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MUMBAI – As Myanmar grapples with widespread violence that’s left at least 2,300 people dead and 16,000 imprisoned, and which also has seen mounting threats to the country’s small Christian minority, both Pope Francis and the country’s top Catholic prelate have issued urgent appeals for peace.
“Recent months have seen great threats to the sacredness of human life, the lives lost, the lives displaced, and the lives under starvation,” said a Jan. 20 statement from Cardinal Charles Bo and two other Catholic prelates, on behalf of the country’s religious leaders.
“In a country blessed with so many great resources, the destruction of lives is a heart-wrenching tragedy,” Bo said.
“Increasingly the places of worship and monasteries, where communities. sought peace and reconciliation are themselves under attack and carnage,” the 74-year-old Bo said. “International instruments like the Hague Convention call for the protection of places of worship, places of learning, and places of healing.”
“With pain and anguish, we ask why these sacred places are attacked and destroyed,” he said.
The statement came just after Myanmar’s military destroyed the 129-year-old Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in the village of Chan Thar, considered one of the most historic Christian sites in the country. Among other things, it was where Myanmar’s first bishop was baptized.
The military gave no explanation for the assault, though the surrounding area has seen conflicts between the army and rebel militias.
Pope Francis addressed the attack during his Sunday Angelus address Jan. 22.
“My thoughts, painfully, go in particular to Myanmar, where the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in the village of Chan Thar, one of the oldest and most important places of cult in the country, was burned and destroyed,” Francis said.
“I’m close to the helpless civilian population, which, in many cities, is being subjected to great trials,” the pope said. “Please God, may this conflict end soon and a new time of forgiveness, love and peace open up.”
The pontiff then led the crowd in St. Peter’s Square in reciting a “Hail Mary” on behalf of Myanmar.
Bo’s statement described the assault on the church as an obstacle to peace.
“As a nation, we need to heal. Healing comes through our deep sense of interrelatedness,” he said. “Places of worship promote this interdependence, leading to peace. When they are burnt mercilessly, returning to normalcy becomes a great challenge.”
“As leaders of the various faith traditions, our passionate plea to all stakeholders in Myanmar is we have suffered enough as a people, let all guns fall silent, let us reach out to all, as brothers and sisters and start the sacred pilgrimage of peace – united as a nation and as a people,” Bo said.
In its annual World Report released Jan. 12, Human Rights Watch flagged Myanmar as one of Asia’s most worrying flashpoints.
The authors say more than 16,000 people have been jailed arbitrarily for protesting in favor of a return to democracy since the February 2021 military coup, and more than 2,300 civilians have been killed in clashes with the military or in airstrikes as the regime strives to put down an armed rebellion.
Nobel laureate and former State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, meanwhile, who once was the public face of hopes for a transition to democracy and civilian rule, now faces a total prison term of 33 years.
The country’s military rulers recently announced plans to hold general elections sometime between February and August, although many international observers have expressed skepticism that the ballot will be free and fair.