May 26, 2008 / 6:45 PM / 11 years ago

Myanmar prelate says cyclone set Church back decade

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The tiny Roman Catholic Church in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar is struggling to do its bit to help cyclone survivors, with parishes so damaged that it could take a decade to rebuild, its leader said on Monday.

Archbishop Paul Grawng of Mandalay, head of Myanmar’s Bishops’ Conference, was cautious as he spoke in an interview with Reuters about the Church’s challenges in the army-ruled nation hours after he held talks with Pope Benedict.

But he said basic problems in the wake of the cyclone included addressing the need for funerals, with so many of the dead still missing and Church infrastructure in tatters.

“We have no way of burying the dead much of the time because the bodies are out to the sea, so we hold funeral masses for them (in their absence),” Grawng said of the storm that left about 134,000 people dead or missing and another 2.4 million destitute.

“A lot of families maybe have one survivor and maybe 15 or 20 of their relatives are all gone. A lot of our sisters and priests have relatives like that now.”

He said Myanmar’s 650,000 Catholics — in a nation of 53 million people — were attempting their biggest relief effort ever, sending volunteers from across the country to affected dioceses to distribute relief to the hungry and sick.

“Apart from the food and water ... people are very strengthened just by having someone to tell their stories to. That, I think, is a big part of our help”, said Grawng.

After appeals from the international community, the military government said last week that all aid officials and disaster assessment teams would be allowed into the country regardless of nationality.

Grawng said he only knew about Catholics from inside the country being allowed to distribute aid, at least so far.

Church officials in Myanmar signed a joint appeal earlier this month with other Christians explaining to authorities why foreign aid workers should be allowed to assist relief efforts.

“We said if the international aid is accepted fully — which means supplies as well as the trained personnel — then this relief work would be more effective,” Grawng said.

But the soft-spoken archbishop added he wasn’t hopeful for a written reply, saying “Normally, we don’t get a response”.

“The international community has been very generous in offering help,” he said.

“There are very many, many who need it. Further lives could be saved. The relief work would be more effective. That’s what everybody wishes.”

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