Catholic Church: Clergy won't get involved in Myanmar protests

Yangon, Myanmar - While thousands of Buddhist monks have marched on the streets to protest against Myanmar's military regime, the Catholic Church has ordered its clergy not to take part in demonstrations or political activities.

Worshippers at Yangon's Catholic churches Sunday read posted bulletins from its hierarchy stating that priests, brothers and nuns were not to become involved in the monthlong protests, but that lay Catholics could act as they saw fit.

But at one Yangon church, a Western priest told a mostly foreign congregation of some 100 worshippers that the international community speak out against the regime, criticizing those who remained silent.

"The situation now in Myanmar should not be deemed as `business as usual.' What's happening can be likened to a rape," he said in a sermon, asking not to be identified by name for fear of reprisals.

A handful of Myanmar residents were inside the church, and had apparently been sleeping there in recent days for fear their homes would be raided by security forces which set up a checkpoint about 10 meters (yards) from the church after the Mass.

The bulletins urged all Catholics to continue praying, fasting and offering Mass for Myanmar's welfare.

Myanmar's 450,000 Catholics make up about 1 percent of the population of this predominantly Buddhist country. Christians as a whole comprise about 4 percent.

Buddhist monks spearheaded mass marches through Yangon and other cities last week before troops and riot police moved in with guns, clubs and tear gas to disperse them. Security forces also raided monasteries and arrested hundreds of monks.

In an interview with Vatican Radio Wednesday, Yangon Archbishop Charles Maung Bo said that "in accordance to canon (church) law and the social teachings of the Catholic Church, priests and religious are not to be involved in any party politics ... and demonstrations."

"Catholics as citizens of the country are free to act as they deem fit. The clergy and the religious (brothers and nuns) can give them proper guidance," the archbishop said.

The archbishop's statement was in line with general Vatican thinking.

Pope Benedict XVI expressed serious concern Sunday about the situation in Myanmar and said he strongly hoped that a peaceful solution would be found.

The pontiff told a gathering of pilgrims in Italy he was following "with great trepidation the very serious events" in the Asian nation.

But history in recent decades is replete with priests openly championing "people's power" and sometimes authoritarian regimes in Latin America, Europe and Asia.

The late Pope John Paul II is widely credited with helping to bring down communism in the East bloc, rallying his Polish countrymen to oppose the communist regime there.