An outpost of Catholicism in Myanmar prepares for the Pope

This photo taken on November 15, 2017 shows a signboard welcoming Pope Francis in front of the Catholic Church in Yangon. Pope Francis will visit Myanmar from November 27 to 30. (AFP / YE AUNG THU)
Updated 23 November 2017

An outpost of Catholicism in Myanmar prepares for the Pope

KAWKAREIK, Myanmar: Father William’s 16-strong flock on Myanmar’s eastern border is one of the Catholic Church’s tiniest outposts, but next week they will join a tide of 200,000 faithful in Yangon for a historic mass led by Pope Francis.
The Pope, renowned for powerful entreaties for peace no matter how highly-charged the issue, arrives on Monday in a country on the defensive over its treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority.
Some 620,000 Rohingya have been driven from western Rakhine state to Bangladesh since August, prompting allegations of ethnic cleansing of the stateless minority.
While Pope Francis’ visit is inevitably framed by the crisis, Father William Hla Myint Oo says it will not overshadow the momentous event.
The compact congregation of Kawkareik, just three families and several church volunteers, will join the priest for the eight-hour drive to Yangon.
“We’re very excited,” says the priest, who moved to the remote outpost in Karen state, near Myanmar’s eastern border, just five months ago.
“(The pope’s) visit to see us — a minority — gives us a real lift and strengthens our spirit..”
It is the first ever papal visit to a Buddhist-majority nation, whose estimated 700,000 Catholics represent just over one percent of the population.
Kawkareik, a town in Karen state of 40,000 people, sits in the foothills of mountains tracing the border with Thailand.
Karen is famed for its tree-clad limestone hills topped by pagodas that attest to the dominance of Buddhism.
The church, discreetly tucked behind high walls, has yet to host a wedding or a christening, giving its pastoral leader little work.
But the Yangon-born priest says the occasional flutters of boredom or loneliness have been dispelled by the Pope’s looming visit.
Maria Maung Lone, a spry 73-year-old worshipper, is equally delighted at the guest from the Vatican.
“None of my ancestors have ever done this,” he says with a wide smile. “We’re so lucky that we have this chance.”
There have been Catholics in Myanmar for over 500 years, the religion brought by Portuguese traders from their Indian settlement in Goa.
But it was not until the 18th Century that the country became a mission territory, even if spreading the Catholic word was not always been easy.
The southeast Asian country’s ferocious heat and malarial jungles threw up a natural barrier to progress, while Buddhist locals harbored reservations about the new faith.
But Catholics generally enjoyed a good relationship with their Buddhist neighbors, says Father Soe Naing, spokesman for Myanmar’s Catholic church.
That changed, however, after the 1988 uprising against military rule when the junta pitched itself as the keeper of the Buddhist faith as a tactic to augment its legitimacy.
“Suddenly we were being discriminated against,” Father Soe Naing says.
“If you were a Christian working for the government, you wouldn’t be promoted and it was impossible to build new churches.”
Today, however, he says relations with the Buddhist majority are back on track.
“We’ve grown up together, we mix with one another. We’re very good friends,” he says.
In 2014 the Vatican canonized Myanmar’s first saint, a religious teacher killed in 1950 while traveling in the eastern borderlands.
The country’s first cardinal was named in 2015.
Then the establishment of full diplomatic ties with the Vatican in May this year paved the way for the pontiff’s visit.
Catholics from across the country, including remote, mountainous areas of Chin and Kachin states, are expected to descend on Yangon for the pope’s visit, which runs from November 27-30 and will include two landmark masses.
While Myanmar’s Catholics are delighted at the pontiff’s visit, the trip is also fraught with risk.
The country — and international community — is holding its breath to see if Pope Francis uses the word “Rohingya” on Myanmar soil when he addresses the Rakhine crisis.
The term is toxic in the country, where many follow the government line that the Rohingya are not an indigenous ethnic group but instead “Bengalis,” shorthand for illegal settlers from neighboring Bangladesh.
“He will not be able to avoid speaking of the Rohingya crisis,” says Myanmar-based political analyst Richard Horsey.
“But he will also be aware that... the intervention of a Christian leader is more likely to inflame the situation than promote interfaith understanding.”
In recent months, the pope has repeatedly used the term “Rohingya,” calling for peace, interfaith acceptance and denouncing the plight of refugee children stuck in Bangladeshi camps.
His discourse has made Myanmar’s Catholic community nervous of a potential angry backlash from hard-line Buddhist groups.
But briefings, including by Myanmar’s cardinal, about the sensitivities surrounding the crisis have gone some way to soothing the Catholic community.
“We can see the Holy Father is very well informed,” Father Soe Naing says. “I’m sure he understands the issues and so our fear is lessened.”
Back in his small parish, Father William is reluctant to be drawn on the politics of the papal visit.
“It’s complicated,” he says.
“Human affairs are more important than politics and religion.”


France teacher’s killer had ‘contact’ with militant in Syria

Updated 41 min 7 sec ago

France teacher’s killer had ‘contact’ with militant in Syria

  • Anzorov’s suspected contact had been located through an IP address traced back to Idlib

PARIS: The investigation into the murder in France of a teacher for showing caricature of the Prophet Muhammad in class turned to Syria on Thursday, where the killer had a militant contact, a source close to the case said.
Seven people have been charged with being complicit in a “terrorist murder” after 18-year-old Chechen Abdullakh Anzorov killed Samuel Paty on Friday, including two teenagers who helped him identify the teacher.
France paid homage to Paty on Wednesday, with President Emmanuel Macron saying that the history and geography teacher had been slain by “cowards” for representing the secular, democratic values of the French Republic.
In their search for accomplices, anti-terror investigators have now established that Anzorov had contact with a Russian-speaking militant in Syria whose identity is not yet known, the source told AFP.
Le Parisien newspaper reported on Thursday that Anzorov’s suspected contact had been located through an IP address traced back to Idlib, a militant holdout in northwestern Syria.
In an audio message in Russian immediately after the killing, translated by AFP, Anzorov said that he had “avenged the Prophet” whom the teacher had shown “in an insulting way.”
The message was published on social media in a video, accompanied by two tweets, one showing the victim’s severed head and another in which Anzorov confessed to the murder.
Moments later he was shot dead by police. Anzorov decapitated Paty with a long knife.
Many of Paty’s students saw the images online before they could be taken down.
The teenagers who pointed out Paty to his killer in return for money were late Wednesday charged over the killing.

HIGHLIGHT

Le Parisien newspaper reported on Thursday that Anzorov’s suspected contact had been located through an IP address traced back to Idlib, a militant holdout in northwestern Syria.

The parent of one of Paty’s pupils, who started the social media campaign against the teacher even though his daughter was not in class when the cartoons were shown, was also charged.
Also charged was a known extremist radical who helped the father stir up outrage against Paty.
The other three facing prosecution are friends of Anzorov, one of whom allegedly drove him to the scene of the crime while another accompanied him to purchase a weapon.
Two of them also face c harges of being complicit in terrorist murder while the third was charged with a lesser offense, the anti-terrorist prosecutor’s office said.
Paty, 47, became the target of an online hate campaign over his choice of lesson material — the same images which unleashed a bloody assault by gunmen on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.
Police have carried out dozens of raids since the crime, while the government has ordered the six-month closure of a mosque outside Paris and dissolved the Sheikh Yassin Collective, a group they said supported Hamas.
The French government has earmarked for dissolution more than 50 other organizations it accuses of having links with extremists.
Paty’s beheading was the second knife attack since a trial of alleged accomplices in the Charlie Hebdo attack started last month.
The killing has prompted an outpouring of emotion in France, with tens of thousands taking part in rallies countrywide in defense of free speech and the right to mock religion.
“We will not give up cartoons,” Macron vowed at a ceremony Wednesday in Paty’s honor at the Sorbonne university in Paris.