Myanmar Church prioritizes aiding displaced people

Broken windows and several holes in the walls caused by shelling are visible after St. Joseph's Church in Demoso came under attack from the military on May 26. (Photo supplied)

Church officials in eastern Myanmar’s Kayah state have prioritized the emergency needs of thousands of displaced people rather than repairing churches damaged by military attacks.

Three churches in Loikaw Diocese in the Catholic stronghold were struck by military shelling within two weeks, with a May 23 attack on Sacred Heart Church killing four people and wounding eight others.

Churches have become the main refuge for thousands of people who were forced to flee from their homes due to fighting that has escalated in Kayah state since May 21.

The displaced, however, have had to flee again into the jungle due to deliberate attacks by the military on churches.

At least eight parishes have been totally abandoned in Loikaw Diocese as priests, nuns and parishioners have fled to other safe areas following the renewed fighting.

Father Francis Soe Naing, chancellor of Loikaw Diocese, said they were able to observe the first damaged church building but they couldn’t visit the parishes where two other churches were attacked due to security concerns and the escalation of fighting.

“Our main priority is to provide food, shelter and medicine, which are in dire need for thousands of displaced people,” Father Soe Naing told UCA News.

He said they cannot plan to repair the damaged churches as their focus is on people amid the unfolding humanitarian tragedy.

The priest said repairing damaged churches will not be the top priority even when the situation returns to normal as several houses of residents have been destroyed or burned.

“During rehabilitation, building new homes for residents will be prioritized and church repairs will be the second one,” Father Soe Naing stressed.

Loikaw Diocese in Kayah state and Pekhon Diocese in Shan state have been affected by the recent conflict between the military and the Karenni People’s Defense Forces, the local resistance group who deploy homemade rifles.

Bishops recently called on concerned parties to respect the right of sanctuary and sanctity of places of worship without specifying a particular armed group.

“We appeal that these places are not to be attacked and the people who seek refuge there should be protected,” they said in a statement.

The Church has played a key role in supplying humanitarian aid to thousands of IDPs who have taken refuge at churches and monasteries and in the jungle.

Father Soe Naing said the Church was using the diocese’s emergency funds and contributions from private donors to aid around 50,000 people in the region amid road blockages, restrictions on providing aid and rising commodity prices.

The diocese is planning to build an IDP camp in the soccer field of the seminary in Loikaw, capital of Kayah state.

“The shops in Loikaw do not have enough rice, noodles and other items, so the situation could worsen if all food runs short,” the priest said.

UN rights expert Tom Andrews has warned of “mass deaths from starvation, disease and exposure” in eastern Myanmar.

Over 100,000 people in Kayah and Shan states have been displaced by fighting that has included indiscriminate attacks by security forces on civilians, according to the UN. - UCA News