Myanmar military shells Catholic cathedral for second time in 5 months

Myanmar’s security forces reportedly shelled a Catholic cathedral in the northeastern Shan state for the second time in five months as they continue to fight local militias, targeting Catholic churches and convents and displacing more than 10,000 people.

The military fired heavy artillery targeting Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral in the Diocese of Pekhon last Tuesday, days after shelling the convent of the Sisters of Zetaman, which is housed in a Marian shrine, Catholic News Service reported.

The shelling damaged the windows and pews but no casualties have been reported.

Security forces intensified their offensive against the combined forces of the Karenni army and Karenni People’s Defense Force on Nov. 2 and over 10,000 people have been displaced from Pekhon township.

“It was intense fighting, so the majority of people have fled from their homes to safe areas,” a Catholic social worker told Union of Catholic Asia News.

The source added that the church is not able to respond to the needs of the displaced due to the fighting, which has also caused aid workers to flee.

The cathedral was also hit by artillery fire in June.

Christians make up just over 7% of the majority-Buddhist nation. Formerly known as Burma, the country is home to the world’s longest civil war, which began in 1948.

Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, including Christians, live in the various conflict zones across the country’s borders with Thailand, China and India. Hundreds of thousands of civilians, many of them Christians, have been displaced due to the escalation of conflicts in the zones since the military coup on Feb. 1.

Militias in those areas have been morally supporting pro-democracy protesters since the coup, which has led to the use of heavy weapons by the Myanmar army. Thousands of civilians in the conflict zones have sought shelter in churches when their villages are under attack.

The Diocese of Pekhon and the Diocese of Loikaw in the Kayah state have been among the most impacted areas since by increasing fighting since May, UCA News notes. 

Last month, Burmese security forces fired heavy artillery into a town in the predominantly Christian Chin state, setting at least 100 homes and two churches on fire. The U.S. State Department released a statement condemning the “gross violations of human rights.”

The attack was in retaliation after a Chin militia shot and killed a Burmese soldier who was breaking into houses and looting properties, the U.S.-based persecution watchdog International Christian Concern reported the anti-junta Chinland Defense Force as saying. 

Nearly 10,000 residents of the town of Thantlang fled the area as the fire raged on, ICC reported at the time.

The presence of the Buddhist nationalist military makes civilians and militias in conflict-ridden states nervous. The military has been accused of damaging places of worship and civilians’ homes, raping girls and women, abducting civilians to be used for forced labor and shooting civilians to death.

From June to May, at least eight churches were damaged in 30 days in the Kayah and Shan states. According to Radio Free Asia, five civilians sheltering inside the churches were killed.

In May, four civilians were reportedly killed and around eight others were injured when security forces fired artillery shells at a Catholic church in the Kayah state.  

In September, a beloved youth pastor, Cung Biak Hum of Thantlang Centennial Baptist Church, was shot dead as he tried to help one of his congregants save their burning home after it was set ablaze by the military during an attack on civilians in Chin state.

Information on his Facebook page showed that he was married with two sons. He was also reportedly pursuing a master’s of divinity degree at MIT Yangon.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Tom Andrews, highlighted the pastor’s murder in a tweet at the time, calling on the international community to “pay closer attention” to the “living hell” civilians have faced since the February coup brought back full military rule following years of quasi-democracy.

Myanmar is ranked No. 18 on Open Doors USA’s 2021 World Watch List of 50 countries where Christians face the most severe persecution. The persecution level in Myanmar is “very high” due to Buddhist nationalism. Burma is recognized by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for egregious violations of religious liberty.

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