Pope Francis meets Cardinal Bo in Myanmar in 2017

By Deborah Castellano Lubov

Apr 16 2022

In an interview with Vatican News, the Archbishop of Yangon and President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences speaks about the dramatic situation in country in the wake of the recent raid at Mandalay Cathedral. He also elaborates on the humanitarian emergency, Christian persecution in the nation, and how the Church in Myanmar is preparing for Easter.

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, says the Way of the Cross is still being lived today in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), as violence rages on and the nation faces a massive refugee crisis.

As the persecution of Christians worsens in the country, Cardinal Bo makes an appeal as the humanitarian emergency worsens dramatically.

Moreover, this Holy Week the Cardinal discusses how the Church in Myanmar is preparing for Easter, the legacy of Pope Francis’ 2017 visit to Myanmar, and his continued appeals for peace in the nation, as well as what gives Cardinal Bo hope amid a very despondent situation.

Q: Your Eminence, you called the situation in Myanmar “a prolonged Way of the Cross,” a year after the military coup (1 February 2021) that abruptly halted the path to democracy. In such a climate, how is the Church in Myanmar preparing for Easter?

The Way of the Cross is still lived today by the people of Myanmar. We are still at Golgotha on Calvary. Even last Friday evening as faithful were praying the Way of the Cross in the Cathedral of Mandalay, soldiers entered that sacred place with their guns and terrified the people. Christ’s sufferings are lived out again now by the victims of war, the refugees, the widows who mourn and the children left without fathers, the young men and women who die in the jungles in Myanmar. We lament that we could not resolve these conflicts by our own power – that our efforts for peace are until now in vain. God suffers in His people. The pain of Jesus’ last hours is reflected in the eyes and hearts of mothers whose sons and husbands die in Myanmar as in Ukraine. They live now the Way of the Cross.

Even Jesus cried out in prayer to the Father at that time that this hour might pass Him: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me.” But He submitted and continued to the end. We may not be so strong. We cry to the Father to ask why He permits the evil that is destroying our nation, allowing Myanmar people to suffer without end. In faith, we are assured that the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, is the way in which God overcomes evil and brings peace. The prayers of the people during this Holy Week are heartfelt. I cannot believe that God is turning a deaf ear to His suffering people.

Greatest violence perpetrated where Christians are

Q: How would you describe the situation of the Burmese Catholic Church in this period?

Everyone in Myanmar is living a time of great stress, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians. Armed conflicts are raging on at least four fronts, in the East, the North, the Northwest and the Centre of Myanmar. But even for those who do not witness extrajudicial killings or have their houses and communities destroyed, all are affected by the collapse of the economy and basic services. More than half the population is reduced to poverty and food prices are escalating. But what people feel and resent most, especially the young, is that their future is taken from them. All this is so wasteful. Myanmar Catholics suffer all this along with everyone else and possibly more because the greatest violence is perpetrated in communities where the Christian populations are greatest, both Catholic and Protestant. Already over 15 churches and convents have been desecrated or ransacked or bombed. The counterinsurgency strategy of the military is to destroy the community base for any resistance. In this engulfing darkness of violence and plain evil, the Church cannot support talk of vengeance and more violence. We have consistently pleaded for reconciliation. While we understand the deep disappointment of the youth, we are deeply worried about the multiple armed groups, without leadership, or a common strategy. In areas where unorganised People’s Defence Forces (PDF) operate without any clear aims, brutal retributive violence by the army is occurring sadly displacing thousands. 

Q: Given the situation in Myanmar, is there an Easter appeal you believe needs to be made?

As Jesus said to the Pharisees about His disciples, “If they keep silent, the very stones will cry out.” Yes, there is an appeal, but we wonder if anyone is listening. Given the war in Ukraine, we understand that the attention of the world is elsewhere, even if crimes committed here are the same, even with the same Russian weapons of destruction. Our first appeal is for peace. Our appeal is to say enough! Stop the killing and the obscene brutality! Beyond that our appeal is for those who are in desperate need of food, shelter and medical care. The major humanitarian agencies are here in the country but they are not given access to the people who need their support. WFP, ICRC, and UNHCR are prevented from reaching to places of need.  At the very least, give access for humanitarian assistance. We, the Catholic Church, try to help, with our own resources. We fear that Caritas Internationalis now turns its attention to Ukraine and cannot help other victims of war.

Q: The political crisis in Burma has resulted in a large wave of refugees. What message do you wish to give to them?

They are the ones to give a message. The dispossessed are the ones to whom we must listen. Even on His way of the Cross, Jesus stopped to give His attention to the women of Jerusalem. We must do the same, listening the message that all the world should hear. The most recent United Nations report indicates that there are 520,000 people newly displaced on top of the 370,000 already driven from their homes. They have a message for the leaders of the world. Recently, I travelled to Kayah State to listen to the displaced people, but the controls and the time were such that I could meet only a few of them. My message to them is that I want to hear from them, to understand their suffering, to know their account of what has happened to them. 

Church in Myanmar, Not Alone

Q: In spite of all the difficulties, have you seen something that gives you hope? 

If we are realistic, it is not easy to see any cause for hope. Given the power and determination of the military, there is no quick and easy solution or salvation. But Myanmar people have lived through seven decades of military rule already and they survived. The older ones recognize what is happening, even though this is more ferocious than anything we experienced in the past. People are not fooled by lies. One source of hope is the sheer resilience and common sense of people. For survival, people turn to small business, some collect plastics and metal to sell, others set up small food stalls, all to earn a little for survival.

As Christians, we find hope in the deep mystery of the folly of the Cross. All the people taunted Jesus to save Himself, meaning to get Himself down from the Cross. Only the good thief could see that Jesus brings a different kind of salvation. We are invited to share the faith of this good thief. Being a disciple of Jesus does not exempt us from death – rather it asks of us a daily dying. In our case persecution and injustice become all too real.

Q: As President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), despite challenges for Christians throughout the continent, what are positive signals?

The Myanmar Church is not alone in Asia in living under an autocratic regime, or where freedom is restricted. Jesus asked His followers to be a leaven in society, to be present, and to have an impact by our lives and by our teaching. The followers of Jesus continue to do this even in situations around Asia where freedoms are limited. In most of the countries of FABC, except for the Philippines and Timor Leste, the Church is a minority. Yet the Church has an importance beyond its numbers, especially where Church personnel are able to engage in education, health care and social services. 

Pope Francis ‘keeps Myanmar close to his heart’

Q: What do you see as being responsible for or to what do you credit the flourishing vocations in the Asian continent?

Vocations are flourishing in the sub-continent, especially in India, I understand, and in some pockets of Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam. But we cannot say they are growing everywhere. Here in Myanmar, our seminaries have been disrupted by COVID and by the conflict. But the example of the sisters in caring for people at this time is a great inspiration for the young. The deep faith of people in this time of trial is impressive. 

Q: The Holy Father visited Myanmar in 2017. How could the legacy of that papal visit help your country regain unity and resume the path toward freedom?

Pope Francis remembers the people of Myanmar. Already he has mentioned us ten times in warm messages of consolation and challenge. He keeps Myanmar close to his heart. Many sacrificed a lot to come to Yangon to see him in 2017. It was a moment of solidarity for the Church of Myanmar. He felt great compassion also for the refugees from Myanmar whom he met in Bangladesh. His attention to the refugees is a lesson for us, that we will resume our path to freedom if we pay attention to our suffering brothers and sisters.

Pope Francis speaking alongside Cardinal Bo