ROME – On the same day that Pope Francis urged participation in a prayer initiative for the troubled nations of Myanmar and the Holy Land, another church was destroyed in the southern Burmese state of Kayah, marking the sixth such attack in just two weeks.
Sunday morning, on the feast of Corpus Christi, Myanmar’s military fired shells onto the Catholic Church of Mary, Queen of Peace in Daw Ngan Kha, in Kayah State. No casualties were reported, but the church sustained significant damage.
Several nearby houses were also damaged during the shelling, which began in the early hours of the morning.
This marked the latest in a string of churches that have been either damaged or destroyed in Myanmar amid increased fighting between rebels and military forces following a Feb. 1 coup, in which Myanmar’s army ousted the country’s democratically elected leaders and took control of the government.
On May 24, four people were killed and at least eight injured when heavy artillery struck Sacred Heart Church in Kayantharyar, near Loikaw, where more than 300 people had fled to avoid coming under fire.
A few days later, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Phekhon was also fired on. Other churches that have been targeted since include the church of St. Joseph in Deemoso; Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Domyalay, which was newly built and has not yet been consecrated; and a Catholic seminary in Loikaw where more than 1,300 civilians had taken refuge.
According to Al Jazeera, a volunteer was killed during the siege of the seminary, while militants ate the food that had been prepared for those sheltering at the facility.
Following the May 24 attack on Sacred Heart church in Kayantharyar, Cardinal Charles Bo, the archbishop of Yangon, issued a statement calling for attacks on places of worship to stop, saying, “It is with immense sorrow and pain, we record our anguish at the attack on innocent civilians.”
“The violent acts, including continuous shelling, using heavy weaponry on a frightened group of largely women and children,” caused unnecessary casualties, Bo said, adding, “This needs to stop. We plead with you all… kindly do not escalate the war.”
Pope Francis himself has pled for peace and unity in Myanmar as violence continues to escalate.
During a special Mass for the people of Myanmar celebrated inside St. Peter’s Basilica May 16, Francis, who visited Myanmar in 2017, prayed for God to “set us free from evil’s power” and told the people, “Do not to lose hope,” asking the country’s Christian community to work for peace and prevent small conflicts from being blown up into larger divisions.
On Sunday the pope raised another appeal for Myanmar, asking people around the world, “each according to their own religious tradition,” to participate in a special June 8 initiative organized by Catholic Action, which calls for one minute of silence for peace in Myanmar and the Holy Land.
The event comes ahead of a significant moment for Myanmar, as the trial for the country’s deposed democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is set to begin next week over a swath of criminal charges.
According to her legal team, the trial starts on June 14 and is expected to conclude around July 24.
Since her arrest in the Feb. 1 coup, Aung San Suu Kyi has been held under house arrest in Myanmar’s capital of Naypyidaw, appearing in public briefly for the first time May 24 for a court hearing.
So far, at least 849 people have been killed in clashes between military forces and opposition, many of whom are children, and around 4,500 others have been detained.
In remarks to Italian news agency SIR, the official online news outlet for the Italian bishops, the pastor of the Mary, Queen of Peace church that was damaged Sunday said most of the people in his village have fled due to escalating violence.
Beside the church is a retirement home for elderly nuns, which is currently offering refuge to around 150 vulnerable people from the area.
“They are the only ones left from the parish territory,” the pastor, identified as Father Francis, said, explaining that everyone else “went away.”
“Every day, people flee to safer places, leaving everything behind, their homes, even if no place is safter since the Kayah state has become a warzone,” he said, noting that seven parishes in the Loikaw diocese have been completely abandoned in recent weeks.
Father Francis said they asked the military to refrain from attacking churches, since many people, especially the poor and vulnerable, seek shelter there, but it was “in vain.”
“One of the reasons they are attacking the Catholic Church is that, by collaborating with many donors, the Catholic Church has taken up relief efforts for more than a third of the population of Kayah State (roughly 300,000) who have been forcibly displaced by indiscriminate and violent attacks by the military regime,” he said.
Another reason for the attacks, he added, “is that they no longer have a human heart.”
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