This picture taken on Dec. 24, 2019, shows people attending a Christmas Eve church service at St. Mary's Cathedral in Yangon, Myanmar. (Photo: AFP)
A Christmas of darkness, silence and fear awaits thousands of Christians in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Myanmar, where carols, decorations and illuminations are banned because of ongoing conflicts.
The sounds of gunfire, fighter jets and artillery shelling have replaced those of carols and celebrations in predominantly Christian Kachin, Kayah, Karen and Chin states.
Away from home-sweet-home, thousands of Christians have been forced to take refuge in churches, makeshift camps and in forests following military attacks against civilians.
For *Josephine Pho Mu, 42, this is the second time she has had to flee her home in Kayah state since 1988.
"It is a mix of joy and sorrow when Christmas approaches"
“I thought we would be temporarily displaced and go back home. But we have been away from home and sheltering at this camp for 19 months,” says Pho Mu who has taken refuge at a church-run camp in Loikaw, capital of Kayah state, after leaving her village in Demodo township in May 2021.
The mother of three said this will be her second Christmas in the camp.
“It is a mix of joy and sorrow when Christmas approaches. We are joyful about welcoming Jesus Christ’s birthday but we are sorrowful as we are in the camp due to the conflict and don’t know when we will be able to return home,” Pho Mu told UCA News.
She said there is a program for children such as games before Christmas while adults will spend their time in spiritual preparation prior to Christmas.
“We will join a novena starting from Dec. 16 and attend Masses on Dec. 24 and 25,” Pho Mu said.
She said life in the camp is different from her home but she is not depressed and remains hopeful about her future.
"May we have Christmas carols, peace and greetings with love after disappearing from gunfire, fighting and heavy weaponry"
“I have decided that I will not give up hope and will face the difficulties as I need to set a good example for my children,” she said.
At least 170,000 civilians in Kayah state — more than half of its population of 300,000 — have been forced to abandon their homes, according to the Karenni Civil Society Network.
At least nine Catholic churches have been hit by artillery shelling and air strikes by Myanmar’s military in Loikaw diocese, with 16 out of 38 parishes severely affected by the conflict which has intensified since the junta ousted Myanmar's elected government in a coup on Feb. 1 last year.
Father Celso Ba Shwe, administrator of Loikaw diocese which covers Kayah state, said the elderly, the disabled, children and pregnant women in IDP camps are in dire need of humanitarian assistance while children and youths are facing difficulty continuing formal education.
“In the season of Christmas, may we have Christmas carols, peace and greetings with love after disappearing from gunfire, fighting and heavy weaponry,” the priest said in an Advent letter.
*Mary Hkawn San, who has taken refuge at a Church-run camp near Myitkyina, capital of Kachin state, wished that Catholics and Baptists could again celebrate Christmas together in her home village.
"Christmas is a time to receive a special blessing from God"
“It's a different experience for me to celebrate Christmas in the camp. There are no decorations as everything here is makeshift,” says Hkawn San who fled her home following renewed fighting in June 2021.
The 45-year-old Kachin widow who has seven children is optimistic about her life despite the difficulties she faces. “Christmas is a time to receive a special blessing from God and we need to emphasize spiritual preparations to welcome Jesus Christ,” she said.
“I pray for peace in our country so that our children who have grown up in camps may get freedom, peace and live a dignified life,” she added.
The dioceses of Loikaw, Pekhon, Hakha, Kalay and Mandalay have been badly hit following the military coup that triggered peaceful demonstrations and growing resistance from newly emerged militia groups.
Archbishop Marco Tin Win of Mandalay archdiocese that covers the Sagaing region where hundreds of homes in three historic Catholic villages were torched by junta forces, appealed to Catholics to focus on spiritual preparations and avoid “high-profile celebrations” at Christmas and New Year to show solidarity with people affected by the conflict.
Christians in Kayah, Shan and Chin states could not hold Christmas and New Year celebrations last year due to the fighting.
More than 1.4 million people are displaced across the country, with more than 1.1 million displaced since the 2021 military takeover, according to a UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report on Dec. 3.
*Names have been changed to protect their identities