Cardinal Charles Bo has an idea which he believes will dramatically reduce violence against Christians worldwide. It’s a global parliament of religions that would bring together heads of the world’s great traditions to promote peace and dialogue. “All religious leaders need to be better educated and work towards religious harmony,” he told me during a recent conference on religious persecution in Rome. “Even if we have our own convictions, we must listen to others with respect.
“At this very moment somewhere, some brother or sister is shedding tears or blood because of just one reason: he or she is a Christian. The intensity and the spread of Christian suffering is widening. Christians being killed for their faith is a cause for universal concern.” The Burmese cardinal has personal insight into anti-Christian persecution. He lives in a majority Buddhist country that has not always treated minority religious groups kindly.
Named the Archbishop of Rangoon in 2003, he became the first cardinal in his nation’s history when he received the red hat from Pope Francis in February last year.“I am standing here,” he told me, “not as a scholar, not as a theologian. But as a man of the Church from a country that has persecuted us Christians.” For decades, Christians in Burma lived “under one of the most suffocating regimes”, the cardinal said. But despite these “attempts to strangle Christianity”, the faithful retained their hope that better days would come eventually.
Cardinal Bo has sought to build bridges with Burma’s overwhelmingly Buddhist population. This experience has encouraged him to push for a world parliament of faiths. “Religions should come together, meet together and celebrate together,” he said. But he recognises that this will not be easy. It will only be possible if leaders commit themselves to loving those who are different, overcoming centuries of suspicion and hostility. But he believes such dramatic changes can happen. He points to the example of Francis.
“Pope Francis emphasises that the Church is maintaining and keeping its same values, but at the same time, we are not to exclude anyone. We are to accept and have an open door for all,” he said. “The Jubilee Year of Mercy is opening a window for Christ, and also for us, to open our hearts towards God, and towards our brothers and sisters, especially those in need or suffering, particularly physically or mentally.”
He thinks that religious leaders the world over must adopt a “special inclusive attitude for all people” in which “we welcome and accompany, as well as actively go out to those who are far away”. “Diversity is not a weakness or something that is ‘tolerated’ but is something that ought to be celebrated,” he said. The parliament of religions is just one part of the cardinal’s plan for halting anti-Christian violence.
“Urgently, we need to bring to the attention of the world the inhuman treatment of Christians,” he said. He wants the UN Security Council to meet and discuss the persecution of religious minorities. He also insists that Europe and America must put pressure on states worldwide to observe international laws. Governments that indirectly support some of the violent groups should face sanctions. “Sanctions work,” he said. “Take my country. Without sanctions we would not have seen democracy.”
He also urges all Catholics to pray for an end to persecution. While admitting that this may seem like an “impractical response”, he said: “We need to first guard ourselves from vengeance and hatred and seek the inner freedom which comes only through grace. “We need to bring discourses not of hatred, but of love, those that won’t wound and break, but heal and build. Jesus exhorts us: ‘I tell you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.’ ”
Besides the persecution of religious minorities, Cardinal Bo wants world leaders to focus on two other forms of “terrorism”: “terrorism against the poor – the economic injustice” and “terrorism against nature – the environmental injustice”. Through his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and his environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis “has brought the world’s attention on these two terrors that kill millions every year”.
“He goes to the peripheries,” Cardinal Bo said, smiling. “I’ve never studied in Rome and he chose me as a cardinal from a lowly place, far away place people don’t know, with a small Catholic community. This demonstrates the attention the Pope gives for those who are far away and unknown.”
Deborah Castellano Lubov is a Vatican correspondent for Zenit news agency.
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