Myanmar Catholics celebrate 500 years in the country

YANGON - Thousands of Myanmar Catholics marked 500 years of the Church's presence inside the country in a lively celebration at a Yangon cathedral held four years late because of religious restrictions under the former junta.

Believers, many wearing colourful traditional dress from ethnic minorities across the diverse Southeast Asian nation, released balloons and sang hymns in the first of three days of parades and services that show a resurgence in confidence for Catholicism after reforms under a quasi-civilian regime.

"It is a day to say we are so proud that the faith came here 500 years ago," Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the Archbishop of Mumbai and the Pope's envoy, told congregants at a ceremony at St Mary's Cathedral to kick off the festivities.

"Myanmar is so special to Pope Francis because the Church is small, because the Church has got challenges, because the Church has got a great future," he added.

Portuguese traders are thought to have brought Catholicism to Myanmar in 1510 as they looked to extend their missionary reach from their Indian settlement in Goa.

But the Church said its celebrations could not be held in 2010 because of restrictions on religious freedoms under the former military government.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which was ruled for half a century by a junta whose human rights abuses included the repression of religious and ethnic minorities, began emerging from military rule in 2011.

"Since the political situations in Myanmar are developing now and there are many upcoming religious freedoms in the country we feel that it is a privilege to celebrate the great Jubilee in 2014," Father Leo Mang was quoted as saying in an English-language release on the Church website.

There are some 500,000 Catholics in Myanmar - around one per cent of its 51 million population.

Overall Christians are thought to make up about four per cent of the country's population, Muslims another four per cent and Buddhists around 90 per cent, with other religions including Hinduism and animism.

The Catholic Church has been increasingly vocal in recent months, particularly in urging religious tolerance following several waves of anti-Muslim violence.

Festivities around the 500-year anniversary are set to last until Sunday, when there will be multi-faith readings and a parade at a football stadium on the outskirts of Yangon.

"The 500th anniversary is a once in a lifetime opportunity for us," Xavier, who gave only one name, told AFP.

"I am so happy to see people from all over the country."