Burmese protesters have faced a “nightmare of repression and violence,” according to a missionary priest who is close to the Catholic community in the Southeast Asian country.

“For the Burmese Church, this is the hour of confession of faith, courageous witness, and martyrdom,” Fr. Gianni Criveller told ACI Stampa, CNA’s Italian-language sister news agency.

Fr. Criveller is a missionary priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME). He currently serves as the dean of PIME’s International Theological Study in northern Italy.

Burma is one of the historic missions for PIME missionaries, who have been evangelizing in the country, officially known as Myanmar, since 1868.

“I have been going to Myanmar since 2018 to contribute to a training program for diocesan seminaries,” Criveller said in an interview.

In the last five months since the Feb. 1 military coup, the “people of Myanmar have returned to the nightmare of repression and violence,” Criveller said.

“The criminal military junta has denied the results of the democratic elections in November 2020, dissolved the civilian government, and arrested the leader Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Catholics have been among the hundreds of protesters who have been killed by the military crackdown on those who took to the streets opposing the coup, according to Criveller.

“Numerous Burmese nuns in Italy are in anguish over the fate of their families,” the priest said, noting that many Catholics have had to flee their homes amid the violence.

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“In Myanmar, in recent months, religious, the faithful, and priests have largely taken to the streets alongside the people,” he said.

Less than 2% of Burma’s population is Catholic, yet the small local Church, led by Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, has been outspoken in calling for an end to the violence against protesters.

“Catholics are only a tiny minority, but they have an awareness of the dignity of the human person, of the primacy of conscience and of the evangelical good of freedom, whose author is Jesus himself,” Criveller said.

The missionary priest commented that he had been impressed to see Catholics stand beside Buddhists calling for freedom and peace.

“As John Paul II indicated, dialogue between believers of different faiths is for peace among peoples. Christians and Buddhists are on the street not with weapons, but with the rosary and the Buddhist pa-deé [prayer beads]. They are a wonderful example for the Church in the world,” he said.

According to data from the Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners, almost 5,000 demonstrators have been arrested since the beginning of the protests against the coup and 870 people have been killed.

“Many young Burmese are willing to die rather than live without freedom. Christians do not seek martyrdom, nor do they search for it, but they accept it to remain faithful to Jesus,” Criveller said.

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The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution last week to “prevent the influx of arms into Myanmar.” One hundred and nineteen countries voted in favor of the resolution with the only vote against by Belarus; 36 countries, including China and Russia abstained.

Pope Francis has repeatedly appealed for people in Burma, most recently during his Angelus address on June 20, when the pope decried the fact that people are suffering hunger and displacement in the wake of the government’s violent crackdown.

“I join my voice to that of the bishops of Myanmar, who last week launched an appeal calling to the attention of the whole world the harrowing experience of thousands of people in that country who are displaced and are dying of hunger,” the pope said.

The country’s Catholic bishops issued a statement on June 11 appealing for peace, a humanitarian corridor in the conflict zones, and respect for the sanctity of places of worship.

The bishops also asked the Catholic dioceses of Burma “to launch into a period of intense prayer, seeking compassion in the hearts of all and peace to this nation” with daily Mass, adoration, and the rosary.

“May the Heart of Christ touch the hearts of all bringing peace to Myanmar,” Pope Francis said.