ngei Ko Lat, appointing Myanmar’s first cardinal, Charles Bo, establishing diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Myanmar, receiving Aung San Suu Kyi in the Vatican, and making the first apostolic visit to the country.

He has publicly prayed regularly for Myanmar, both since the bloody coup on Feb. 1 and many times over the past five years since the genocide against the Rohingya.

Yesterday, in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the pope celebrated a Mass for Myanmar, attended by priests, religious and laity from Myanmar living in the city and viewed online by thousands around the world. It was heartbreakingly beautiful. Nuns wearing the traditional dress of some of Myanmar’s diverse ethnic groups over their habits led prayers and readings, while Myanmar priests processed in ahead of the Holy Father. Hymns were sung in the Burmese language.

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A moving address to the pope on behalf of the people of Myanmar was delivered at the end of Mass by a young priest, Father Bosco Mung Sawng, who expressed gratitude for the pontiff’s love for this “little flock” at a time when “the world community has abandoned us.” He called the pope Myanmar’s “Good Samaritan”.

For me personally, watching online, it was particularly moving. Eight years ago, on Palm Sunday, I was received into the Catholic Church in Yangon’s St. Mary’s Cathedral by Cardinal Bo and so, in an unusual way, although I am British and living in London, I consider myself a Myanmar Catholic.

Six years ago, I was in Rome to celebrate with my friend Cardinal Bo when he received his red biretta at the consistory. Four years ago, just before Pope Francis’ intended visit to Myanmar was announced, I had the immense privilege of meeting him at a private audience where he confirmed that he would visit the country. Later that same year, 2017, it was a joy for me to be in Myanmar for the papal visit, to attend Mass with the Holy Father in Yangon, and to join in the visit’s theme: love and peace.

Generals in military uniform in the VIP seats shifted uncomfortably when they heard the words of interpretation of the writing

I will never forget sitting among the crowds in Kyaikkasan Stadium, where thousands from all over the country had gathered for the papal Mass, and listening to the first reading of the day, which was the story of Belshazzar’s Feast and the writing on the wall in the Book of Daniel.

Generals in military uniform in the VIP seats shifted uncomfortably when they heard the words of interpretation of the writing: “God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it; you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” It seemed appropriately prophetic at the time, at the dawn of a new era of political reform in the country and a transition to civilian, democratic government.

Clearly the generals were even more unnerved than they appeared, and three and a half years on they have seized power again, inflicting on their people horrific death and destruction. Just over 100 days after the coup, the death toll has reached almost 800 — and may well be much higher. Almost 5,000 people have been arrested, of whom almost 4,000 are currently jailed. A civil disobedience movement by public sector workers has led to thousands losing their homes and salaries. The economy has collapsed and starvation is rising. Renewed military attacks on some of the country’s ethnic groups, including airstrikes against the Karen and Kachin, have resulted in at least 40,000 civilians internally displaced, fleeing their villages to escape the military’s onslaught. Myanmar teeters on the brink of civil war and humanitarian disaster.

Myanmar today is in greater need than ever of “love and peace”. For that reason, the readings yesterday could not have been more appropriate, nor the pope’s homily more relevant. The second reading at Mass was from the first Letter of St. John, about love. The Gospel, from St. John, was about protection from evil and consecration in the truth. The Gospel Acclamation said: “I will not leave you orphans, says the Lord; I will come back to you, and your hearts will be full of joy.”

Pope Francis’ homily focused on the need to keep faith, unity and truth. “We need to keep the faith lest we yield to grief or plunge into the despair of those who no longer see a way out,” he said. Jesus “does not resign himself to evil; he does not let himself be overwhelmed by grief; he does not retreat into the bitterness of the defeated and disappointed; instead, he looks to heaven,” he added. “To keep the faith is to refuse to yield to the logic of hatred and vengeance but to keep our gaze fixed on the God of love, who calls us to be brothers and sisters to one another.”

Protest is a form of prayer, the pope said, and “we should not be afraid to do so.” But unity is also vital. “Division is of the devil, the great divider and the great liar who always creates division,” he added.

And keep the truth, which, the pope says, “means to be a prophet in every situation in life.” It means not compromising on truth” and “offering our lives for others.”

Pope Francis’ visible and spiritual solidarity with Myanmar is to be admired, applauded and deeply appreciated

This is a powerful and timely message for the Church and peoples of Myanmar. As Father Bosco Mung Sawng highlighted in his address to the pope at the end of Mass, the image of Sister Ann Rosa Nu Tawng kneeling on the street in front of security forces in Myitkyina, Kachin state, in March, her arms outstretched, pleading for the lives of young protesters, inspired many in Myanmar and around the world. That image is a symbol of how the Church should be.

Pope Francis’ visible and spiritual solidarity with Myanmar is to be admired, applauded and deeply appreciated. Cardinal Bo and the bishops and clergy of Myanmar have expressed their heartfelt gratitude. Bishop Raymond Sumlat Gam of Bamaw described the pope’s actions as “moral support and comfort,” particularly as people in the ethnic areas face airstrikes and bombing.

Indeed, yesterday — as the Mass for Myanmar was underway in Rome — the military captured control of Mindat in Chin state after escalating its indiscriminate shelling and bombing of civilians with helicopter gunships and heavy artillery. Mindat is described as a gateway to Chin state, a center of Chin culture and a crossroads for Buddhist and Christian communities.  As Dr. Sasa, the spokesperson for the exiled National Unity Government, said in a statement at the weekend, the military used civilians as “human shields” to facilitate its crackdown on protests sparked by “screams of torture” of detainees heard by residents.

As a young Catholic whose own entry into the Church was in Myanmar just 11 days after Pope Francis was elected, my faith journey is inspired and intertwined with this country and this pope. As a human rights activist inspired by Catholic social teaching, I am profoundly thankful for a pope whose persistent message is one of solidarity with those on the margins, the persecuted, oppressed and poor.

In that light, I would like, with deep love and immense respect, to encourage the Holy Father to go further and pray for the Church and peoples of China too. Myanmar’s Cardinal Bo has called for a Global Week of Prayer for China, expanding on the Worldwide Day of Prayer for China established in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI on May 24 — the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians.

Pope Francis has not yet prayed publicly for China, let alone celebrated a Mass, and his silence is increasingly noticed

The Global Week of Prayer, beginning May 23 — the Feast of Pentecost — will focus on the Church in China, the genocide against the Uyghurs, the crackdown on all forms of civil society, independent media and dissent, the intensification of repression in Tibet, forced organ harvesting and the dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms. It will include prayers for prisoners of conscience throughout China, including Catholic clergy and human rights defenders who have disappeared.

Pope Francis has not yet prayed publicly for China, let alone celebrated a Mass, and his silence is increasingly noticed. This is not the time or place to rake over that. Instead, it is a time to be thankful for his solidarity with Myanmar and with the persecuted worldwide, for his robust voice for the poor and marginalized, and to encourage him to build on the beautiful step he took yesterday.

How about a Mass for the Church and peoples of China? Or at the very least, as a start, a prayer for China during the Sunday Angelus on the Feast of Pentecost, to mark the beginning of the Global Week of Prayer for China which Cardinal Bo initiated as president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, the day before the Worldwide Day of Prayer for China which Pope Francis’ predecessor established on the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians? And let’s not forget the interconnectedness of these issues. China could play a key role in unlocking Myanmar and securing peace. Praying for China, after all, will help Myanmar.

* Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and deputy chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a board member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign. He is the author of six books, including three on Myanmar, and his faith journey is told in his book 'From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church' (Gracewing, 2015). 

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

* The Global Week of Prayer for the Church and Peoples of China will be held from May 23-30. Resources are available at Globalprayerforchina.

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