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Myanmar bishop, others flee cathedral after army takeover

Catholics are worried about safety of Bishop Shwe of Loikaw and his team who had taken refuge in church
Bishop Celso Ba Shwe leads Mass to mark the Christ the King feast at the Bishop's House in Loikaw diocese in Kayah state on Nov.26

Bishop Celso Ba Shwe leads Mass to mark the Christ the King feast at the Bishop's House in Loikaw diocese in Kayah state on Nov.26. (Photo: Facebook)

Published: November 28, 2023 07:33 AM GMT
Updated: November 29, 2023 04:31 AM GMT

A bishop, priests and others were forced to flee a cathedral in civil war-hit Myanmar after dozens of junta soldiers forcibly took possession of it on Nov. 27.

Bishop Celso Ba Shwe of Loikaw, a few priests, nuns, dozens of elderly people and patients who had taken refuge in the cathedral were forced to leave following its occupation by troops.

“It’s sorrowful to learn about the occupation of the junta troops in the cathedral complex. I feel broken as our holy place will be desecrated,” Katherine Mu, a resident of Loikaw diocese, told UCA News on Nov.28.

The takeover occurred a day after the feast of Christ the King in Loikaw diocese which used to draw thousands of people annually.

However, this year it was a low-key event with Bishop Shwe, who took charge in March this year, leading the Mass at the Bishop’s House.

“We’ve prayed for peace for the world, peace for our country, peace for our Kayah state, and Loikaw city,” Church officials said in a social media post on Nov.26.

Catholics in Myanmar are worried about the safety of the bishop and his team.

Bishop Shwe, the priests, nuns and nearly 50 people were staying in the cathedral compound despite more than 40,000 out of the city’s 50,000 population fleeing junta air strikes and artillery bombardments against Karenni rebel forces in Kayah state since Nov.11.

The rebel groups, including the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force, and the army are fighting for control of Loikaw, the Kayah state capital.

The soldiers first entered the cathedral complex on Nov.26 but left following complaints by Church officials.

However, they stormed the complex on Nov.27 and took control of it, Church officials said.

“On the evening of Nov.26, at least five shells fired by junta forces hit the compound. But there were no casualties,” said a Church source who declined to be named due to security concerns.

In November 2021, the junta, which ousted the Southeast Asian nation's elected government in a coup on Feb. 1, that same year, raided the Bishop’s House, Church buildings and a clinic in the complex and arrested 18 healthcare workers.

Christ the King Cathedral, the oldest surviving church in Kayah state, was built in 1939. It is known for its intriguing blend of traditional European church architecture and local Buddhist style. The cathedral bell was brought from Italy.

The prelate played a mediator role between unarmed protesters, who also included Christians, and the security forces, when clashes and protests started in Loikaw in May 2021 following the military coup.

The Karenni rebel forces launched an operation codenamed "11.11" on Nov.11 following a major offensive in northern Shan state by the three brothers alliance — the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Arakan Army, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.

On Nov.13, Bishop Shwe announced in a message on Facebook that “we don’t want the deployment of troops inside Catholic churches and other religious buildings in Loikaw diocese for whatever reason.”

Aid groups said Kayah state has around 250,000 displaced persons sheltered in 200 camps. Some 80,000 among them are housed in Church-run camps.

Christians make up 46 percent of the state’s 350,000 people. About 90,000 among them are Catholics.

Nearly 26 of the 41 parishes in Loikaw diocese have been abandoned, according to Church sources. Air strikes and shelling have hit dozens of churches and convents in the state.

Christians make up nearly 6 percent of Myanmar’s population of 54 million, the majority of whom are Buddhist.

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