ASIA/MYANMAR - The pastoral service of three new priests in Taunggyi, a territory where life is in danger due to the civil war

Friday, 27 October 2023 priests   displaced persons   civil war  

Taunggyi (Agenzia Fides) - For the three new Burmese Jesuit priests of the archdiocese of Taunggyi, a city in central Myanmar, which is part of the territory of Shan State, the task of serving the community and caring for the faithful will not be easy. On the contrary, it will be very risky, because the fighting of the civil war continues and the Catholic communities - dispersed in society, among the population - suffer violence like all other Burmese citizens, of different ethnicities and religions. Aware of the dangers they will face in their service, placing themselves in the hands of God, always acting with the necessary prudence, the new priests have enthusiastically begun the task entrusted to them. The motto chosen by the three Jesuits to characterize the day of their priestly ordination, which was celebrated on October 13 in Taunggyi, an archdiocese in which 7,000 Catholics live out of a population of 1.8 million, was “Called to serve with love". The Archbishop of Taunggyi, Bishop Basil Athai, recalled that this is the first priestly ordination of Jesuit religious in the archdiocese (which historically was the first to welcome members of the Society of Jesus in Myanmar, upon their return after their expulsion in the sixties). The three new priests, Father Joseph Thang Ha SJ, Father Jerome Aye Min SJ and Father Gerald Lukwe SJ, prayed entrusting their priestly vocation to God and the Virgin Mary, aware of the difficult context of the country, with the worsening of the political and economic conditions following the 2021 military coup. In the last two years, the three have already experienced firsthand the service to the displaced and homeless due to the ongoing civil war in the country and, they said, they understood that, precisely in this time of difficulty and suffering, they will be called "to bring hope".
"As a priest, I want to work for the marginalized, the poor, the sick and the elderly, starting by giving them comfort and the grace of God through the sacraments", said Father Gerald Lukwe. Father Jerome Aye Min added: "Since I am called to act according to justice, peace and love, I hope and count on always being close to people who are in need". "I will try to be faithful to my priestly vocation and pastoral service, accompanying young people and people who suffer in Myanmar. I hope to give everything for my neighbors, especially the most vulnerable", remarked Father Joseph Thang Ha.
In the Taunggyi area, as in many other dioceses in the country, the problem of internally displaced people is strongly felt, people who have lost their homes and livelihoods and who often seek refuge in churches or other facilities. Serving and accompanying them "requires a lot of dedication and love, through which we hope to give glory to God", repeat the three Jesuits. In the confrontation between Myanmar's regular army and the 'People's Defense Forces' - the militia formed after the coup and composed mostly of young men - this purely humanitarian service can often be seen as hostile or understood as "support for rebellion". For example, already last year, the Myanmar military detained two Catholic priests who were preparing to help internally displaced people in Shan State, eastern Myanmar; one of them was Father John Bosco, priest of the Archdiocese of Taunggyi. Both, along with some volunteers, intended to bring humanitarian aid to the internally displaced people in the surrounding towns, but the Burmese military stopped them and detained them, preventing this work. According to Fides Agency sources, it often happens that Burmese Catholic priests are subjected to acts of intimidation and violence. In some cases, the military has confiscated aid and money intended for pastoral needs and helping refugees. In several dioceses they have been arrested (and later released) on suspicion of supporting rebel forces. These incidents occur as fighting continues between the army and the People's Defense Forces in Shan State, with the number of displaced people increasing. The Archdiocese of Taunggyi has already welcomed thousands of Catholic faithful from the neighboring diocese of Pekhon (also in Shan State). In this situation, a humanitarian crisis is looming that the Burmese armed forces are pursuing with the intention of crushing all popular resistance and which mainly harms the civilian population. The Burmese army, in its strategy, cuts off access to food, communications, transportation and finances, in order to reduce the population to the brink, with a flagrant violation of human rights. Faced with military violence, villagers flee to the jungle or seek refuge in religious institutions and facilities, such as Catholic centers or Buddhist monasteries. Refugees rely on and survive only thanks to the tireless help of priests, catechists and volunteers who are dedicated to this service. As will the three new priests of Taunggyi. (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 27/10/2023)