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Archbishop calls for greater religious freedom in repressive Myanmar

Catholic World News - January 18, 2011

The leading prelate in Myanmar (Burma), one of the world’s most repressive nations, is calling for greater religious freedom.

Quoting Pope Benedict’s recent Message for the World Day of Peace, whose contents he delivered to government officials, Archbishop Charles Bo of Yangon said that “every person must be able to freely exercise and to manifest, individually or as a community, their religion or faith, both in public and in private, in the teaching, in the practice, in the publications, in the worship and in the observation of rites.”

Lamenting that Christians are forced to abandon their faith in order to receive promotions, Archbishop Bo noted that crosses are being removed from churches in some areas of the nation.

When the Church was able to operate schools, the “education system in Mynamar was noted for its excellence throughout Asia,” he recalled. After the forced nationalization of schools, however, education in the nation “was forcefully depleted and deteriorated more and more: this is an undeniable fact.”

In his annual address to the diplomatic corps in 2008, Pope Benedict asked the Lord to grant Myanmar “true respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Only 1.2% of Myanmar’s 53.4 million people are Catholic, according to Vatican statistics; in all, 89% are Buddhist, 4% are Christian, and 4% are Muslim.

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. The current junta, headed by General Than Shwe since 1992, 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.

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