ROME – After nearly 40 people were killed in a brutal attack in eastern Myanmar right before Christmas, Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon made an appeal to both government and opposition forces to stop the violence and begin pursuing peaceful dialogue.

The killing of at least 38 civilians in Mo So village, in Myanmar’s Hpruso, Kayah (Karenni) State “is a heart-breaking and horrific atrocity which I condemn fully and unreservedly with all my heart,” Bo said in his Dec. 26 message.

He offered prayers for the victims, their families, and the survivors of “unspeakable and despicable act of inhumane barbarity.”

“The fact that the bodies of those killed, burned, and mutilated were found on Christmas Day makes this appalling tragedy even more poignant and sickening,” he said, noting that as the rest of the world celebrated the birth of Christ with joy, the people of Mo So village suffered death, shock, and destruction.

At least 38 people, including children, were killed late last week in an attack by Myanmar’s military in a region of the country where fighting has escalated between resistance groups and junta forces.

International UK-based humanitarian group Save the Children said two of its workers who were heading home for the holidays following a humanitarian trip to the area are still missing, after their vehicle was targeted in the attack, which took place in the eastern Burmese state of Kayah, also known as Karenni.

Save the Children said members of Myanmar’s military reportedly forced people from their cars, arresting some, and killing others and burning their bodies.

Myanmar has been in turmoil ever since a military-led coup in February last year overthrew the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who faced trial over election fraud and was jailed earlier this month.

In the wake of the coup, “People’s Defense Forces” (PDF) resisting military control have sprung up across the country and have clashed with government forces in a conflict that has turned into a bloody standoff with both sides refusing to back down.

More than 1,300 people have been killed by security forces in their attempt to quash resistance and roughly 11,000 others have been arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners advocacy group.

UN agencies, human rights groups and local journalists have documented the chaos and have called on Myanmar’s military junta to refrain from violence and to ensure humanitarian aid reaches people displaced by fighting.

Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) called the attack in Kayah a “Christmas massacre” and accused junta troops of detaining “an unconfirmed number of [villagers] and travelers” and destroying their properties.

“As the world celebrates Christmas and its message of peace, the NUG repeats its demands on the international community to act immediately and decisively to end the military junta’s escalating war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Myanmar people,” the NUG statement said.

Myanmar’s military in their own statement said they had shot and killed an unspecified number of “terrorists with weapons” belonging to opposition forces in the village, who they said were traveling in seven different vehicles and did not stop when ordered by the military.

Pope Francis prayed for peace in Myanmar during his annual Christmas address Saturday, saying it has become a place “where intolerance and violence not infrequently target the Christian community and its places of worship, clouding the peaceful countenance of that people.”

In his statement, Bo said the whole of Myanmar “is now a war zone.”

News that airstrikes in Kayin State had forced thousands to flee across Myanmar’s border with Thailand came on Christmas Eve, he said, noting that many surrounding areas have also endured bombardments, shelling, and mass destruction.

“When will this end? When will decades of civil war in Myanmar cease? When will we be able to enjoy true peace, with justice and true freedom? When will we stop killing one other?” Bo asked, insisting that violence “can never, ever be a solution to our problems. Guns and arms are not the answer.”

He asked those carrying weapons to put them down, and called on Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, to “stop bombing and shelling innocent people, to stop destroying homes and churches, schools and clinics, and to begin a dialogue with the democracy movement and the ethnic armed groups.”

Similarly, he asked members of the People’s Defense Force opposition group to acknowledge that guns only perpetuate violence, “causing more deaths, more starvation, with devastating consequences for our children’s education, our economy and health.”

Bo quoted Saint John Paul II, who once said that “Our world is disfigured by war and violence.”

“Today, the scale and the horror of modern warfare, whether nuclear or not, makes it totally unacceptable as a means of settling differences between nations. War should belong to the tragic past, to history; it should find no place on humanity’s agenda for the future,” he said.

He urged all parties to pursue peace, and asked the international community for diplomatic assistance in ending the conflict and allowing humanitarian aid to reach areas where people have been displaced by bombs and shelling.

However, Bo stressed that while the international community can help, “they cannot solve our problems for us. We must make peace ourselves, and together chart a new future of freedom with justice, truth and reconciliation.”

“I call on the military to stop bombing, shelling, and killing. I call on the democracy movement and the ethnic armed groups to strive earnestly for peace. And I pray from the very depths of my heart for an end to the tragedies we have seen in recent days and weeks and for too many years and decades,” he said.

Bo closed his message asking that “a new dawn begin for Myanmar and may the souls of those so brutally murdered rest in peace.”

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