Church in Myanmar, five centuries of missionary history (a profile)
Yangon (AsiaNews) - The evangelization of Burma - now Myanmar - began around the beginning of the sixteenth century. The presence of the first missionaries dates back to 1511 and, for this reason, the celebrations for the 500 years should have taken place in 2011. However, the political situation, security reasons - the country was going through a period of transition from military dictatorship to a semi-civilian government - and the lack of true religious freedom did not allow for the smooth conduct of the celebrations.
The presence of priests Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits became more rooted over the years allowing them to create the first Christian communities. These were concentrated mainly in the south of the country where, even today, names are found dating to the era of Portuguese rule. In 1648 Propaganda Fide tried to establish a real mission through the Capuchins in 1704 entrusted the job to the Foreign Missions of Paris. But the two attempts were unsuccessful, also because of the continuous wars raging in large parts of the country. On November 27, 1806, the Vatican congregation divided the Burma vicariate into three, with a reference to the geographical location: Northern, Eastern and Southern Burma. The boundaries were redrawn on June 28, 1870, by a decree of Propaganda Fide, which laid the foundations for the modern division of the territories of the Church in Burma: the three ecclesiastical provinces of Mandalay, Taunggyi and Yangon.
The evangelizing work of the PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) dates back to 1867, when the first priests begin their journey in the east; over time they contributed to the establishment of an archdiocese and five dioceses. The method of the missionaries was to leave the city, to visit remote villages and live with the people: a method that would appeal to Pope Francis, who constantly asks Christians to "go out" to the "existential and geographical peripheries". With the help of PIME Missionaries these tribes have discovered the use of brick, sanitation, how to write, the existence of a world around the perimeter of their tribe. It was a conscious insertion in the common history of the world; for this PIME has stayed put, despite the five martyrs, many missionaries who were expelled and varied situations of thinly veiled persecution.
In 1962, General Ne Win established a socialist military dictatorship, which down through its changes in leadership, led the country until 2010; in the past 40 years, the Catholic schools were nationalized and all the missionaries who arrived after independence (1948, Japan) expelled. The dictator wanted to create a "socialist-inspired Burmese Buddhism", of atheistic and totalitarian inspiration; in 1964-1965 the government confiscated all schools and sanitary works built up by Christian missions and in 1966 expelled all young foreign missionaries who arrived after independence on January 4, 1948. The diocese were almost immediately passed into the hands of the local bishops, except Taunggyi. In all, 232 Catholics, including priests and nuns, and 18 Protestants were expelled.
The persecution of the regime, however, did not stop the growth of the Church in Burma, thanks to the faithful and presence that had taken root in the area. Today the community in Burma now consists of 16 dioceses, more than 750 priests, 2500 religious sisters and brothers, and approximately 750 thousand faithful who count for 1.3% of the total population, with a high concentration of ethnic minorities and in the tribal areas.