ASIA/MYANMAR - The people of God dispersed in Loikaw due to the war seek unity around the Eucharist

Wednesday, 20 March 2024 catholic church   eucharist   displaced persons  

Loikaw (Agenzia Fides) - Loikaw, a town in eastern Myanmar, in the Burmese state of Kayah, is deserted. It is now often referred to as a "ghost town" because civilians have fled for shelter from clashes between the regular army and militias opposing the military junta that seized power in a coup in February 2021. Priests, religious, catechists and Catholic families have also left the army-bombed city as it is considered one of the strongholds of the People's Defense Forces, allied with the ethnic minority armies.
Added to this is the situation of young people who fear compulsory military service, imposed by the government in recent weeks. "Young people don't want to enlist and fight against the people. That is why some join the rebel forces, others go into hiding, others emigrate," explains a source from the diocese of Loikaw to Fides, requesting anonymity for security reasons. Observers report that the flow of refugees continues unabated, even towards Shan State on the border with Kayah State. Among the refugees is the Catholic Bishop of Loikaw, Celso Ba Shwe, who had to leave his Christ the King Cathedral and its attached complex, which includes the diocese, the priest's apartment, the pastoral center and a medical clinic, in November last year because the area was occupied by the army and turned into a military camp (see Fides 28/11/2023). The bishop experienced this painful expulsion as "the opportunity that God has given me to be closer to the people, to share with all the displaced the condition of a refugee, to visit and comfort the saddened hearts," said the bishop, who temporarily moved to other parishes of the diocese and set up a base in the village of Demoso. In recent days he has been visiting the nearby Archdiocese of Taunggyi in Shan State. From there he launched an appeal for peace, calling on Burmese Catholics to "disarm their hearts." In a mass at St. Joseph's Cathedral in Taunggyi, held in the presence of hundreds of displaced people, Bishop Ba Schwe once again called on the faithful "to strive for true freedom and lasting peace, to create reconciliation and hatred, aggression and to renounce hostility". The Bishop, priests, religious and nuns of the Diocese of Loikaw remain close to the people of God in this area, a community currently made up of internally displaced people. The civil war has led to a dispersion of the faithful in Loikaw, which greatly affects the pastoral life of the local church: the ecclesiastical boundaries of the parishes are not determined, so far 12 churches have been hit and damaged by military attacks, and in the diocese there are 31 out of 41 parishes almost completely empty as the faithful have fled into the forests. Bishop Schwe will not be able to celebrate the rites of Holy Week and Easter in his cathedral in Loikaw, but in a new "bamboo cathedral", a simple wooden chapel specially built in the forest to continue celebrating the Eucharist. This, he emphasizes, "creates the community that gathers around Jesus, even if it is scattered throughout the territory, and yet remains united in prayer in a time of distress," the Bishop said to the displaced people living in temporary shelters that have been improvised in some areas, or in other camps organized with the help of the local Church. "We do not know how long this situation and this uncertain time will last. I do not know what condition we will find the cathedral in and when we will be able to return. We pray to the Lord and entrust ourselves to him as a community seeking peace and pray for salvation, the gift of Easter, which we all await with great hope," he concludes. (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 20/3/2024)