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100th anniversary of Myanmar cathedral: prelate hopes for democratic future

Catholic World News - December 09, 2011

Pope Benedict XVI has drawn attention to the plight of persecuted Christians in Myanmar (Burma) by sending Cardinal Renato Martino as his special envoy to the December 8 celebration of the centenary of the dedication of the cathedral in Yangon (Rangoon), the nation’s capital.

“Catholics in Myanmar must be the light and strength of the country according to the will of God,” Cardinal Martino preached during his homily.

Before the centenary Mass, the president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace met with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and opposition leader.

In preparation for the celebration, Archbishop Charles Bo scheduled penance services and a novena attended by thousands and oversaw the renovation of the cathedral, which suffered severe damage during Cyclone Nargis.

“It will be an important moment for the Christian community: for its history and faith, but also for its future, for the role Christians wish to play in a free and democratic country,” said Archbishop Bo.

“Pray so that authentic freedom and human dignity may be restored,” he added. “The Burmese faithful are very generous and docile, but most of them are not ready to live authentic freedom: therefore a path of preparation is needed.”

The US State Department has named Myanmar a “country of particular concern” because of its systemic violations of religious freedom.

Since 1962, the nation has been ruled by authoritarian military regimes, which expelled missionaries and nationalized Catholic schools and hospitals in the 1960s and abolished constitutional religious freedom protections in the late 1980s. Myanmar has gained a reputation for brutality: in 2005, the United Nation’s International Labor Organization estimated that 800,000 citizens are subjected to forced labor.

According to the US State Department, this atmosphere of repression is particularly unfavorable to non-Buddhists, for “the Ministry of Religious Affairs includes the powerful Department for the Promotion and Propagation of Sasana (Buddhist teaching).” Buddhist prayer and doctrine are part of the curriculum of all state-run elementary schools. The government pressures students to convert to Buddhism and rarely permits non-Buddhists to rise in the civil service. Monitoring church services and controlling the publication of all religious literature, it forbids the translation of the Bible into indigenous languages and at times has censored the Old Testament, citing its violent language. The construction and even the routine maintenance of churches often depend upon the whim of local administrators.

4% of the nation’s 53.4 million people are Christian, with 1.2% (689,000) being Catholic. Myanmar has 339 parishes, 691 priests, 385 seminarians, and 1,648 sisters, according to Vatican statistics.

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