Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar, says that the Second World War was a human tragedy that defies any explanation, but that “the atomic bomb tragedy targeting children and women remains one of the festering wounds of collective human conscience.”
In an exclusive interview with Zenit whose Senior Vatican Correspondent, Deborah Castellano Lubov, is on the Papal Flight for Pope Francis’ Apostolic Trip to Japan and Thailand, Nov. 19-26, the Burmese Salesian Cardinal expressed this thought.
The Cardinal who is president of the FABC, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, is following the trip and present up close with Pope Francis at all his major events during this seven-day, two-nation Asian tour. In the interview, Zenit had the opportunity to speak to Cardinal Bo about this trip, and what is important to focus on and recognize in these two different Asian realities.
“The persecution of Christians,” the cardinal leading the Asian bishops decries, “persists unfortunately in many parts of Asia,” noting Christian persecution has not received adequate attention from the International Community, which has led to widespread suppression of Christian rights. Despite all this, Cardinal Bo also points out great signs of hope.
While speaking on the other hand on nuclear warfare, he laments that the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has not deterred other powerful Asian countries from possessing nuclear weapons. “The Pope’s words and actions during his brief visit, we hope, will further the dialogue on atomic weapons,” he says.
Myanmar is emerging from decades of military rule after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won the 2015 elections and has taken office.
The Muslim minority of the Rohingyas is considered by the UN to be one of the most persecuted. According to data from the Arakan Project, a humanitarian organization defending Rohingyas rights, since 2010, some 100,000 members of the minority have fled Burma (Myanmar) by sea. Violence between radical Buddhists and Rohingyas has left, since 2012, more than 200 dead and 140,000 displaced. In addition to discussing this trip, Cardinal Bo also reflects on the legacy Francis left his nation.
Here is our exclusive interview:
ZENIT: Pope Francis is making a lengthy Apostolic journey in Thailand and Japan to meet very small Catholic communities. In your opinion, why did the Pope decide to make this trip? And also, why has he decided to add the stop in Thailand?
Cardinal Bo: This trip is not surprising. Pope Francis is a “Pope of the margins.” In all his exhortations, he has impressed upon the Church to “have perspective from the margins.” Francis visited Myanmar where the Catholic Community is just below 700,000. He visited the Muslims in Bangladesh. For him. “small is not only beautiful, it needs due recognition.” He follows the tradition of St. Paul who traveled to encourage and evangelize the small Christian communities.
ZENIT: Tell us, Cardinal Bo, about your own involvement and presence in this trip.
Cardinal Bo: As the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), it is my duty and privilege to accompany the Pope in his travel. I am present with him in his major events. I was following the preparations being made by the respective Bishops’ Conferences of Japan and Thailand.
ZENIT: Apart from Japan and Thailand, what does this trip mean for the rest of Asia?
Cardinal Bo: This trip is deeply significant for two reasons: First of all, Christian communities in Asia are small in number except in East Timor and the Philippines. But the Christian contribution to education and health is massive. The Pope’s visit will shine a light on these works. Pope John Paul II when he visited Asia, made proactive disclosure of Asian Christian Church’s role. We do hope his visit will give greater visibility to the quality contribution of the minority Catholic Church towards nation-building in many Asian Countries through education and health.
ZENIT: And what is the second reason?
Cardinal Bo: The second significant reason is that Asia is the cradle of great religions. Eastern religions are getting more attention in the West. Buddhism has many admirers and converts in the West. Japan is the cradle of Zen. Thailand is the center of Theravada Buddhism. Asian religions have a greater sensitivity to protecting nature. The inter-being sense of Asian religions – believing that we are connected with one another and with nature – is a strong idea proposed by those who are concerned about the integrity of nature. Pope Francis has been mainstreaming our relationship with one another and our Mother Earth through the seminal encyclicals like Laudato Si. The Pope’s initiatives on protecting nature open new opportunities for engaging with Asian religions.
ZENIT: There is much anticipation for the Pope’s stops in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only places where nuclear weapons have been used. In Asia, there are many countries that possess atomic weapons. What reactions will the words and gestures of the Pope have in those countries?
Cardinal Bo: The Pope’s views on weapons is well known. He had castigated powerful countries that thrive on the arms industry. The West enriches itself with the supply of arms to poorer countries like Afghanistan and Yemen. The Pope has been merciless in condemning the blood money earned by rich countries. The Second World War was a human tragedy that defies any explanation. But the atom bomb tragedy targeting children and women remains one of the festering wounds of collective human conscience. The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has not deterred Asian countries like China, India and Pakistan from possessing nuclear weapons. The Pope’s words and actions during his brief visit, we hope, will further the dialogue on atomic weapons.
ZENIT: The Synod on the Amazon has just ended in the Vatican. There has been a lot of talk about issues that also closely affect many Churches in Asia, such as inculturation. What idea did you get of what was said at the Synod about inculturation?
Cardinal Bo: Asia hosts one of the biggest populations of indigenous people. Like Amazonia, Asia, starting from the shores of South China seas to central India, there used to be a continuous landmass occupied by Indigenous people. This area is termed ZOMIA by anthropologists. As in Amazonia, the market economy has commodified these people and their sacred way of life linking everything with the spirit. Enormous turbulence has inflicted on them, making them victims to displacement, substance abuse and human trafficking.
ZENIT: And the Churches in Asia, you would consider ‘indigenous’ by nature?
Cardinal Bo: The Asian Church is predominantly indigenous in nature. For example, in Myanmar, my country, the Church is mostly indigenous with 14 of the 16 dioceses consisting only of the indigenous people. As the Pope has clearly indicated all modern people need to learn a lot from Indigenous people in simple living and harmonious existence with nature. The dialogue needs to start with humility with the realization, the dangerous events like global warming etc. need a simpler life with a deep reverence for nature. In these, the indigenous people are the best teachers.
ZENIT: So, where does true inculturation start?
Cardinal Bo: Inculturation starts not only with the dialogue of the people. it is needed the context – not only social but the natural habitat of the people. The eastern religions target ‘experience’ not ‘explanation’ of the context. The church needs to develop a deep sense of dignity of all people, especially a sacred respect for the indigenous people and their way of life and a deep sense of sacred towards life that is sustained through nature.
ZENIT: The Asian Churches are small, in many cases, but also very lively and dynamic. Today it is widely believed that the center of gravity of world Christianity will soon move from Europe and from America to Africa and to Asia. It’s really like this?
Cardinal Bo: This should not be a surprise. Christ was born in an Asian context. St Paul preached in Asian Countries. Christianity flourished in the East before West took on Christ. From a deeply Greco Roman path towards Franco-German interlude and South American Liberation theology, Christianity assumed various mantles. It is high time that Christ returns to Asia, his home. Asian Churches need to be baptized in the Jordan of Asian Cultures and be born again as agents of vibrant spirituality and social change. African Churches need to respond in their own way. The Asian Church is vibrant in many ways.
ZENIT: Could you elaborate?
Cardinal Bo: The Philippines today is the third biggest Catholic country in the world. The number of Christians is growing at a fast pace in China and in a short time, China will be able to boast of one of the biggest populations in the world. Africa has seen enormous growth in numbers and vocations. Vocations are plenty in countries like Vietnam, Korea and India. These countries are sending missionaries to traditional ‘First World’ countries. The Church’s contribution to education and health in Asia is much beyond its numbers. Religious, especially women religious, have carried to the Gospel to unknown communities, making Asia one of the epicenter of millions, what Karl Rahner would call ” Anonymous Christians.” The challenge today for Asian Churches how to retain the core Christian message and contextualize that message with inculturated spiritual experience.
ZENIT: Asia is also the continent where Christianity faces the most ferocious persecutions, as many international reports affirm. The situations are very different from one country to another, but in your opinion is there some common element that these persecutions have in common?
Cardinal Bo: Persecution of the Christians persists unfortunately in many parts of Asia. Western engagement with what it calls “Islamic Terrorism” is a sad payback to innocent Christians in some countries. Christianity is perceived as a tool of westernization. In some countries, nationalistic leaders have successfully used Christians as scapegoats for their parochial political agendas.
ZENIT: Would you say this reality is recognized internationally?
Cardinal Bo: Persecution has not received adequate attention from the world bodies. Geo-strategic considerations subsume the rights of Christians. Despite all this, Christianity not only survives, but thrives, in my country and countries like Vietnam and China.
ZENIT: Among the journeys made by Pope Francis, there is also the trip to Myanmar, in 2017. What did the experience leave the Church in Myanmar?
Cardinal Bo: It was one of the great blessings to the Myanmar Church. Pope came on a pilgrim of Peace. He met all stakeholders, including those who are controversial. He sought peace with great faith in the human heart. He left a mandate to the Church: of being a peacemaker in a country torn by decades of conflict.
ZENIT: And how has this mandate been received?
Cardinal Bo: We have taken this mandate seriously and as a Church, we are involved in a robust manner in peace initiatives through organizations like Religions for Peace.
ZENIT: Anything else you would like to add, Your Eminence?
Cardinal Bo: Thank you very much for your constant attention to the Church in Asia. God bless.
ZENIT: Thank you again, Your Eminence, for your time.