Up to 50,000 people have fled their homes in eastern Myanmar near the border of Shan and Kayah states on Wednesday, May 26, many of whom using churches to hide from the fighting.
“The elderly and children are in the churches. All the churches have put up white flags in order to stop the shelling,” said a 20-year-old who asked not to be identified.
She said the situation remained tense in the area and accused the military of continuing to use heavy weapons against lightly armed local militia.
On Tuesday, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon called for an end to attacks on places of worship after four people were reported to have died and more than eight were wounded in a village chapel.
The conflict between the army and forces opposed to military rule has escalated in recent days in eastern Myanmar with dozens of security forces and local fighters killed, said media reports.
Thousands of civilians have also fled their homes due to the fighting and have also suffered casualties.
“It is with immense sorrow and pain, we record our anguish at the attack on innocent civilians, who sought refuge in Sacred Heart Church, Kayanthayar,” said Cardinal Bo in a statement.
The church in the district of Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State bordering Thailand, suffered extensive damage during the Sunday night attack, said the prelate.
Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist but some areas including Kayah have large Christian communities.
“The violent acts, including continuous shelling, using heavy weaponry on a frightened group of largely women and children” had resulted in the casualties, he said.
“This needs to stop. We plead with you all…kindly do not escalate the war,” said Cardinal Bo.
He said churches, hospitals and schools were protected during conflict by international conventions. He said the attack had prompted people to flee into the jungle.
Myanmar has been in chaos since the army took power on February 1 and ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Daily protests, marches and strikes nationwide against the junta, which has struggled to impose order as opposition against it grows, continue to be staged.
The military has responded with lethal force, killing more than 800 people, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners activist group.
The military disputes this figure and coup leader Min Aung Hlaing recently said about 300 people had been killed in the unrest, including 47 police.
The military is also fighting on a growing number of fronts, against established ethnic minority armies, and rag-tag local militias formed in the past few weeks, many armed with rudimentary rifles and home-made weapons.
Min Aung Hlaing has played down the risk of violence spiralling into a bigger conflict.
“I don’t think there will be a civil war,” he told Hong Kong-based Chinese language broadcaster Phoenix Television Phoenix in a May 20 interview.