JAKARTA — After Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s succession of tirades against the country’s Catholic Church leaders, bishops hardly expected a presidential climb down, even after their entreaty asking the government to ease up on a violent anti-drugs campaign. In less than eight months, more than 7,600 people, mostly drug traffickers and drug users, have been executed extrajudicially, often by a gunshot to the head, their bodies left on the blood-strewn street as a warning. Some have been killed in police operations and some have been murdered by unidentified paramilitary squads. The bloodshed prompted a February pastoral letter signed by Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, which said, “This traffic in illegal drugs needs to be stopped and overcome. But the solution does not lie in the killing of suspected drug users and pushers.”
YANGON — Numbering around 1 million people living in western Myanmar, along with several hundred thousand refugees and migrants in neighboring countries, there are few peoples in the world as marooned as the Muslim Rohingya. Most are stateless, denied citizenship by Myanmar due to a 1982 law dictated while the country, then known as Burma, was run by the army. But the end of dictatorship in 2011 and the rise to power of an elected government last year — headed by one of the world’s best-known former political prisoners Aung San Suu Kyi — has done little to help the Rohingya. “They have been suffering, they are being tortured and killed, simply because they uphold their Muslim faith,” said Pope Francis in his latest weekly audience Feb. 8.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Like its bigger neighbor Indonesia, Malaysia has mostly had the reputation of a Muslim-majority country that does not oppress its religious minorities. Its live-and-let-live disposition is far removed from the rigors faced by Christians in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where churches cannot be built nor Mass said; or Pakistan, where Christians are expected to adhere to a strict anti-blasphemy law that critics say favors Islam over other faiths; or Iraq and Syria, where hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled war and ensuing attacks by Islamist militias. At St. John’s Cathedral and other churches in Kuala Lumpur, a modern and lively city of around 2 million people, worshippers gather every Sunday for Masses in English and in Tamil, the main language of Malaysia’s 7% minority descended from South-Asian settlers who migrated during British colonial rule, as well as in Tagalog, the language of many of the tens of thousands of Filipino migrant workers living in wealthier-neighbor Malaysia. But despite U.S. President Barack Obama’s praise for Malaysia in late 2015, during an official visit to the country, describing it as “a majority-Muslim country that represents tolerance and peace,” there are signs of a growing Islamization in politics in this country of 30 million people, where around 60% of the population is Muslim. Non-Muslims have been barred from using the Arabic term “Allah” to denote God, with authorities confiscating Bibles containing the proscribed word, after the local Catholic Church lost a legal challenge to allow non-Muslims to keep using the word, which was a long-established linguistic practice.
KUALA LUMPUR — U.S. President Barack Obama has just wound up a visit to Vietnam that saw two former antagonists, who for two decades have been growing trade partners, draw even closer, with the dropping of a U.S. arms embargo against the communist-ruled country. “He himself said the welcome of Vietnamese people has touched his heart. [He was] very moved and very thankful,” said Vietnam’s new prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, in an interview with foreign media given on Wednesday. Obama was greeted by thousands of well-wishers on the streets of Hanoi, the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest city and economic hub of the country, which was previously known as Saigon. However, the visit was marred by signals that Vietnam, a one-party state, remains unwilling to cede ground on freedom of speech, with several noted advocates of democratic reforms prevented from meeting with Obama as scheduled and with the government staging a sham election to the country’s communist-run parliament on the day of Obama’s arrival. One positive note prefaced Obama’s arrival in Vietnam last Sunday, with the release from jail of one of the country’s most determined dissidents, Father Nguyen Van Ly. The Catholic priest was first imprisoned by the communist regime in 1977, two years after the end of the Vietnam War, and had spent much of the intervening 38 years in jail or under house arrest.
MANILA — When Pope Francis visited the Philippines in 2015, he was greeted with the adulation you would expect in what is one of the world’s most distinctively and devoutly Catholic countries — but not that way by the person who was elected this week as the nation’s new president. An estimated six million people turned out in the steaming tropical rain to hear the Pope say Mass in Manila’s Rizal Park, with hundreds of thousands more lining the city’s streets to catch a glimpse of the papal motorcade and maybe even snare a fleeting blessing from the outgoing Argentinian. However there was one man who was not impressed by the pageantry, or even by the Pope, it seems. Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao, the biggest city in the southern Philippines, was caught for hours in Manila’s infamously clogged traffic — the jam made worse by the huge throng in town to see Pope Francis. Duterte, famously abrupt and blunt, let his frustration get the better of him and called Pope Francis “a son of a bitch” — or “son of a whore,” depending on translation — remarks that predictably earned the mayor the scorn of Church leaders in the Philippines, home to around 80 million Catholics.
YANGON – “I was in Calcutta, my niece phoned me to say that she saw my name on a list of the names of the cardinals announced by the Holy Father. I thought she was joking at first.” said Charles Maung Bo, Myanmar’s first Catholic cardinal. That was how the 66 year old Archbishop of Yangon found out back on Jan. 4 that he was to be one of 20 new cardinals appointed by Pope Francis. “He wants to show the universality of the whole church and he wants to hear the voice from the different people,” said Cardinal Bo, assessing the pope’s motives for naming new cardinals from Vietnam and Thailand, as well as Myanmar, which last year marked 5 centuries of Catholic Church presence in the country.
JAKARTA – As pastoral work goes, there must be few tasks as grueling, or as raw, as seeing a condemned man through his final hours before execution. But when Father Charles Burrows, an Irish missionary in Indonesia, chatted and prayed with 42-year-old Brazilian Roderigo Gularte late into April 28, no matter what he counseled, the condemned man — a schizophrenic with bipolar disorder — seemingly understood nothing of what was about to happen. “I was joking with him, saying that ‘I am 72; I will be up there with you soon enough,’” recalled the Dublin-born Burrows, who was speaking by telephone from Cilacap on the southern coast of Java. “Only when they bound him in chains did he ask, ‘Father, am I being executed?’” said the priest, who explained that Gularte heard voices telling him he would be okay.
KNOCK – The old parish church remains, while the newer, bigger church — which was named a basilica in 1979 by Pope John Paul II, during his short visit to Knock in late September of that year — has just reopened after a $10-million renovation. The original basilica building was partly intended to shelter the many pilgrims to Knock (sometimes numbering up to 1.6 million a year) from the west of Ireland’s swirling winds and bracing mists. Inside the old basilica, coat-clad pilgrims squeezed into benches that looked designed for primary-school children, as sermons and hymns echoed and faded inaudibly around the expanses of the five-chapel interior. That has all been remedied, however, as Father Patrick Burke, a priest at Knock, explained to the Register during this writer’s visit in April. “It had been talked about for a long time,” Father Burke said of the refurbishment, the physical part of which began after the final Mass of the 2014 pilgrimage season, which was held on Oct. 12 of last year.