ASIA/MYANMAR - Catholic pastoral center in Loikaw attacked and occupied by the Burmese army

Tuesday, 28 November 2023 displaced persons   civil war  

Loikaw (Agenzia Fides) - A Catholic pastoral center attached to the cathedral in Loikaw, where internally displaced people have sought refuge for months as part of the ongoing civil war, has been attacked and occupied by the Burmese army. This was reported by Bishop Celso Ba Shwe of Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State in eastern Myanmar. Even holy sites, the bishop said, were not spared from military operations, at a time when the military junta was struggling to wage war on the ground. "The Burmese army tried to take the Christ the King Cathedral complex three times," he reports. "As a local bishop, I, together with the priests, tried to convince the military generals of the importance of the religious sites and asked them to leave the place to spare, where displaced people are also welcomed. However, on the night of November 26, the military deliberately fired artillery shells at the community center several times, hitting the roof of the pastoral center's chapel. The ceiling was destroyed by artillery shells. For security reasons, "in consultation with the priests, we decided to leave the Pastoral Center. Shortly before our departure yesterday, November 27, 50 soldiers came and occupied the building to use it as a base and shelter." About 300,000 people live in Kayah State, Myanmar's smallest state, which is predominantly mountainous and inhabited primarily by the Karenni ethnic group. The Diocese of Loikaw is located here with around 93,000 Catholic believers. The Bishop's describes the situation in the area as dramatic: "The Burmese army has used heavy weapons, combat aircraft, armored vehicles and mobile defense systems. As a result, people in both the cities and the countryside are fleeing in different directions. Some fled to the northern part of the state or to areas of Shan State. Among the refugees were old and sick people, people with disabilities, women and some young people who, until a few days ago, were housed in the community center in Loikaw, where around 80 have already been housed in the past few months, including 10 priests and 16 religious. The number is constantly increasing. They will all now look for other accommodation and relocate to other Catholic parishes or other facilities further away from the fighting, or even to open-air rural areas. But the situation of refugees in the state is really serious, complains the bishop. “Due to the intensification of armed conflict in November, more than 80 percent of the urban and rural population in Kayah State have been displaced and the number of internally displaced people continues to rise,” he points out. “On November 11, about 800 residents of the city arrived in the Catholic complex of our Christ the King Cathedral, which was open for accommodation. In total, the number of displaced people, including those who were already there, exceeded 1,300. But unfortunately we were not safe there either," he notes and reports on the impact of the conflict on the ground, which observers believe may have reached a tipping point. With "Operation 1027", the rebels of the ethnic militias, allied with the People's Defense Forces, which emerged from the Burmese population after the coup in February 2021, have attacked the Burmese army in various parts of the country, especially in the states of Chin, Shan, Kayah and Rakhine, inflicted heavy defeats and forced them to retreat, and now control - according to independent observers - more than 50% of the country's territory. This goes so far that even the head of the military junta fears the risk of a disintegration of the nation (see Fides, 23/11/2023). In particular, the town of Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State, was subjected to constant airstrikes and bombardment in November. The Catholic cathedral complex, which housed refugee families and was one of the last refuges, is now also abandoned and involved in the war. In the diocese, 21 of 41 parishes were affected, and priests and religious also flew from the cities to the countryside or mountains along with the faithful. In the last month alone, humanitarian organizations estimate that more than 200,000 new displaced people have been added across the country; a total of around 2.5 million people have been on the run since the outbreak of the civil war. (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 28/11/2023)