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Benedict Rogers

Please don't condemn Cardinal Bo, a brave advocate for peace

Catholics should look beyond the photos of him with Myanmar's junta leader to see his true intentions
Published: December 28, 2021 02:49 AM GMT

Updated: December 28, 2021 02:51 AM GMT

Please don't condemn Cardinal Bo, a brave advocate for peace

On Christmas Day, as many around the world were celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in peace and joy, villagers in Moso, Hpruso township, in eastern Myanmar’s Kayah (Karenni) state awoke to a truly appalling horror.

Burned, charred remains of the victims of a massacre perpetrated on Christmas Eve were discovered. More than 35 people had been murdered by Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw. Among the corpses were those of women and children. Two staff of the international aid agency Save the Children have been reported missing, and the charity’s vehicle was among those burned. They had been returning home after carrying out humanitarian work in the area.

Martin Griffiths, the United Nations’ under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, confirmed the reports as credible and said he was horrified. "I condemn this grievous incident and all attacks against civilians throughout the country, which are prohibited under international humanitarian law,” he said while calling for "a thorough and transparent" investigation so that the perpetrators could be brought to justice.

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Dr. Sasa, minister for international cooperation in the National Unity Government of Myanmar, the country’s exiled government, condemned the atrocities, saying “these acts clearly constitute the worst crimes against humanity and we expect that all peoples and governments the world over should condemn these acts. With the condemnation, however, should come a commitment that these criminals be brought to justice and held fully accountable for their actions.”

And Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo described the massacre as “a heart-breaking and horrific atrocity which I condemn fully and unreservedly with all my heart.” He offered prayers for the victims of what he called an “unspeakable and despicable act of inhumane barbarity.” The timing of the tragedy, at Christmas, made it, he said, “even more poignant and sickening.” As many people celebrated “the light and life of the Prince of Peace,” he noted, “so many in Myanmar endured the darkness of death and destruction.”

Cardinal Bo also expressed outrage at air strikes in Kayin (Karen) State, which forced thousands to flee across the border to Thailand on Christmas Eve, and the “repeated bombardment, shelling and destruction” of Thantlang in Chin state, and other parts of the country, in recent weeks. “The whole of our beloved Myanmar is now a war zone,” the cardinal said.

Looking at those photographs alone, I understand the outrage and anger that many have expressed, especially when juxtaposed with the images of burning homes and bodies 24 hours later

In recent days Cardinal Bo has come under heavy criticism from fellow Catholics, other Christians and the wider population for meeting with the military regime’s leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, on Dec. 23, just hours before these latest atrocities were committed. Photographs of the cardinal and general cutting a Christmas cake appeared widely in the media, causing many to question why Cardinal Bo, who has been an outspoken voice for human rights, would be meeting Min Aung Hlaing, who seized power in a coup on Feb. 1, overthrowing the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Looking at those photographs alone, I understand the outrage and anger that many have expressed, especially when juxtaposed with the images of burning homes and bodies 24 hours later. The cake cutting was unfortunate and unhelpful. The optics looked bad. But although the expression “a picture speaks a thousand words” can often be true, the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” also contains a lot of wisdom. So I would gently say to people: look beyond the optics and give Cardinal Bo a chance.

Having known Cardinal Bo for 15 years, having been inspired, encouraged and mentored by him, having been received by him into the Catholic Church, I believe I know something of his heart, his intentions and his wisdom. I know him to be deeply and unshakably devoted to the values of human rights, human dignity, freedom, justice and peace. And I have always been impressed by his courage, balanced with wisdom. But don’t just take my word for it. Go through his thousands of homilies, statements and articles over many years. His voice is consistent. It is a voice for both justice and peace.

The Church has a vital, prophetic role as a voice for human dignity, human rights and justice. Christian leaders throughout the ages have been at the forefront of the struggle for human rights. Whether it is Protestant clergy, such as Germany’s Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who stood up to the Nazis, or South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu who fought apartheid and whose death we mourn this week, or Catholic examples such as Pope St. John Paul II’s leadership in confronting the Soviet Union, Bishop Carlos Belo’s role in Timor-Leste’s struggle, Cardinal Stephen Kim’s support for the pro-democracy movement in South Korea, Cardinal Joseph Zen’s similar role in Hong Kong and Cardinal Jaime Sin’s in the Philippines, Christians are often at the forefront of human rights advocacy.

One has only to look at Hong Kong’s democracy movement to see that many of its leaders, of different generations, are motivated by faith, from the ‘father’ of the democracy movement Martin Lee and the now jailed entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, both Catholics, to Protestants such as Benny Tai and Joshua Wong.

Combining these dual roles — as a defender of dignity, liberty and life, and an instrument of reconciliation — is never easy. There will be tensions between the two

But let’s remember that the Church also has another, equally vital and parallel role as a peacemaker, a bridge builder, a voice for reconciliation and an instrument for healing. It must be a facilitator of dialogue, a conveyor of mercy, a dispenser of grace.

Combining these dual roles — as a defender of dignity, liberty and life, and an instrument of reconciliation — is never easy. There will be tensions between the two. Navigating those tensions requires courage and wisdom, principle and diplomacy, a fierce defence of justice and truth and a compassionate, pastoral pursuit of peace and dialogue. Mistakes can be made, perhaps overemphasizing one at the expense of the other or misjudging the timing. Knowing when to speak out publicly, when to reach out privately, and how to be uncompromising about values but generous in spirit requires a depth of wisdom that few people have to perfection. But that it is essential to pursue both should never be doubted.

Catholic teaching has always emphasized that justice and peace go together, as do truth and reconciliation. Without justice, there cannot be peace, and without truth there can be no reconciliation — that must never be in doubt. But to attempt to reach out, to talk, to convey a message to the perpetrators of injustice and repression cannot in itself be wrong. Even if it does not succeed, those who attempt it should not be shot down by their own side without any attempt to understand what may be happening behind the cameras, beneath the surface.

That is what I believe Cardinal Bo was attempting to do when he met Min Aung Hlaing — to deliver an appeal for peace. Indeed, the heart of Cardinal Bo is so clear in yesterday’s statement, when he says: “When will this end? When will decades of civil war in Myanmar cease? When will we be able to enjoy true peace, with justice and true freedom? When will we stop killing one other? Brothers killing brothers, sisters killing sisters — this can never, ever be a solution to our problems. Guns and arms are not the answer.” You can hear the ache in his soul, the beat of his heart, in those words.

But as someone who knows Cardinal Bo well, I plead with you: look beyond the cake, into his heart. If you do that, as I do, you will understand and appreciate his true intentions

Repeatedly, in his statement, Cardinal Bo urges the Tatmadaw to “stop bombing and shelling innocent people, to stop destroying homes and churches, schools and clinics.” He also appeals to the democracy movement and the ethnic groups — who have truth and right on their side — to find bold and creative ways forward.

“Guns do not solve the crisis but rather perpetuate it, causing more deaths, more starvation, with devastating consequences for our children’s education, our economy and health,” he says. That is especially true when, in a battle of guns alone, those fighting for freedom are clearly outgunned.

Myanmar is now, as Cardinal Bo says, “a war zone.” In the past 10 months or so, it has been plunged into a major political, humanitarian, human rights and economic crisis. It is facing the triple catastrophe of coup, conflict and Covid-19, with all three causing dire poverty, displacement, death and destruction.

It should therefore not surprise anyone that Myanmar’s courageous cardinal, who has a long track record of moral leadership for the country, should try every way to plead with those who have the power to stop the carnage to do so. That might occasionally involve actions which many, including myself, find distasteful. You may at times disapprove of his tactics or disagree with his strategy. But as someone who knows Cardinal Bo well, I plead with you: look beyond the cake, into his heart. If you do that, as I do, you will understand and appreciate his true intentions.

* Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, the co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, 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 books about Myanmar, especially his latest, “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”. His faith journey is told in his book “From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church” (Gracewing, 2015).

1 Comments on this Story
PAUL LIM
The photo of the Cardinal cutting the Christmas cake with the military strongman demonstrates the naviety of hiM The military uses the Church, uses this photo to portray that the Church is supportive like the Buddhist Monks. The cardinal should have thought better. His reputation is dented. The Catholics who suffers should be having second thoughts of their Church. In any case where was the Church in the 1950's, 50's. It was never at the fore front fighting for justice, human rights. It wants peace without justice. The institutionnel Church is basically about self-préservation. it is part of the status quo. it is not sacrificing as its founder was. Look at European history or history of the Church. It has always been on the side of the state and its civilsing role in colonialism. There will not be Cathoiiclsm or any other Christianity without this civilsing role. The Author of the article as with me who writes this comment is the result of this civilising role. The Church should be the Church of the catacombs; The destruction of Churches in Myanmar should be taken in stride and might make the Church to think that it should become the Church of the catacombs as an institution. i make a distinction of the Church as an institution and as a people who are suffering in Myanmar in this present case.

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