Cardinal Charles Maung Bo., SDB, is Archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar, and President Federation of the Asian Bishops Conference.
SOUTH-EAST ASIA FREEDOM OF RELIGION OR BELIEF (SEAFoRB) NETWORK
“PEACE-BUILDING AND CONFLICT RESOLUTION ACROSS INTER-RELIGIOUS LINES”
Remarks by His Eminence Cardinal Charles Maung Bo
25 – September 2020 at 4.30 pm
Dear Friends, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:
First let me express my heartfelt privilege to be able to finally join the SEAFoRB Network, if sadly only virtually, online, rather than in person.
Every year for the past five years you have kindly invited me to participate in SEAFoRB – in Bangkok three times, Dili one time and Manila one time – and each year unfortunately other commitments prevented me from being able to join you. But I hope you know that throughout the past years that the South-East Asia Freedom of Religion or Belief conferences and network have developed, I have always been with you in spirit and in solidarity, even though not in person.
I applaud, celebrate and indeed support the vision of SEAFoRB – to bring people from throughout our rainbow region, our region of rich diversity in ethnicity, culture, language, history and religion – together. To bring different religious leaders, civil society groups, human rights defenders, policy-makers, legislators, academics and journalists together to work for one common cause: peace in our beautiful region.
So I am delighted to finally be able to address you – and I do so in four capacities.
First, as a humble priest with a pastoral concern for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the displaced, the refugees, the sick, the persecuted.
Second, as Archbishop of Yangon in one of this region’s most diverse nations.
Myanmar is truly a rainbow nation, with a Buddhist, Burman majority population but a rich ethnic and religious diversity where we are still struggling with, learning about and working out the principle of “unity in diversity”.
My country is a wounded nation, a nation that has experienced some of the 21st centuries most egregious examples of conflict, inhumanity and suffering, and yet is trying to find its way from decades of military dictatorship into an era of democracy and pluralism, however fragile. It is a nation that so many times in recent years has seemed to be at the dawn of a new era – and yet the sun has not quite risen and the darkness continues to eclipse the light of peace. Yet still we seek peace in Myanmar.
Third, as President of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences – a body that brings together the bishops of the Catholic Church from throughout the entire Asia region: from Korea to Cambodia, from Taiwan to Thailand, from India to Indonesia, from Pakistan to the Philippines, from Japan to Kazakhstan.
If you want to understand peace-building and the concept of ‘unity in diversity’, you don’t need to look to inter-religious lines – just start with the rich diversity of cultures, ethnicities, histories, contexts, political systems and opinions among the Catholic Church across this most diverse of regions.
But fourthly, I speak as Co-President of Religions for Peace – a worldwide movement bringing together religious leaders of different religious backgrounds, in the cause of peace.
And so with these four perspectives, how do I address the question before us today: what is the role of religious actors in peace-building and conflict resolution.
I would answer this question with the following four points:
- We are to be peace-builders and peace-makers – every single one of our faiths teaches and preaches peace;
- We are to be justice-seekers, freedom-fighters, pursuers of human dignity – true peace, genuine reconciliation, real conflict resolution cannot happen if injustice remains, if freedom is denied, if human dignity is threatened;
- We must be seekers of common ground – we must identify what our common humanity holds and what is our shared morality that brings us together, even among our differences and diversity;
- At the same time we must not be afraid of difference – we must celebrate and respect difference. We must be confident enough in our own beliefs, faith, values and traditions to respect the difference in the other as well as seeking the common ground. We should always celebrate what the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks, termed “The dignity of difference” in what he also promoted as “the home we build together” if we are – to use another of his phrases and another title of his book – “to heal a fractured world”.
When I was a young priest, I worked in Shan State in northern Myanmar, where I later became Bishop of Lashio. That region of my country is rich in diversity – diversity of problems, as well as diversity of beauty. It is culturally and naturally a beautiful region, mountainous and with different ethnic and linguistic and religious groups. It is also an epicentre of conflict between armed groups and the Myanmar military, drugs, human trafficking, sexual violence, forced labour, injustice. It was a good training ground for the work of a religious leader in the field of peace-building across inter-religious lines.
How did I approach this task? For a start, I tried to learn the languages.
Coming from the majority Burman population, I was acutely conscious of the need to relate to my Kachin, Shan, Lisu, Wa and other brothers and sisters. And so I learned enough of their languages to be able to greet them, say some words in my homilies, express some messages of solidarity to them.
Learning each other’s languages – or at least some words – is key.
Later, as a bishop and especially as Archbishop of Yangon, I became more involved in the field of inter-faith dialogue.
I consider dialogue to be absolutely essential to peace-building and conflict-resolution. However, I also believe dialogue must be based on clear values and achievable goals.
Dialogue among like-minded friends from different faiths where we easily recognize our common humanity is good, it establishes friendships and it sends a signal to our communities. But it is of limited value. Friends will always get together, people of different faiths who are open-minded and ‘moderate’ will always engage. That’s not the barrier. The question is how to break down barriers.
For dialogue to make a difference, it must be replicated at the grassroots levels, within villages, within neighbourhoods, among people who live side by side day by day, not simply between religious leaders who meet from time to time for dinner or conferences in hotels and air-conditioned meeting rooms.
And it must translate into mutual understanding and meaningful action, such that if one individual or small group from one community is in danger, a call to a religious leader may be enough to calm the tension, quell the conflict and save lives. And in my country, Myanmar, there have certainly been wonderful Buddhist monks who have done exactly that and deserve our applause and deep respect.
I also believe that we must be clear that inter-faith dialogue and freedom of religion or belief go hand in hand, but neither must be compromised by the other.
In other words, in pursuit of dialogue we must never sacrifice the beliefs, customs and values that we each cherish in our different religious traditions. Yet at the same time, we must never hold onto them so rigidly, so nervously, that we’re unprepared to engage in respectful dialogue with the other.
We must see the spirituality and dignity in our fellow human being of another faith, while at the same time nourishing our own, and celebrating – not defending or pushing either. We must have the quiet confidence that comes from love of one another to not feel threatened by difference but rather to respect and celebrate it.
Last year I travelled with Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines to visit the refugee camps in Bangladesh, where over a million Rohingyas who have fled my country, Myanmar, are now living as refugees.
I say simply today: whatever the historical arguments, whatever the legal determinations, what has happened to these people is a scar on the conscience of my country, and it must be put right.
For there to be real peace, true reconciliation, there has to be justice. The crimes committed against Muslims in Myanmar – not only in Rakhine but throughout the country – is an assault on human dignity itself and all of us, of whatever faith, must cry out for justice. For without justice, there cannot be peace.
At the same time, while the Rohingyas have very rightly receive worldwide attention, and I do not detract from that, there is also a need to pay attention to the plight of the predominantly Christian Kachin, Chin, Karenni, and many among the Karen, as well as our Buddhist brothers and sisters among the Rakhine, Shan and Mon, and among those who have struggle for so long in the wider democracy movement too.
If I were to conclude, what is the role of a religious-leader in peace-making, I would say this:
- Pursue truth
- Seek justice
- Defend freedom and human dignity
- Attempt dialogue and understanding
- Celebrate diversity
Four years ago I co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, with our next speaker, the distinguished Ibu Alissa Wahid, in which we concluded: “We we must learn to separate race, religion and politics. …. Religion is also too often misused as a political tool. It should be an affair of the heart, mind and soul, not a matter of ethnicity or birthplace. We must fight for a vision that says people are citizens of their country of birth, with equal rights regardless of religion. … We must speak out for the freedom of religion or belief for all. As Burma’s first cardinal and the daughter of Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), Indonesia’s former president and prominent Islamic scholar, the two of us have tried to show by example how important this is. We have spoken out for Burma’s Muslims and for Indonesia’s Christians when they face discrimination and persecution. We urge the region’s religious and political leaders to do the same.”
In that spirit of friendship – and shaping a harmony based on mutual respect and self-confidence, with every human being of every race and religion having an equal stake in the future based on an inherent human dignity – peace can be achieved and conflict can be resolved, with the help of religious leaders of all traditions throughout this region and beyond, if they have the heart, mind and will.
I commend SEAFoRB for your continuing initiatives despite this COVID-19 pandemic that is changing the way we all work, meet and collaborate. I hope that in 2021 I can engage again with SEAFoRB, if possible in person. I wish you and your endeavours every blessing and success.
I look forward to what I know will be inspiring words from Ibu Alissa Wahid, whose work defending freedom of religion or belief in Indonesia and beyond inspires me, and Dr Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, whose example motivates us all, and I hope that together we can – despite the challenges we face – unite, hold hands (even if socially distanced and metaphorically) – and defeat the voices of hatred and intolerance and promote the champions of understanding, mutual respect, freedom of conscience and true peace. THANK YOU
Sermon – 26th Sunday: Cardinal Charles Maung Bo., SDB, Yangon.
First Reading Ezekiel 18:25-28
2nd Reading Philippians 2:1-11 Or Philippians 2:1-5
Gospel Matthew 21:28-32
106th WORLD DAY OF MIGRANTS AND REFUGEES 2020
Like Jesus Christ, forced to flee. Welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating
internally displaced persons – Pope Francis
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Blessings in the powerful Name of Jesus. Let his mighty hand stay with every one of you, console you, comfort you and heal you. More than ever we need one another, trust one another, lean on one another, we need the Lord. The World needs the healing hand of the eternal Healer.
History has shown we shall overcome, normalcy will return. We are meeting again online. Our hearts are united, we are united in faith. We are united in the Mystical body of Christ.
Once again we meet amidst another Lockdown, stay home. These are dark times, when evil seems to be on a winning spree. For six long months, the Lord protected our simple nation from the ravages of the merciless contagion. But the last one month the Covid Virus seems to be dancing its sadistic dance in the streets of major cities. We pray for all the areas where this virus has penetrated.
We pray for every person who in pain, who is affected, who is overcome with panic. To the thousands who are sick, our heart goes to them, our hands are raised with bent knees imploring quick recovery. For millions who lost their livelihood, we pray to the Lord who gave manna in the desert and multiplied five loaves and fed five thousand people “Lord Feed our people. Heal our People. Wash them clean with your Blood” Myanmar Church is already planning its response. We shall stand by our brothers and sisters through prayer and by our generosity.
These are times of prayer. These are times of compassion. During the Nargis cyclone, we wrote, when Myanmar was attacked by natural disasters, compassion became the common religion. We all become brothers and sisters. We were strengthened by unity. A massive disaster went away.
Today when the virus has declared a war against humanity, let us move to compassion as our common religion. We shall overcome as one people, one nation. It is time to stop all conflicts. Let the brotherhood of humanity assert itself.
God who took pity on the suffering Israelites and called Moses to redeem them, today he looks at our country and says “ I hear the cry of the suffering people.” Bible records ten pandemics. In each God showed himself to be “ full of compassion, moved by mercy.: to his people. We pray the Lord of Creation shows the same compassion to all of us. Jesus who took pity on the starving people today calls to every one of us “Be compassionate as your heavenly father is compassionate.”
This Sunday, the Pope calls us to remember the Migrants and refugees. More than 40 million people were thrown out of their homes because of the permanent pandemic of hatred and poverty. Let us pray with the Pope “ Like Jesus, thousands are displaced, let us welcome, protect and promote and integrate thousands who live inside our borders as IDPs.” To all the people living in the IDP camps in our country, we join our Holy Father and pray for peace and dignified return home. Jesus was an IDP, a refugee and a migrant. He lived like thousands of our Myanmar Youth. He understands our tears. Let us welcome every stranger as we would welcome Jesus.
Today’s readings affirm a God who is loving, forgiving, seeking those who are least and the lost. Many fundamentalist preachers have proclaimed this Covid as the punishment from God. Today’s first reading says God preserves the life of the right and just. God is like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, waiting for our return. God is love. God is not revenge. Covid is not the time of God’s revenge, it is not punishment. It is a time of love. It is a time of bringing God one another in virus attack.
The second reading gives us a clue to this scourge of virus. Humility and unity in the face of common enemy. As the virus broke off in the world scene, the countries headed by autocrats and head strong leaders full of inflated ego, let their people to die in thousands. Some of the most affected countries are headed by men, whose lack of empathy and compassion made millions to be infected and thousands to die. As St Paul writes in the Second reading to Philippians, these leaders did everything “ out of selfishness and vainglory, looking out for their own glory.”
Those who saved their people are humble leaders, mostly women leaders. Because in the words of St Paul, “ They humbly regard others as more important than themselves.” The self-emptying humility of these leaders saved lives. Covid started where there was an arrogant leadership and flourished in countries where arrogant leaders had their selfish agenda. Simple and humble leaders like New Zealand Prime Minister, Miss Jacinda Ardern give a leadership that defeats even the pandemic. The self emptying of thousands of front line workers saved millions.
They embodied the ‘self emptying’ the kenosis of Christ praised by St Paul with those immortal words: “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God, something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself, taking the form of the slave.”
This is a great lesson during the Covid Time. The egoism of the world leaders is killing thousands. Egoism in our relationship will kill us and others. By protecting ourselves we protect others.
The same lesson comes to the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the gospel today. Assuming that they are the rightful heirs to God’s Kingdom, they forgot mercy and compassion. With inflated ego, they could load the innocent with the laws and rules. Their lack of humility is castigated by Jesus with the searing words: the prostitutes and the tax collectors will enter the Kingdome of God before any one of you. Jesus was candid all through: the first will be last, the last will be the first. Mary will affirm this in the Magnificat:
He has shown might with His arm,
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
The virus threat taught us how life is so fragile. A month ago, our nation saw only 8 deaths now the death rate is around 100. Hundreds of our innocent people who went about their work a month ago are now sick. The fragility and the passing nature of our life teaches us only one commandment: Life is so precious, let us not waste in hatred of one another, let us one Love one another as Jesus loved us.
This love commandment is the antidote we are seeking amidst these dark times of panic of pandemic. That is the vaccine we are looking for the suffocating darkness of infection. We need to be healed by love. The message of God is Love. The word love appears more than 500 times in the Bible, more times that ‘death’ or ‘hell’ implying we are called upon to live in love. It is not important how many years we lived, but it is very important to know how many people we really loved in this short life.
The Pharisees in today’s Gospel had enormous spiritual powers. They used that power to subjugate people. Covid also throws great questions about power. Power is not to dominate, power is to service. The real power, Pope Francis says, is in the service. Covid pandemic is teaching us to give up the power of arrogance but to go to the power of love, the power of empty hands with hearts full of empathy. Nobody knows the purpose of this pandemic – except that it has shaken the humanity. Every pandemic does not leave teaching painful lessons.
Some lessons the Pharisees and lawyers failed to learn the lessons of Jesus. But the humble and the simple people of Israel, the prostitutes and the tax collectors learnt. This contagion is teaching us : Be humble, we all belong to the same God.
We draw more lessons from the parable Jesus says : About two sons. The first son refuses his father’s call to go and work in the field. Then he voluntarily goes by himself and works in the vineyard. The second son, when asked the same request by the Father, he readily agrees but later does not go. The first one obeyed in deed and the second one obeyed only in words.
The Gospel parable is directed at the hypocrisy of the religious and civil leaders of the Jewish society of Jesus day. The Pharisees were guardians of law but not the love of God. They wanted God be served by the strict observance of the Law. But it is clear they did not have the spirit that Jesus was preaching through his life and teaching, namely Love, Love and Love. Show compassion, caring and forgiveness for the weak and vulnerable. Pharisees are like the second son : hear the word but made no effort to carry it out. Since Jesus was preaching a forgiving love, they rejected him.
COVID exposed such religious and civil leaders. Even today some leaders who talked about national security failed to give human security when the virus attacked them. Fundamental preachers who preached about God’s punishment with fire and brimstones are not found in the quarantine centres or hospitals. The prosperity gospel crowd is the second Son, listening and even preaching the Word but forget to show it in action.
On the other hand, Jesus tells them that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before they do. These certainly were not keeping God’s Law. They even had said no to his commandments many times. But then they encountered Jesus and they experienced a radical transformation in their lives. They listened to him and they responded.
The sinners, the outcasts of both Jewish and Gentile society, are like the first son. They do not obey God’s commands, they commit many sins, but later they accept the teaching of Jesus and become his followers. The first will be last in the Kingdom – the Pharisees are; the last will be the first – the humble people of Israel.
Christians encounter the same risk. Our outward observance of faith may not be enough. Jesus warns us as he warned the Pharisees: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Mt 7:21). St James calls for “Faith with action’.
COVID challenged the liturgical observance. But it has opened the door for faith in action. We have seen the cases exploding at a fearsome rate. Panic and fear grips every person. How can a Christian reach out? Like the first son or the second son of the Gospel of today?
Despite our great challenges during this time, how we can still reach out to our pandemic affected brothers and sisters – that is the real test to our faith the Covid has thrown to us. Hundreds of volunteers, health workers are at the frontlines. exposing themselves to great risk to save others. These may find God’s blessings rather than people who spent hours together in depression about why God had brought pandemic on human family. This is the time not to ask “why” like the Pharisees did but to move towards ‘what and how’ we can do reach out those in lockdown areas with whatever help we can render. Let us become the first sons despite our mind constantly telling us to be cautious and say no, let our heart reach out to our people.
Those of us who cannot offer anything, let us offer our prayers. In times of crisis you do not benefit less, but more from prayer. Grant it to yourself to indulge in His love. It is the best antidote to fear. St Augustine wrote : ” Love ought to manifest itself more by deeds than by words.”
Let us become worthy of the Kingdome by looking after one another in whatever way we safely can, especially remembering the poor and the vulnerable. We will overcome. Everything will pass away. Because the living, loving and liberating God is in charge. He is not the Lord of Death, He is the Lord of Life. Emmanuel, Live in us
[Text of Homily Provided to ZENIT Sr. Vatican Correspondent, Deborah Lubov]
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