ROME – With public backlash expected to spike as the trial of Myanmar’s ousted democratic leader looms, the nation’s bishops have made an appeal to the military to cease targeting places of worship and to allow humanitarian aid to reach at-risk populations.

“As our country goes through her challenging times, this appeal is made on humanitarian grounds. We are not politicians, we are faith leaders, accompanying our people in their journey towards human dignity,” Myanmar’s bishops said in a June 11 statement.

Among other things, they asked for a humanitarian corridor to be opened in conflict zones and that military forces “Respect the right to sanctuary and respect sanctity of places of worship.”

In recent weeks, six churches in Myanmar have been either attacked or destroyed amid fighting between the military and opposition forces after a Feb. 1 coup overthrowing the country’s democratic leadership, with one incident in Kayantharyar in late May claiming the lives of four people refuging in a church to avoid the violence.

With peaceful demonstrations largely quashed by armed military intervention, several small rebel groups have sprung up and are leading the grassroots resistance, causing daily casualties and mass displacements.

So far, at least 861 people have been killed and around 4,800 others detained or sentenced by the military since it ousted State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners advocacy group.

“Thousands of our people, especially the old and the children are starving in the jungles. Starvation of the innocent people is the most heart wrenching experience,” the bishops said, and asked those currently in positions of authority “to allow the humanitarian corridor to reach out to the starving masses wherever they are.”

“These are our citizens, and they have basic right to food and safety,” they said.

Noting that thousands of people have sought refuge in churches as fighting intensifies, the bishops asked the military to “Kindly observe the international norms of sanctuary in war times: churches, pagodas, monasteries, mosques, temples, including schools and hospitals, are recognized as neutral places of refuge during conflict.”

“We appeal that these places are not to be attacked and the people who seek refuge should be protected,” they said.

In a statement Friday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Myanmar has “gone from being a fragile democracy to a human rights catastrophe” in the run-up to Aung San Suu Kyi, who faces a swath of criminal charges – including corruption, bribery, and breaking coronavirus lockdown rules – which could result in a decades-long prison sentence.

The trial for Aung San Suu Kyi, who has already spent a cumulative 15 years in detention at the order of Myanmar’s general, is expected to begin in Naypyidaw on Monday.

As the trial begins and grassroots resistance continues to build, the Myanmar’s bishops asked all Catholic dioceses throughout the country to “launch into a period of prayer, seeking compassion in the hearts of all and peace to this nation.”

Specifically, they asked that daily Masses be offered for “peace and reconciliation” in the country; that a specific prayer to be published by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar be recited after every daily Mass; that an hour of adoration be held every day either privately or with a group; and that the rosary be prayed regularly asking for the protection of Mary, Mother of Help.

“God must change the hearts of all, bringing peace to this nation. As a nation we have suffered a lot, and this should end,” the bishops said.

Noting that Myanmar for the past 70 years has struggled in its fight for democracy, the bishops insisted that after so many years of fighting, only the “tears and brokenness of innocent people” remain.

“Despite the recent events, as a nation we need to invest in peace,” they said, adding, “Nobody has won a war in this country. It is our duty to work towards peace.”

Myanmar “deserves to join the community of nations, putting its past to history and investing in peace,” they said, insisting that human dignity “is given by God and no amount of violence can negate people’s aspiration for human dignity.”

The fact that this can be achieved through peaceful means “is the lessons of history,” the bishops said, adding, “Peace is still possible. Peace is the way.”

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