Myanmar’s Roman Catholic leader has called for attacks on places of worship to end after he said four people were killed and more than eight wounded when a group of mainly women and children sought refuge in a church during fighting this week.
The conflict between the army and forces opposed to military rule has escalated in recent days in eastern Myanmar near the border of Shan and Kayah states, with dozens of security forces and local fighters killed, according to residents and media reports.
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Civilians have also been killed and thousands had fled their homes.
“It is with immense sorrow and pain, we record our anguish at the attack on innocent civilians, who sought refuge in Sacred Heart Church, Kayanthayar,” Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, who is the archbishop of Yangon, said in a letter posted on Twitter, the Reuters news agency reported on Wednesday.
The church in the district of Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State on the border with Thailand, suffered extensive damage during the Sunday night attack, Bo said.
An Earnest Appeal- With Special Reference to the attack on the Sacred Heart Church in Kayanthayar near Loikaw in Eastern Myanmar on 23rd May 2021 that killed four and wounded many
(25th May 2021) pic.twitter.com/Uk5TR51vcK
— Cardinal Bo (@cardinal_bo) May 25, 2021
Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist, but some areas including Kayah, have large Christian communities.
“The violent acts, including continuous shelling, using heavy weaponry on a frightened group of largely women and children” had resulted in the casualties, he said.
“This needs to stop. We plead with you all … kindly do not escalate the war,” he said.
Bo said that churches, hospitals and schools were protected during conflict by international conventions.
He said the attack had prompted people to flee into the jungle with more than 20,000 now displaced and in urgent need of food, medicine and hygiene.
Another resident in the area trying to help displaced people estimated on Wednesday the number who had fled their homes had now risen to between 30,000 and 50,000 and were still using churches to shelter in.
“The elderly and children are in the churches. All the churches have put up white flags in order to stop the shelling,” said the 20-year-old, who asked not to be identified.
She said the situation remained tense in the area and accused the military of continuing to use heavy weapons against lightly armed local militia.
A spokesman for the military did not answer phone calls seeking comment.
Myanmar has been in chaos since the army seized power on February 1, deposing the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. A mass movement against the coup has led to daily protests, marches and strikes across the country and the generals have responded with lethal force.
More than 800 people have been killed since the protests began, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which is tracking the security forces’ response. The military disputes this figure and coup leader Min Aung Hlaing recently said about 300 people had been killed in the unrest, including 47 police.
The military is also fighting on a growing number of fronts, against established ethnic minority armies and local militias formed in the past few weeks, many armed with rudimentary rifles and homemade weapons.
Min Aung Hlaing has played down the risk of violence spiralling into a bigger conflict.
“I don’t think there will be a civil war,” he told Hong Kong-based Chinese language broadcaster Phoenix Television Phoenix in a May 20 interview.