Mae Hong Son, 21 December 2017 – The presence of Pope Francis in Myanmar left a sense of joy and hope for a lot of Myanmar people. Even far away from their country, a young girl Evelyn living in Ban Mai Nai Soi refugee camp and few catechists in Ban Mae Surin refugee camp, at the border of Thailand and Myanmar, attended the mass given by Pope Francis. They were not able to go to Yangon to see him directly due to their constraint of movement, but they were able to watch a live streaming of the mass through social media.
“Though I feel sorry that I was not able to go to Yangon and attend personally, watching a live streaming gives a feeling of unity with those present with him in Yangon. It gives a sense of positive change since his message is about peace and love” said one of the catechists in the refugee camp.
In Kayah State, Myanmar, where refugees of these two camps come from, Catholicism ranks as a second largest number of believers after Buddhism. The Diocese of Loikaw continues to provide and to be present among the Catholic population in both camps by sending two priests to attend to their spiritual and sacramental needs. They consider the camps and the Catholic population as part of their people.
The population of both camps is estimated at 12,829 refugees. Catholics make up about 18% of it, and they live side by side with other religious groups that include Baptists, Protestants, Animists and Buddhists. Together with the two priests, JRS Thailand serves the refugee population by organizing family groups for sharing and reflection. It is not limited to the Catholic community but it is extended to the families from different religious traditions. The family groups’ sharing creates an effective space to raise concerns, issues and to strengthen their groups in finding some solutions for their challenges.
“I prayed for two months for the safety of the Pope as I saw a lot of negative comments in social media before his arrival. I remembered how Pope St. John Paul II was shot, and I do not want him to go through the same experience. I said my rosary every night for him a month before his arrival in Myanmar” said another female catechist.
Before his arrival to Myanmar, there were a lot of speculations whether Pope Francis will use the word Rohingya to highlight what happened in Rakhine State. While many advised him not to use the word, there were negative comments in social media coming from the assumption that he would use it. It highlights the sensitivity of the issue and how it actually polarized people especially through social media about the fate of suffering people like the Rohingya.
For the female catechist, the peaceful joy and gratitude felt by the people in Myanmar resonated perfectly with her and her fellow Catholic community in the camps. She remembers vividly a picture of Pope Francis before leaving Myanmar blessing bishops that saw him off in the airport. For her, it is not only about blessing the bishops, it is about blessing the country he visited for 3 days. It is about blessing the people living in it with their history towards peaceful and democratic society. Her fellow catechist wishes Pope Francis a Merry Christmas and gratitude for his visit to Myanmar, and wishes him also a long healthy life.
Fr Bambang A. Sipayung SJ,
Regional Director, Jesuit Refugee Service Asia Pacific