Archbishop Charles Bo of Yangon shares with CatholicNews the opportunities the Church faces as Myanmar opens up. We present excerpts of the interview.
CN: How is the Catholic Church in Myanmar reacting to all the changes and developments in the country?
Archbishop Bo: We know that everybody, every citizen, every Christian and every Catholic will have to contribute to the building of the nation.
During the bishops’ conference in January, we invited many from abroad to discuss how each Catholic could contribute to nation building.
In the past, our voices were not heard at all, we were never consulted. We had of course had no direct, real persecution, but in many ways we were limited and somewhat censored.
But now with the opening [of Myanmar], the people feel very psychologically free and can express their opinions. Our religious publications and the news journals have been coming out very freely.
In the past, like some of the Church buildings, some of our activities were very much controlled and curtailed by the authorities.
Now there are many Christians, many Catholics in parliament. Through them we express our opinions.
However, there is still conflict, such as between the Rohingya and Rakhine people, and also between the minority Kachins and the military. It has stopped for a while and we hope that we’ll have real peace.
We are very positive about the changes but there is a little bit of suspicion because we are still using the old constitution.
But positive things are happening. Now the government is turning more towards the West and less towards China.
Christians are people of hope, and we have been praying for these past 50 years for change in the country. We waited so long. God has His own time.
CN: What kind of relationship does the Church have with Aung San Suu Kyi?
Archbishop Bo: She’s a personal friend. In 1994, when I was Bishop of Lashio, I went to England and became very friendly with her husband, Michael Aris.
At that time, I sent two Religious Sisters to England to study and Michael saw that they didn’t have a proper place to stay. He said they could they stay at his house and take care of his two kids. He would provide the necessary for their education.
At that time, I was a little hesitant because of the political sensitivity surrounding Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. But I agreed to the two Sisters staying in the house.
They helped out in the house and in the day would go for English classes.
You know, the MI (Military Intelligence) from the Myanmar embassy was always watching over the house.
The MI saw the Sisters going in and out. So after one year, when the time came for those two Sisters to renew their passports, they were told, “Go back at once!” So they had to leave after one year.
When they entered Myanmar, all their things were searched.
With that connection since 1994, I became very close to Aung San Suu Kyi. Even before her release, I visited her three, four times.
CN: You were able to go inside her house?
Archbishop Bo: Yes. The MI was always watching, but so far they haven’t questioned me. But others were threatened and sometimes locked up. Perhaps it’s because I am a bishop, so they don’t ask, but watch only.
I’ve met her at least five to six times after her release, on occasions such as when she gave a keynote address to 500-600 young Christians in Yangon last year.
I introduced her to all the bishops and to all the other Christian communities.
I was also asked to give a talk at a prayer service for all religions that she organised. Heads of different religions – Muslims, Hindus, Christians – were there.
Whenever I invited her to attend various events, she always obliged.
Aung San Suu Kyi very much wants to help all the religious leaders. But in the past, the military said: “Politics and religion are separate, don’t interfere. Don’t say anything. You do your prayer service, but don’t interfere in anything.”
For us, we see that we are responsible for the building of the nation. Religion, peace, culture – everything is interrelated.
CN: How do you see the Church’s role in the future?
Archbishop Bo: In education, healthcare, the building up of the morality of the people and interreligious cooperation.
The Catholic Church, with the help of dioceses and the many Religious people, could really build up education.
CN: You are talking about opening more schools?
Archbishop Bo: More schools, more hospitals, more training centres, building capacities and other education training, morality, all these things. The Church could contribute very much. The needs are so many, you don’t know where to begin.
CN: Do you also fear the negative impact of an opening up of the country?
Archbishop Bo: Definitely, such as materialism. Families in Myanmar are 85-90 percent stable with very rare cases of divorce. Also respect for elders, family values, respect for teachers.
I’m afraid that once it is open, with the media … there could be a threat to family values and morality.
|There are currently about 750,000 Catholics in Myanmar, forming about 1.3 percent of the 60 million-strong population, according to Archbishop Bo. Buddhists form about 85 percent.|