For Yangon cardinal Burmese Church is the voice of the poor and marginalised, a witness to Christ through its works
by Dario Salvi
Myanmar's first cardinal speaks about a Church "open to everyone", that evangelises through work, not proselytising. Catholics have passed on the value of interfaith dialogue to other faith groups and actively work for peace between the government and the country's ethnic minorities. He tells student protesters to stand firm and pursue non-violence. He also suggests teaching religions in schools.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - The Burmese Church "must play a greater role" in the country's reconstruction process. It must also be "the voice of the poor, those at the bottom, the ethnic minorities, and all those who lost hope and are marginalised." However, the Church "is not an NGO with an agenda and objectives to meet;" it is something "open to everyone, without exception" through which "we can deliver Christ's message," said Card Charles Maung Bo, archbishop of Yangon.

Along with two other Asians - François-Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij, archbishop of Bangkok, and Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon, archbishop of Hanoi - he received the cardinal's biretta last Saturday. Before he returned to Myanmar, he met AsiaNews. During the interview, he said that the "value of being Christian" and evangelisation are not achieved through "proselytising", but through work. "As Pope Francis put it, we can grow through action and attraction because we are not seeking power or domination over others."

Cardinal Bo was born on 29 October 1948 in Monhla, a village of Shwebo District, in the Archdiocese of Mandalay, central Myanmar. He grew up in a Salesian house and, following the charism of Don Bosco, undertook his journey of spiritual training.

Ordained in Lashio 9 April 1976, he led the parish of Loihkam until 1981, and then that of Lashio for the next two years. On 7 July 1990, the prefecture was elevated to the status of diocese and he became its first bishop, receiving his episcopal ordination on 16 December.

On 13 March 1996, he was moved to the Diocese of Pathein. This was followed in 2002 by his appointment as apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Mandalay. On 15 May 2003, he became Archbishop of Yangon, where he took over on 7 June.

In recent years, the new cardinal has spoken up on various issues that have taken centre stage in the country's life. In doing so, he has revamped the role of the local Church, which has just celebrated its first 500 years of existence.

Whilst insisting on religious freedom as a right and interfaith dialogue as duty, he also stressed that Catholics have a duty to pursue evangelisation and back the peace process between the central government and ethnic minorities. Speaking about his country, the new cardinal said that it was "under reconstruction" after decades of conflict, tensions, dictatorship and deep divisions.

"It is impossible to build a perfect society in two or three years. It is easier to destroy and harder to rebuild," he said. Still, "The situation is improving. New schools are opening and political prisoners are being released. There are more rights, but we need patience. We need to listen and talk as well as engage in compromise among the parties."

For this reason, he urged students who have recently taken to the streets to remain "united and steadfast" and demand changes to the government's draft bill on education. At the same time, they should avoid "any form of violence."

Young people's demands are legitimate, Card Bo said. Some points, including free trade unions and promoting ethnic minorities "are fair" goals.  For this reason, he called on them "to be polite, get an education and stand firm."

Speaking about his appointment as cardinal, the archbishop of Yangon said the pope's decision took him by "surprise." The honour however is not for him, but for the Church of Myanmar and for the country." The Pontiff "tries to reach everyone, looks to the edges of the world. Even in Myanmar, where Catholics are only 1.3-1.5 per cent of the population, he has shown concern for us."

The cardinal mentioned the Church's action in favour of democracy, peace and interfaith dialogue in Myanmar, a country still marked by sectarian conflict and divisions: in the western state of Rakhine between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, and in Kachin State, on the border with China, between the central government and the local ethnic minority, which is overwhelmingly Christian, Catholics included.

In the past few years, the government and the country's leaders have focused too much "on the Burmese identity and Buddhist faith". Together, the two represent 85 per cent of the country's population, and minorities have been largely marginalised. By contrast, the Church works for reconciliation, the cardinal said.

The prelate said he hopes to see a "fair distribution of resources" and insisted on values like "justice, peace and development." Through Karuna Myanmar Social Services (Caritas Myanmar), the Church "has worked for the rights of individuals and for interfaith dialogue," taking advantage of the fact that "today the government is more open to suggestions and proposals."

The Church is part of a process that includes reconciliation between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine. Agreements, talks, patience, and understanding are needed because "there is no simple and immediate solution on the horizon."

Although the situation "remains critical", as Catholics "we are committed to promoting negotiations". In fact, the Church brought the value of interfaith dialogue to Myanmar since it "is unknown to Buddhists and Muslims, but is now urgent and necessary for everyone."

Catholic leaders have also suggested, among other things, "adding courses on religion in the school curriculum, on all religions present in Myanmar because," Card Bo said. For him, "it is important for children to learn about history, respect, and coexistence."

Likewise, "it is equally important for schools, government institutions, youth ministers, officials, even monks in monasteries and future priests in seminaries to experience and learn the same thing."