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Interview to the Cardinal Charles Bo: “Christ was Asian”

By Albertina Soliani – Interview published on “Il Regno”, 18/20


General elections are scheduled to be held in Myanmar on 8th November. Charles Bo – Archbishop of Yangon, Salesian, created Cardinal by Pope Francis in 2015 and currently President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) – stood out for his clear words. On the occasion of the electoral appointment, he invited his fellow citizens to cast their ballots.         

– Your Eminence, what was the message behind your plea?

«When I released that statement, we were not in the second phase fully. From the last week of August, there is a storm, virus storm. The numbers have alarmingly zoomed. From less than 400 infections and less than 10 deaths, we are facing a great surge of  28,000  infections and 700 deaths.  Nearly 7000 % increase in infections. Unless we all stay together we cannot flatten the curve. Voting is a sacred duty. But saving lives is the most sacred duty that could be achieved only by unity. Politics can divide us.  But only compassion can heal and unite.»

– You come from a poor village in northern Burma, you have lived through the long decades of military rule, you became Archbishop and Primate of Myanmar where Catholics account for 1.5% of the population. You have denounced the exploitation of the weakest, the injustices, the violence. What does Myanmar have to say to the world today?

«I am grateful to my faith, my grace of belonging to a Universal Church that empowers those in the margin.  I am indebted to the Holy Father for the trust he endowed on me. His preference for the margins brought me to the limelight and my prayer is that I might live up to his expectations. 


I uphold Aung San Suu Kyi 

Myanmar is God’s favourite country. He has given treasures above the land and below the land. It is the richest country in Asia, where the poorest of the world live. This has to change. Poverty in Myanmar is not natural. It is a man-made disaster. A resourceful country cannot still languish in the category of Least Developed Country (LDC). For decades it was the haven for looters and cronies. The Myanmar people are graceful and they deserve great respect. They look for economic justice and environmental justice. 

I am grateful a non-violent movement managed to wrest power through the ballot. Democracy is not perfect in this country. But it marches on with all the challenges. The glorious cultural traditions of Myanmar must invest in peace dividend. There is a future for this country. Myanmar will rise again into a new dawn of justice and peace.»

– Myanmar boasts the sad record of the longest ethnic conflict. How do you view the reconciliation process and Aung San Suu Kyi’s effort at the Panglong Peace Conference? 

«Peace is possible, peace is the only way. Nobody wins the war in this country. I have appealed to all – state and non-state actors – to give peace a chance. In the 1960s we were the richest country in South East Asia. Singapore was poor, Korea was coming out of a bloody war,  Japan was rebuilding after the orgy of the second World War. We were the island of prosperity and peace. Then totalitarianism entered and destroyed our dreams. War has become an incurable sickness. We have buried thousands and millions have displaced. War is self-defeating. We are glad that the Panglong initiative continues under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Everybody can sit together and talk. That is a great improvement. The talks should go on. Peace is a pilgrimage and it is not easy. But the leaders must understand this country has suffered under war for more than six decades. Enough is enough. A Liberal Federal Secular state with the autonomy to states will solve the conflicts. We pray for this.»

– As President of Religions for Peace, how do you interpret the role of religions?  

«One of the robust initiatives is the Religions for Peace. Comprising people of all cultures and religions, we attempt to bring understanding among stakeholders. We are glad that our initiatives are welcomed and we have enlarged the space for dialogue and peaceful solutions. Though the conflicts are often portrayed as ‘clash of cultures and religions’ by the media, we need to understand the country started as a union. When groups felt an injustice was inflicted on them, they took to arms. Confidence building measures are taken now, though imperfect, and should be followed. Majority of the religious people want peace. A fringe majority in any religion is the curse.»

– The world public opinion is concerned about the conditions which Rakhine Muslims – known as Rohingya – are going through. Aung San Suu Kyi is blamed for having betrayed the cause of human rights and democracy. What do you think? 

«I have often said that the question of Rohingya is a ‘scar on the conscience’ of this country. Sadly the world opinion turned against Myanmar based on this issue. The world needs to engage Myanmar, lest China will wrest all initiatives in this region, which ultimately benefits no one, except for the ruling class of China. About Daw Aung San Suu Kyi role, many felt that she should have spoken against the forceful displacement of so many thousands. She is a morally upright person and her political compulsions could have played a major role in this. My own understanding is that she is trying to bring a true democracy through the ballot, so that festering historical wounds, including issues like Rohingya, could be addressed through a robust parliament. She has obstacles on this journey.»

– How could Europe and the international organisations better address the situation of the Rohingya refugees?

«With all the difficulties, the European Union and others need to support the fledgeling Democracy experiment in this country. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi stands tall among the people of Myanmar. Sadly there is no other leader to match his stature or the moral fortification to face the army. Many Myanmar people consider her as the only and the last hope of the birth of true democracy in this country. Rohingya issue is not dead. The UN and others continue their negotiations with the Myanmar government based on Kopi Annan Document. International organisations should support this process and activate the return of people who left Rakhine state.»


There is persecution going on in China 

– You called COVID-19 a challenge to «prepare ourselves for a new world». What changes do you foresee will happen? 

«Disasters are sad events. Pandemic is an existential challenge to humanity. But these are disruptions that also make leaders and people think. I think of the Cyclone Nargis which caused widespread havoc in this country. But that also exposed the visceral wounds of this country and hastened the dawn of democracy. Similarly the COVID pandemic, the Holy Father pointed out, is the failure of Market Economy to protect the poor. This is a huge challenge. COVID exposes cerebral injustice. The figleaf of systemic injustice as fallen. Time for introspection of the political and economic systems. True I did call for a ‘global ceasefire.’  But I also called for a ‘Third world War”  – against man-made disasters of poverty and injustice.»

– The longest border of Myanmar is the one with China. In the first weeks of the pandemic, you did not hesitate to speak of the moral responsibility of the Chinese Communist Party in managing this crisis. You also denounced the oppressive regime of Hong Kong. What do you think of China today and of the dialogue of the Church with China?

«This is a catch 22 situation. Christianity is a growing religion in China and its message attracts thousands. This brings real persecution. The persecution of Christians, not only in China but all over the world received scant attention from the West. Human rights have become a new religion but there seemed to be no one to support the Christians when they are persecuted. The response of the Western Countries to the suffering of Christians is the most forgotten tragedy of modern times. The West is uncomfortable with the Pope’s initiatives in China, which I hope is an initiative to reduce the suffering of the Christians. Unless there is a political resolution of the world community to resist the Chinese Dragon, it will do what it likes in wiping out cultures. Hong Kong is a sad case. China’s economic might and the communist behemoth seems to frighten the West. When the world wakes up to China’s intentions, it might be too late.»

– In the 60s of the past century the impetus of the liberation theology came from Latin America. Can a spiritual, political message come from Asia today to reaffirm the universal value of human life?    

«Christ needs to return to Asia.  In our FABC the discussion on the “Asian Face of Asia” is a vibrant discussion. 
Christ has travelled through many avenues: Rome, Greek, Franco Roman and then the South American.   Hope this century will see what Jesus is: ASIAN.  Asian Church must first experience him in his Asian roots. That needs a totally new way of worshipping, a new way of praying and experiencing and the new way of relating with other religions. Asia is the cradle of great spiritual traditions. It is also the home to the biggest indigenous populations in the world. Both Laudato Si and  Fratelli Tutti embraces the universal fellowship of ideas. Christianity needs to be baptised in the Jordan of Asia. Yes. Let Christianity return to its roots. The inner freedom that is attained through dispelling all the darkness, may bring a sense of Fratelli Tutti – the inter-dependence of all beings. While there are no cliched and stereotyped Christianity either of the east or west, one could say Asian Christianity would look for the ‘Word to become flesh’ through experience but by long explanations. I am hopeful the Asian Church will rise to that challenge.»


Italian Version

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