05/28/2019, 18.44
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Caritas Myanmar: although few, Catholics bear witness to the love of Christ

by Paolo Fossati

Catholics number 750,000 Catholics, or just over 1 per cent of the Myanmar population. The social and humanitarian arm of the Church was set up in 2001 and can count on 725 volunteers involved in education, emergencies, health, social protection and livelihood. Crises in the states of Kachin and Rakhine require different approaches.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Richard Win Tun Kyi, the national director of Caritas Myanmar (first picture, right), told AsiaNews that, in a multi-ethnic and multireligious context like Myanmar, Caritas’s mission is to bear "witness to Christ's love for the downtrodden, those who are lost and the poorest of the poor". He was one of some 400 participants in the 21st general assembly of Caritas Internationalis (23-28 May).

"Since its foundation, Caritas Myanmar has been very attentive to the diversity of peoples that make up our nation,” he explained. At the same time, “it proudly affirms its affiliation with the Church and its loyalty to its bishops. The social principles of Catholic doctrine guide us."

Myanmar is home to 750,000 Catholics, just over 1 per cent of the population. Known domestically as Karuna Mission Social Solidarity (KMSS), the organisation has been operating under the mandate of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Myanmar (CBCM) since 2001.

KMSS’s 725 volunteers are involved in five main areas: education, disaster risk reduction and emergency response, health, social protection and livelihood. Currently, several humanitarian emergencies are unfolding in Myanmar.

Its work is “most relevant in Rakhine State, scene of armed clashes between the military and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) affecting the Bengali-Rohingya population, as well as in Kachin State and northern Shan, torn by fighting.”

The social, ethnic and religious aspects of each are different, forcing Caritas Myanmar to adopt different approaches but with caution as the common denominator.

"In Kachin and Shan, the Church can count on a strong presence, due to the large number of Christians (Catholics and Baptists). There are three dioceses directly affected by the fighting: Myitkyina, Banmaw and Lashio.

"The great activity of the Catholic community, in terms of pastoral and social work, has contributed to rooting KMSS in the region since the early 2000s. For this reason, when armed clashes resumed in 2011, we were able to respond to the emergency immediately.”

"This was also possible because the two factions – the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) – view the Church as a neutral party. Thanks to the 'trust factor', we were able to undertake an important humanitarian assistance programme."

"Nevertheless, we are very cautious because we walk a very thin line. In all our humanitarian interventions, we first focus on the people who suffer because of the conflict, about 60,000, out of the more than 120,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) that we manage to assist in the non-controlled areas of the government. Our aid goes exclusively to refugees.”

The conflict in Rakhine is a somewhat different for the Church. Here Catholics are a small minority: in the whole Diocese of Pyay, which covers the state, there are only 8,000 Catholics out of a population of 2 million people.

"Despite such numbers, KMSS began working in Rakhine as early as 2003-2004. This is one of the poorest and most difficult states of the whole country. In 2009, when tropical storms devastated the area, we helped all communities: Bengali Muslims, Rakhine Buddhists and Chin ethnic groups.

"Although we were able to establish a foothold in Rakhine, ethnoreligious tensions force us to be very cautious. They touch Muslims and Buddhists above all, but we cannot allow our work to be an excuse to drag Christians into it. The latter are already viewed with suspicion by the authorities and extremists."

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