Coup junta burns and destroys historic Assumption Church in Chan Thar
by Francis Khoo Thwe

The place of worship built in 1894 had a 'priceless' historical value for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Before setting fire to it, soldiers desecrated it by drinking and smoking inside. Catholics and Buddhists have lived together in harmony in the area for centuries. In the past year, the village has been attacked four times by militia, without any clashes or provocations. 

Yangon (AsiaNews) - The Burmese military junta has launched a new attack against Catholics in Myanmar, burning one of the oldest and most important places of worship in the country to the ground.

The military targeted the historic Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in the village of Chan Thar, Ye U, Shwe Bo district, Sagaing Division. Built in 1894 and with 129 years of life behind it, inside it was celebrated the baptism of what would become Burma's first bishop.

It is a new wound for the religious minority, after two air force fighter jets carried out a raid in Karen State in recent days, destroying a church and killing five people including a child.

The first Catholic presence in the area, which refers to the diocese of Mandalay, dates back about 500 years and the village of Chan Thar itself arose and developed thanks to the work of descendants of Portuguese Catholics who then inhabited it for centuries.

Since the military coup in February 2021 that overthrew the democratic government led by Aung San Suu Kyi - now under arrest - and returned power to the army, soldiers have already attacked the area four times. Many - at home and abroad - consider the church a 'priceless historical site'.

In the village, the population has always been predominantly Catholic, scattered in 800 houses in close contact and harmony with two neighbouring Buddhist centres. Last year, the military set fire to the houses of Chan Thar on 7 May and a second time a month later, on 7 June 2022, destroying 135 buildings.

The third assault took place on 14 December, just before the start of the Christmas celebrations; the last was a few days ago, on 14 January 2023, when the Tatmadaw (Armed Forces) men razed and burnt almost all the houses. 

Local sources, on condition of anonymity, report that the soldiers attacked and set fire to the church "for no apparent reason", because there was no fighting or confrontation going on in the area, and without any provocation.

The soldiers had been stationed in the area in front of the church since the evening of 14 January, and before leaving the area, they carried out an "atrocity" by setting fire to the building and "completely burning" the church, the parish priest's house and the centuries-old nunnery, which collapsed after being enveloped in flames. 

The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption was a source of pride for Catholics in Upper Myanmar not only because of its centuries-old tradition, the baptism of the first bishop and the birth of three other archbishops and over 30 priests and nuns.

The place of worship was in fact a historical and cultural heritage for the entire country, including Buddhists, and proof of this is the climate of fraternal cooperation that was established between the different communities.

The church, bell tower and other buildings were destroyed on the morning of 15 January. Government soldiers, an eyewitness revealed, also "desecrated" the sacredness of the place by "looting, drinking alcohol and smoking" inside. 

In response to the attack, a number of Burmese priests on social networks have been raising appeals to pray for the country and for the Christian community itself. On the other hand, there have been no official statements or declarations from the Archdiocese of Yangon and Card. Charles Bo.

In his message to the faithful published a few days ago on the occasion of the New Year, the cardinal had declared January as the "month of the ceasefire", addressing all parties - including the military - asking them to "silence their weapons" and "believe in a peaceful solution".

He had emphasised the value of 'dialogue' in conflict resolution and called for the resumption of the Panlong peace process. An appeal, as we can see these days, which has fallen on deaf ears on the Naypyidaw side.