RANGOON — Last week the Vatican announced that Isodore Ngei Ko Lat, a lay catechist killed by Burmese rebels in 1950, was on track to become Burma’s first Catholic saint.
Burma’s most prominent Catholic cleric says that the move “means that the Holy Father is giving attention and care to the forgotten church that was under military rule for 50 years.”
And with 2014 marking 500 years since the first presence of Catholicism in Burma, Archbishop of Rangoon Charles Bo hopes that Pope Francis will visit Burma.
“We have sent the invitation to the Pope and we are hopeful that he will come,” Archbishop Bo told The Irrawaddy.
Isidore Ngei Ko Lat’s sainthood case was first pressed by the Diocese of Loikaw, which is centered on Karenni State in east-central Burma. Isidore Ngei Ko Lat was killed in Loikaw in 1950, allegedly by Baptists, alongside Italian priest Father Mario Vergara.
“We believe that once you are martyred for your faith, you are in heaven,” the Archbishop said.
But before Isidore Ngei Ko Lat is named a saint Archbishop Bo hopes that Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, will visit Burma.
The Archbishop said that there has been “no response yet” from the Pope, but hopes are high that the new Pope will make a historic visit to Burma.
“He has already said that he is interested to focus his visits next year to Asia,” Archbishop Bo said.
The Archbishop said he does not know whether Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi raised the issue of a possible Papal visit to Burma when she met Pope Francis a few weeks ago.
“I will ask her about this when we next meet, which will be on December 27th,” he said, adding that an official invitation from the Burma government will also be needed.
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra invited Pope Francis to visit Thailand when she was in Europe in September this year. The Pope accepted that invitation but has not confirmed any dates in the meantime. Pope Francis would likely visit both Thailand and Burma on the same trip.
The Burmese and Thai requests are not the only invitation sent to the new Argentinean pontiff to visit the region, however.
“Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines was telling me that the Philippines has invited him to come to the Philippines in 2016,” said Bo.
Pope John Paul II visited Thailand in 1984, and nine years later said Mass to an estimated five million people in the Philippines, a gathering thought to be the biggest-ever Papal audience. The same Pope made a famous trip to East Timor in 1989, a visit sometimes depicted as reviving international attention on Indonesia’s deadly occupation of the tiny half-island country.
However the Philippines and East Timor are the only two Catholic majority countries in Asia, with substantial Catholic minorities in countries such as India, Vietnam and South Korea.
Burma has around 770,000 Catholics spread across 16 dioceses, said Archbishop Bo. That is around a fifth of Burma’s total Christian population, which Bo estimates at about 7 percent of Burma’s 50-60 million people.
Archbishop Bo is involved in inter-religious negotiations in Burma – talks aimed at trying to improve relations between Burma’s majority Buddhists and minority Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others.
Since mid-2012, Buddhist-Muslim violence has flared in various locations across Burma, though most concentrated in western Arakan State, where the bulk of those displaced and killed have been Muslims and of those, many are from the Rohingya minority.
The Rohingya are regarded by the Burmese Government as Bengali immigrants and are denied citizenship, as well as not being categorized as a separate ethnic minority.
“There are Rohingyas who came in more than a century ago,” said Archbishop Bo, who added that those who could show they had at least a century lineage inside Burma should be given citizenship. However Archbishop Bo expressed doubt that recent arrivals had that entitlement, saying that each case should be assessed individually.
“We have to go case-by-case,” he said.
Despite an apparent increase in religious tensions in Burma, the Archbishop says that Burma’s change of government in 2011 has made life easier for Catholics.
“At the moment we have freedom to speak,” said Bo, noting a contrast with the old days of military rule.
“Usually any Sundays or any feast day I could definitely guess there was some MI [military intelligence] listening or recording,” said the Archbishop.
However some restrictions remain in place, with the Archbishop saying that permits for churches or seminaries can be slow to come.
One new seminary proposed just east of Rangoon, at a site near the 18th century Portuguese-built Catholic Church at Thanlyin, has been held up for four years.
“I have been applying and applying, but nothing forthcoming yet,” Bo said.
The area is close to the proposed Thilawa Special Economic Zone and was the stronghold of the short-lived kingdom established by Portuguese warlord Philip de Brito, who started his career as a mercenary in the pay of Arakanese, who back then ran an independent kingdom in what is now western Burma.
De Brito was executed in 1613 by Anuakpetin, a conquering Burmese King, after being was accused of stealing the famed Dhammazedi Bell from the Shwedagon Pagoda five years earlier. Put to death along with de Brito was Nat Shin Aung, a cousin of Anaukpetin who is remembered as one of Burma’s historic poets but who converted to Catholicism as part of his pact with de Brito.Show