RANGOON — With the announcement by the Vatican last week that Isodore Ngei Ko Lat, a lay catechist killed by Burmese rebels in 1950, was on track to become Burma’s first Catholic saint, Burma’s most prominent Catholic cleric said that the announcement “means that the Holy Father is giving attention and care to the forgotten church that was under military rule for 50 years.”
And with 2014 marking 500 years since the first presence of Catholicism in Burma, Archbishop of Rangoon Charles Bo hopes that Pope Francis will visit Burma to mark the occasion.
“We have sent the invitation to the Pope and we are hopeful that he will come,” Archbishop Bo told The Irrawaddy.
Isidore Ngei Ko Lat’s sainthood case was first pressed by the Diocese of Loikaw, centered on Karenni State. The region of east-central Burma is where the man was killed, allegedly by Baptists, alongside Italian priest Father Mario Vergara in 1950.
“We believe that once you are martyred for your faith, you are in heaven,” the Archbishop said.
Before Isidore Ngei Ko Lat is named a saint, if that comes about, Archbishop Bo hopes Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, will visit Burma.
There has been “no response yet from the Pope, but he has already said that he is interested to focus his visits next year to Asia,” Archbishop Bo said.
The Archbishop said he does not know whether Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi raised the issue of a possible Papal visit to Burma, when she met Pope Francis a few weeks ago.
“I will ask her about this when we next meet, which will be on December 27th,” he said, adding that an official invitation from the Burma government will also be needed.
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra invited Pope Francis to visit Thailand, when she was in Europe in September this year, with the Pope accepting that request but without since confirming any dates.
Pope Francis would likely visit both countries on the same trip, if it comes about.
The Burmese and Thai requests are not the only invitation sent to the new Argentinean pontiff to visit the region, however.
“Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines was telling me that the Philippines has invited him to come to the Philippines in 2016,” said Bo, who thinks however that a visit to Asia by the pontiff could take place before then.
Pope John Paul II visited Thailand in 1984, and nine years later said Mass to an estimated five million people in the Philippines, thought to be the biggest-ever Papal audience. The same Pope made a famous trip to East Timor in 1989, a visit sometimes depicted as reviving international attention on Indonesia’s deadly occupation of the tiny half-island country.
However the Philippines and East Timor are the only two Catholic-majority countries in Asia, with substantial Catholic minorities in countries such as India, Vietnam and Korea.
Burma has around 770,000 Catholics spread across 16 dioceses, said Archbishop Bo, around a fifth of Burma’s total Christian population, which Bo estimates at about 7 percent of Burma’s 50-60 million people.
The Archbishop says that Burma’s change of government to a reform-inclined administration has made life easier for Catholics.
“At the moment we have freedom to speak,” said Bo. “Usually any Sundays or any feast day I could definitely guess there was some MI [military intelligence] listening or recording,” said the Archbishop, referring to government spies sitting in on his sermons during the era of the former military regime.
However some restrictions remain in place, with the Archbishop saying that permits for churches or seminaries can be slow to come.
One new seminary proposed just east of Rangoon, at a site near the 18th century Portuguese-built Catholic Church at Thanlyin, has been held up for four years, said the Archbishop. “I have been applying and applying, but nothing forthcoming yet.”
The area is close to the proposed Thilawa Special Economic Zone and was the stronghold of the short-lived kingdom established by Portuguese warlord Philip de Brito. De Brito, who started his career as a mercenary in the pay of the Arakanese, was executed in 1613 by Anuakpetin, a conquering Burmese King. De Brito was accused of stealing the famed Dhammazedi Bell from the Shwedagon Pagoda five years earlier. Put to death along with de Brito was Nat Shin Aung, a cousin of Anaukpetin who is remembered as one of Burma’s historic poets but who converted to Catholicism as part of his pact with de Brito.
The Archbishop is involved in inter-religious negotiations in Burma, talks aimed at trying to improve relations between Burma’s majority Buddhists and minority Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others.
Since mid-2012, Buddhist-Muslim violence has flared in various locations across Burma, though most concentrated in western Arakan State, where the bulk of those displaced and killed have been Muslims and of those, many are from the Rohingya minority.
The Rohingya are regarded by the Burmese Government as Bengali immigrants and are denied citizenship, as well as not being categorized as a separate ethnic minority.
“There are Rohingyas who came in more than a century ago,” said Archbishop Bo, who added that those who could show they had at least a century lineage inside Burma should be given citizenship. However Archbishop Bo expressed doubt that recent arrivals had that entitlement, saying that each case should be assessed individually.
“We have to go case-by-case,” he said.