YANGON, Myanmar – Church colleagues on Monday welcomed home Archbishop Charles Maung Bo, a day after his appointment by Pope Francis as Myanmar's first Roman Catholic cardinal.
Bo, the archbishop of Yangon, was one of 20 new cardinals whose appointments were announced Sunday. They are from 18 countries, including two others that never before had a cardinal: Cape Verde and Tonga. All will officially assume their new positions Feb. 14 at a ceremony at the Vatican.
The 66-year-old clergyman was smiling broadly as he returned from abroad to his residence in Myanmar largest city, exchanging pleasantries with friends and followers. Bouquets sent by well-wishers sat outside his office.
Bishop Felix Lian Khen Thang said Bo's appointment was the crowning achievement of the church's mission activities in Myanmar. The bishop from Kalaymyo town is president of the country's Catholic Bishop Conference.
"It's time a Myanmar cardinal was selected because even Thailand, which has fewer Catholics, has had a cardinal," said the Rev. Maurice Daniel, the conference's general secretary.
About 1 percent of predominantly Buddhist Myanmar's 51 million people are Catholics. Neighboring Thailand has about half that number and also had a new cardinal appointed Sunday. The church has been active in Myanmar — also known as Burma — for five centuries.
Bo's appointment comes as Myanmar grapples with major problems of religious intolerance, particularly by members of the Buddhist majority toward Muslims of the Rohingya ethnic minority. Related violence has taken several hundred lives in the past few years.
The archbishop was not immediately available to speak to reporters Monday. However, in a commentary for The Washington Post last year, he wrote: "If Burma is to be truly free, peaceful and prosperous, the rights of all ethnicities and religious faiths must be protected. A movement that has grown in volume and influence threatens this: extreme Buddhist nationalism."
Bo declared "there is a need for all of us — religious, civil and political leaders — to speak up to counter hate speech with good speech, as well as for the government to bring to justice those who incite discrimination and violence."
Bishop Felix attributed Bo's appointment in part to his being cosmopolitan and outspoken. "He's daring enough to speak the truth, be it about tribal affairs, political affairs, church affairs," he said.
Benedict Rogers of the British-based religious freedom advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide described Bo as "a man of enormous quality: courage, wisdom, compassion, humility, humor, hospitality and generosity.
"In particular, he has been one of the most outspoken religious leaders in Burma on issues of human rights, religious freedom, democracy, poverty, human trafficking and other injustices," said Rogers, who added that the archbishop inspired him personally to become a Catholic.