Cardinal Charles Bo of Myanmar. © Vatican News

Cardinal Bo: Reflections From The Periphery: ‘God’s love for the people and Nations of Asia’ – (PART IV OF IV)

Released for the Feast of the Assumption of Our Blessed Mother Mary

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Pope Francis has often spoken of the need to pay more attention to the people and places on the world’s periphery. Today, ZENIT concludes its four-part reflection by Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangoon, Myanmar.
In his insightful reflection, Cardinal Bo makes no apologies for being from the periphery. Instead, he speaks of the challenges his world faces — and the lessons his world can share with those in more affluent parts of the world.
In this final installment, we share Cardinal Bo’s thoughts on the importance of Religious Freedom. Earlier segments covered the Rights and Duties of all people, the quest for Peace, and the legitimate role of Defense for a nation.
The full text was provided by Cardinal Bo to ZENIT Senior Vatican Correspondent, Deborah Castellano Lubov.
Here is the fourth part of the reflection:
Religious freedom
All human rights and freedoms are essential and intertwined. But if there is one that is foundational, it is freedom of religion or belief. As I have said before, freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, as detailed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is perhaps the most precious and most basic freedom of all. Without the freedom to choose, practice, share and change your beliefs, there is no freedom. It was Tertullian who said in the year 212 that: “It is a fundamental human right that every man should worship according to his own convictions,” and it was Thomas Jefferson who said in 1819: “The constitutional freedom of religion is the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights.”
In 1965 the Church, at the Second Vatican Council, put into writing essential teaching on defending religious freedom for all, in Dignitatis Humanae. It bases the defense of religious freedom – the duty of every person to search for the Truth, and the freedom to pursue the Truth according to conscience – upon the dignity of the human person. It states: “Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. … The human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”
It is no coincidence that this conciliar document had its origins in the encounter of Pope St John XXIII with the survivors of the Armenian genocide. I have always found this encounter, and St John’s personal efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust, a deeply moving example.
It is why on Holy Thursday last year, at the traditional washing of the feet ceremony on the night before we remember the Passion of our Lord, I washed the feet not only of Catholics but of Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. In a society where a hierarchy of religions, a hierarchy of status and a hierarchy of prejudice are dominant, this was a deliberately symbolic act.
Similarly, it is why I chose to turn the celebration of my episcopal Jubilee, a quarter of a century as a bishop, into an initiative to promote inter-faith relations in my home village of Monhla, four hours by rough roads from Mandalay. One particular evening we were joined by a Buddhist monk, a Muslim leader, a Hindu, and a Protestant pastor and together we spoke of our vision for inter-faith harmony and religious freedom. Together we lit a candle for peace. Those sort of gestures, symbolic acts, send a message to grassroots communities and as long as they are followed up with grassroots action and community life together, they make a difference.
For not only are we to have the right to religious freedom, but – according to Dignitatus Humanae – religion has a beneficial role to play in society and so “injury, therefore, is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society … Government ought to take account of the religious life of the people and show it favor since the function of government is to make provision for the common good.”
In Myanmar, we face growing threats to religious freedom. Preachers of hatred incite discrimination and violence in the name of a peaceful religion, unjust laws and regulations impose restrictions on religious freedom for minorities, and identity politics has mixed race, religion, and politics into a dangerous cocktail of hate and intolerance.
This is true not only in Myanmar, but throughout Asia – the world’s most diverse continent, where all the world’s major religions meet, and where a majority in one country is a minority in another. Across our continent, we have seen growing intolerance, which threatens the fabric that holds our societies together.
Those of us, of whatever religion or country, who believe in human dignity, human rights and religious freedom for all, must unite to defend those values for everyone, everywhere. As Alissa Wahid, the daughter of Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), former President of Indonesia, and I said in an article we co-authored in the Wall Street Journal three years ago, “We must learn to separate race, religion, and politics. We must speak out for the freedom of religion or belief for all.”
Lord Sacks says in his book To Heal a Fractured World: “Against the fundamentalism of hate, we must create a counter-fundamentalism of love … ‘A little light’, said the Jewish mystics, ‘drives away much darkness’. And when light is joined to light, mine to yours and yours to others, the dance of flames, each so small, yet together so intricately beautiful, begins to show that hope is not an illusion. Evil, injustice, oppression, cruelty do not have the final word.”
Let us build a Myanmar based on the fundamentalism of love and light, not hatred and darkness.
Let us build a Myanmar where hope is not an illusion, and where we can join hands, regardless of ethnicity or religion, in peace and solidarity.
Let us build a Myanmar where, in the words of Dignitatis Humanae, we form people who are “lovers of true freedom” for “a society which promotes religious freedom will be enlivened and enriched; one which doesn’t will decay.”
Let us renew our efforts to build a new Myanmar, putting decades of conflict and hatred and repression behind us.
Let us unite as a nation based on the values of Metta (loving-kindness) and Karuna (compassion) from the Buddhist tradition, of salam (peace) from the Islamic tradition, and the Christian principle of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and loving one’s enemy.
Other challenges
Myanmar faces many other challenges – too many to explore in detail here. The tyranny of drugs is killing many people and demands our attention, through works of education, rehabilitation, and mercy. The exploitation of our environment threatens livelihoods. Pope Francis has called on us to awake to this challenge in his encyclical Laudato si, and I have spoken before on an “environmental holocaust”. Who is most affected by ecological degradation? The poor. I continue to plead, specifically, for the Myitsone dam project to be stopped as if it proceeds millions stand to lose their land and livelihood and face environmental and economic disaster.
Education is an area which needs much investment. The denial of education to young people in Myanmar has exposed them to modern forms of slavery, drugs, and trafficking. Knowledge is power. Myanmar was once one of the most highly educated nations in the region, our universities the envy of others. But today, 60 percent of our children do not finish primary school. That cannot be allowed to continue.
Myanmar is not alone in these or other challenges. Around the world 27 million people live in slavery, including 8.4 million children; 700,000 people are trafficked every year; at least 12.3 million people are victims of forced labor worldwide, and human trafficking is the third-largest source of income for organized crime, generating $7 billion per year. These are worldwide challenges, but one which impacts Myanmar greatly. Over a million people from Myanmar are refugees outside their country, the fourth-largest refugee population in the world, and more than a million are internally displaced within Myanmar. Over 40 percent of the population live in poverty.
It is time for us as a nation to confront these challenges and to put an end to the abuse of human dignity, to seek peace and reconciliation, to love freedom and pursue truth, to celebrate diversity and the dignity of difference and to cherish creation.
In doing so all of us – from whatever part of society we come – face an element of risk. Speaking as a religious leader, I acknowledge that there are times when the tactics and approach may change. There may be times when I speak up publicly, and other times when I choose to do so privately. There may be times when I speak boldly, other times when nuance is required.
Pope Pius XII, for example, wrestled with this dilemma during the Holocaust and has been criticized, wrongly, ever since for the false perception of staying silent. Yet the reality is that Pius XII, according to former Israeli consul and historian Pinchas Lapide, “was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands.” The Nazis themselves observed that Pius XII “has always been hostile to National Socialism” and was “Jew loving.”
After the Second World War Pius XII was thanked by survivors of the Holocaust and tributes included one from Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann and Isaac Herzog, Chief Rabbi of Israel. Rome’s Chief Rabbi, Israel Zolli, became a Catholic and took the Pope’s name as a tribute to him. At the time of his death, in 1958, Golda Meir said: “When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims.” The Jewish Chronicle recorded: “Confronted by the monstrous cruelties of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism, he repeatedly proclaimed the virtues of humanity and compassion…many hundreds of fugitive Jews found sanctuary in the Vatican by the Nazis. Such actions will always be remembered.” Albert Einstein said: “In 1940 he said: “Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth…I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.” Pius XII focused on actions more than words and calculated that at times it was better to act effectively rather than speak loudly. Only yesterday we marked the feast of St.Maxilian Kolbe, murdered at Auschwitz by the Nazis. He is Patron saint of political prisoners, of families, of journalists, and of the pro-life movement. He warned that  “The most deadly poison of our times is indifference.”  Let that not be said of us.
St John Paul II, on the other hand, opted for a much more public prophetic role, speaking out continuously, courageously and unwaveringly against the repressive policies of the Communists. Even though his opponents tried to kill him, he bravely continued to speak truth to power. When he visited his native Poland for the first time as Pope in June 1979, he famously preached a homily in Warsaw’s Victory Square which ended with this prayer: “And I cry—I who am a Son of the land of Poland and who am also Pope John Paul II—I cry from all the depths of this Millennium, I cry on the vigil of Pentecost: Let your Spirit descend. Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land.”
His tireless and outspoken defense of freedom is widely believed to have been a major factor that led to the collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe, sparking as it did the ‘Solidarity’ movement in Poland and beyond. I today make that same prayer of St John Paul II, only in this case for Myanmar, praying: “I cry, as a Son of Myanmar: Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land.”
These are dilemmas and choices we all face, weighing up the risks and benefits of taking a particular approach. In all this, our sole concern is to do good and to do no harm, to benefit and not endanger those for whom we have a responsibility, to enhance the prospects for dialogue leading to peace and not hinder them, and above all to seek the promotion of human dignity for all.
Though the approach may vary, the values and objectives should never waiver. There are risks involved but, as Pope Pius XII said, “to live without risk is to risk not living”. For as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act”.
Moreover, we are not just to speak against evil, we are to work to change the systems that allow evil to succeed. “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself,” said Bonhoeffer.
In his final encyclical Meminisse Iuvat (“It is Helpful to Recall”), Pope Pius XII reminded us that “religion bids men live in charity, justice, and obedience to law; it condemns and outlaws vice; it incites citizens to the pursuit of virtue and thereby rules and moderates their public and private conduct. Religion teaches mankind that a better distribution of wealth should be had, not by violence or revolution, but by reasonable regulations, so that the proletarian classes which do not yet enjoy life’s necessities or advantages may be raised to a more fitting status without social strife.” It is in accordance with these principles that I have written this letter.
Above all, this letter is shaped by love, infused with a desire for justice and inspired by mercy. Myanmar needs all three – love, justice and mercy – desperately. Three years ago we celebrated the Year of Mercy, during which Pope Francis reminded us that “the name of God is Mercy” and that “the Church must be a place of mercy, freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.”
The Church in Myanmar stands ready to be a place of mercy for all, to be a center of reconciliation, to defend the rights of everyone everywhere of every religion and ethnicity, no exceptions, and to tear down barriers and move fences and counter hatred with love.
And as my Episcopal motto puts it – Omnia possum in Eo (“I can do all things in Him”).

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Cardinal Charles Bo

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