Christian relief, prayers helping to ease 'unimaginable suffering' in Burma

Christian aid agencies and leaders are keeping Burma in their prayers as they scramble emergency aid to the cyclone-ravaged country.

Gospel for Asia's more than 500 native Burmese missionaries are on the ground helping out in communities badly hit by last Saturday's devastating Cyclone Nargis.

"The suffering of the people is unimaginable," said GFA President KP Yohannan, speaking from India where he is monitoring the situation. "Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, are homeless. Food is in short supply, and prices are skyrocketing. Electricity may be out for months. People have lost literally everything."

The missionaries are teaming up with other volunteers to form GFA Compassion Services that will speed relief to the thousands who have been left homeless after whole towns and villages were blown away by 120-mph winds. A GFA-run Bible college is sheltering and feeding survivors, whilst a cyclone relief fund has been set up by the ministry that will gift 100 per cent of the donations to relief for survivors.

Coastal towns and villages in the rice-growing Irrawaddy delta southwest of Rangoon bore the brunt of the cyclone, which swept a 12ft tidal wave across the region, and witnesses told of people clinging to trees in a desperate fight for survival.

The death toll continues to climb. Burma's state radio and television report that 22,980 are dead and 42,119 still missing. In the town of Bogalay alone, 10,000 people have been killed and 95 per cent of the homes destroyed.

According to Bangkok-based Richard Horsey of the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 5,000 square km (1,930 square miles) of the Irrawaddy delta remain under water.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has sent a letter to the Archbishop of Rangoon, the Most Rev Stephen Than Myint Oo, assuring the Anglican Church in Burma of the prayers of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

"Our hearts grieve with all those who have lost their loved ones, their homes and their livelihoods," the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote. "In the face of such loss, all I can offer in my prayers for you is the totality of the love of God, even in the face of all that on earth is disfigured by natural disaster."

Quoting John 6.39, he added, "Please be assured that your brothers and sisters across the Communion are holding you in their prayers."

GFA's Yohannan also appealed to Christians to keep Burma in their prayers. "The people in Burma live in clusters of small communities in simple bamboo structures. Literally hundreds of these simple structures were just blown away. We are praying here in India and are asking Christians around the world to join us."

A number of ministries, including Christian Aid, World Vision, Tearfund and Barnabas Fund have launched emergency appeals to assess the extent of the damage on the ground and bring immediate relief to the survivors.

The Methodist Church and the Methodist Relief and Development Fund (MRDF) have also launched an emergency appeal for funds.

Michael King, the Methodist Church's World Church Team Leader, said, "The cyclone has created a humanitarian emergency that is unprecedented in Burma's history. Hundreds of thousands of people are cut off from clean water and shelter, and prices for basic foodstuffs are escalating. We are asking people to offer whatever support they can, both financially and through their prayers."

The Church sent an immediate solidarity grant of £10,000 to the Methodist Church in Myanmar and has launched a joint appeal with MRDF.

Burma's military government has come under pressure from the US to open its borders so that it can receive more help from the international community. US military aid flights have so far been delayed whilst Washington awaits approval from Burma.

Witnesses on the ground, meanwhile, say that there is little evidence of relief in the delta.

"We'll starve to death, if nothing is sent to us," said Zaw Win, a 32-year-old fisherman who waded through floating corpses to find a boat that would take him to Bogalay two hours away.

"We need food, water, clothes and shelter," he told a Reuters reporter. "We'll starve to death if nothing is sent to us."

Caritas Internationalis is currently coordinating the relief efforts of its 162-strong network of Catholic aid agencies. Caritas Emergency Response Team Leader Dolores Halpin-Bachmann said that the Burmese junta needs to ease access for aid workers if more people are to be saved.

"There is an urgent need for access to aid workers to the affected areas so that we can assess the damage, start to provide food, shelter, clean water, and medical assistance," she said. "Myanmar (Burma) is a poor country and will most likely need international help to respond to a disaster on this scale. The government must do all it can to help aid workers respond."

Christians make up only 4 per cent of the population in largely Buddhist Burma and face, alongside other religious and ethnic minorities, fierce persecution from the country's repressive military junta.

"As we pray for all the people of Burma at this time of crisis, let us especially remember our Christian brothers and sisters," says Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund. "They have endured many years of persecution, faithfully and courageously. Pray that as this further trial comes upon them, they will be given great grace."