YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Church colleagues on Monday proudly 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 and who assume their new jobs next month. They are from 18 countries, including two others that never before had a cardinal: Cape Verde and Tonga.
The 66-year-old clergyman smiled broadly and exchanged pleasantries with friends and followers after returning from abroad to his residence in Myanmar largest city.
When he afterward went to the Missionary Sisters and Brothers of St. Paul's school, which he helps support, about 60 students and priests presented the archbishop with roses and came one by one to greet him and kiss his ecclesiastical ring. They serenaded him with a congratulatory song before holding a religious service.
He said he was happy to become the representative of Myanmar. "The pope just made the world know about Myanmar and this is really good for our country," he said.
Bishop Felix Lian Khen Thang, president of the country's Catholic Bishop Conference, said Bo's appointment was the crowning achievement of the church's mission activities in Myanmar.
About 1 percent of predominantly Buddhist Myanmar's 51 million people are Catholics. 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 wrote in a commentary for The Washington Post last year that: "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."
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.
Associated Press Writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.