YANGON, Myanmar: 7 January 2011 (austraLasia #2781) – Salesian Archbishop Charles Bo of Yangon preached on Pope Benedict XVI’s message on “Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace,” to about 4,000 people at three different liturgical celebrations over these days: New Years Day, Epiphany, and Independence Day (Myanmar). The majority of those present were Catholics, but also included other Christian believers and some Buddhist friends.
Speaking in the local tongue, the archbishop repeated the Holy Father’s message more or less word for word, adding in personal reflection on the context in Myanmar.
“Each person must be able freely to exercise the right to profess and manifest, individually or in community, his or her own religion or faith, in public and in private, in teaching, in practice, in publications, in worship and in ritual observances. There should be no obstacles should he or she eventually wish to belong to another religion or profess none at all”, were amongst the Pope’s precise words quoted in the homily.
The archbishop then added that in the 17th century it happened that some Christian colonisers had forced the Burmese people to embrace Christianity under threat of persecution and death. He also said that it was undeniable, in the past, that some Christian missionaries had persuaded people to become Christian by providing them with animals, house, water.
This kind of evangelisation by force and threat, though, was also evident for Muslims and Buddhists too.
In Myanmar, there were cases where a Christian, to be promoted to higher positions, had to convert to Buddhism and renounce the use of his Christian name. In some tribal areas, Christian symbols, such as churches, crosses, and place of worship, were dismantled through the influence of Buddhist monks.
Again quoting the Holy Father, “The contribution of religious communities to society is undeniable. Numerous charitable and cultural institutions testify to the constructive role played by believers in the life of society” the archbishop commented that before nationalisation on 1 April 1965, Myanmar had many hospitals and schools run by the Catholic Church. At that time the education system of the country was famous in Asia. But after nationalisation the country became very poor and continues to be further impoverished. This is an undeniable fact.
The archbishop emphasised the need for dialogue between civil and religious institutions. “A healthy dialogue between civil and religious institutions is fundamental for the integral development of the human person and social harmony” he said and indirectly asked political leaders in the country to enter into dialogue with religious leaders. He said that it is not enough to direct from the top; there is also a need for dialogue and to listen to others.
Myanmar is a country with some 55 million people. Catholic Christians make up just a little over 1 percent of that total.