12/22/2016, 15.41
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Bishop of Bhamo to celebrate Christmas among war-displaced Kachin

by Jangma Gam

Mgr Raymond Sumlut Gam, bishop of Bhamo, describes how Jesus’ birth is experienced where civil war rages on the border with China. The Church and Caritas are present in refugee camps. Material aid, “spiritual nourishment and the Eucharist” quench the thirst of the faithful.

Bhamo (AsiaNews) – Mgr Raymond Sumlut Gam is the bishop of Bhamo, a diocese located in Kachin State in northern Myanmar (Burma), a few kilometres from the border with China. For the past four months, the diocese has been caught up in the civil war between the Kachin and the central government". Scores of people have ended up in refugee camps, but the Church will never abandon them." We go wherever they want to go to,” the prelate said.

Government troops have been pushing into the area carrying out air strikes and ground assaults against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), causing countless deaths. At least 27,000 people, mostly Christians, are holed up in refugee camps that are increasingly close to the fighting, forced to seek safer places. Despite the tragic situation, the faithful want to celebrate Christmas with joy.

Your Excellency, how many priests will visit refugee camps to celebrate Christmas Mass?

Two priests went to the camps on the border between Myanmar and China on 19 December. On 28 December, I will personally go to the Hpun Lum Yang camp to celebrate 25 years of service of a catechist. In addition, we usually send priests three times a year (Christmas, Easter and the Holy Cross feast) to refugee camps to show our spiritual closeness and solidarity.

How do you prepare for Christmas in these camps?

There are many things to organise; we have to clean, decorate and cook. Priests focus on inner spiritual preparation, and administer confession to the faithful. Our diocesan believers give much value to the sacrament of confession; without it, they are sad during Mass.

People who lead rich and comfortable lives can get excited for the material and external aspects of Christmas. Displaced people, who have experienced the harshness of life, give value to spiritual nourishment and the Eucharist during Christmas. This is the how people in refugee camps welcome Christmas. All 27,000 displaced people of the diocese are Christians, 4,500 Catholic.

We know that conditions in refugee camps are very hard, and that UN aid is blocked by government troops. What Christmas message does the Church have for people who live in distress?

According to the Gospel, the angel brought two messages to the shepherds. The first was "do not be afraid"; the second was “the Saviour is born today." Sometimes people appreciate more the second message and focus on the coming of the Saviour. The first message is linked to today’s hard times, and sometimes people ignore it. But "do not be afraid" is the first message, and this year I want to emphasise this. I want people to know that "God is with them". If we accept this message and hold it in our heart, we will be ready to sacrifice ourselves.

The faithful who live in a tragic situation have the opportunity to prove the truth of this message. God’s message is addressed to people of good will to keep God’s peace in Him, and if they do so, they can be at peace even at death.

How does the Church and Caritas Bhamo provide humanitarian assistance to the displaced who have to move to safer areas?

The Church focuses on pastoral care and guidance. Those who run refuge camps decide when and where displaced people have to travel. When they decide to leave, the Church accompanies them and assists them during the journey. To meet the basic needs of the displaced, Caritas is always ready to provide humanitarian assistance. The Church will always be faithful.

As a Church we cannot make decisions for the displaced. We go wherever they want to go to. Catechists also always stay with the refugees. A fine example of such closeness is Mun-Ko where the priest and the nuns themselves have become refugees in a camp under the control of the Chinese government. Although the Church in China is not strong, we try to assist refugees across the border as well.

What is your message to the faithful inside and outside Myanmar?

Prayer is the most powerful weapon. I call on everyone to pray. Many members of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities have sought refuge in foreign countries and I call on them to intercede with their governments to help our country find peace.

Instead of cursing people on the internet, we need to reach out with a message of love to those who do not want to listen. Material donations to refugee camps are also important.

Meanwhile, as time went by, international support for displaced Kachin has diminished because organisations have turned their attention to more urgent problems.

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