Cardinal Bo: Called to be a voice for human rights in Myanmar

When Cardinal Charles Maung Bo became the first cardinal of Myanmar in 2015, he took his new position seriously. 

“The pope gave me the red hat and said, ‘It’s the color of the blood,’” he recalled. His hat, or biretta, is his reminder to remain fearless in defending and speaking out for his people – the Church in Asia. 

Cardinal Bo spoke with EWTN at the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest, Hungary, on Sept. 8. He discussed the Church in Asia with Matthew Bunson, executive editor and Washington bureau chief of EWTN News, and Fr. John Paul Zeller, employee chaplain of EWTN.

Asia’s culture and religion go hand in hand, said the cardinal, who also serves as the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. He called the culture and religions – including Buddhism, Islam, and Catholicism – “very rich, very diverse.” 

Even so, he said, they unite on certain issues. Among other things, he said, the Asian people prioritize “the tradition and the culture of respect for the elders and the union in the families, the value of the family, the value of the mother.”

He added that in Myanmar, "maybe 90-95% of the families are very stable.”

One of the “fruits of the culture” in Asia, particularly in Myanmar, he added, is that citizens are overwhelmingly religiously oriented. Cardinal Bo explained that Myanmar is 85% Buddhist, 5% Muslim, and 5-6% Christian. Catholics are in the minority at 1.3%.

“There will be no one at all who will say that, ‘I’m a ‘non,’ I’m no religion, I’m a free thinker, I don't hold any [religion].’ Nobody will say that in Myanmar,” he said.

In Myanmar, Catholics view the pope and the Church as “very sacred,” he said. When they encounter criticism of Pope Francis, his people in Myanmar are scandalized and surprised.

Even the military and the government express respect for the Church and her leaders, he said. 

“Before the coup even, I could have free access to send messages both to the government as well as to the military generals,” he remembered, referencing the military seizing control of Myanmar in February. “At the same time, of course, they are quite adamant to go ahead with their own program of taking up the power in the country.”

In the midst of such political unrest, the cardinal has strived to serve as a voice for human rights in Asia.

“We thought that – just in the last five, six years – we thought that we are on the way to democracy, to freedom. But again, now, it collapsed again to the military and we have no right to speak about human rights and we have practically no dialogue,” he said.

Religious leaders, he revealed, are constantly pressured to stay out of political matters.

“Even I myself have been one, two, three times [told] not to enter into the political sphere, but I said, ‘It's not political. This is about human rights, about the basic needs that we speak in the name of the people.’”

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