Pope lands in Myanmar for difficult visit amid Rohingya crisis


Thousands of Catholics welcome Francis but there are fears of a firestorm if he even mentions the persecuted Muslim minority

Thousands of Catholics have welcomed Pope Francis to Yangon, where has begun a three-day visit to Myanmar.

The trip – fraught with sensitivity and trepidation over how he will deal with the plight of the Muslim Rohingya – could be the trickiest yet of his papacy.

After touching down in the early afternoon, the pope was greeted by a large crowd at the airport, many waving yellow and white Vatican flags and dressed in T-shirts bearing the slogan of the trip, “Love and Peace”.

As he drove past, they screamed and chanted “we love Papa”.

The head of the Catholic church faces a difficult diplomatic balancing act on his first papal visit to Myanmar.

Francis is scheduled to meet the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who between them have overseen the exodus of more than 620,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in the past three months.

Many civilians, fleeing an army campaign, arrived with bullet wounds and claimed their homes had been razed. The US, UK and the UN have said the violence appears to be ethnic cleansing.

The operation followed an attack on security posts on 25 August by Rohingya militants, who the government says are responsible for abuses. The army has also absolved itself of wrongdoing.

The pope has already spoken about the Rohingya in two appeals from the Vatican this year, including calling them “our Rohingya brothers and sisters”.

He will be staying with Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, archbishop of Yangon, who has advised Francis not to use the word.

“We have asked him at least to refrain from using the word ‘Rohingya’ because this word is very much contested and not acceptable by the military, nor the government, nor the people in Myanmar,” Bo said this month.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the pope had taken the advice he had been given seriously, but added: “We will find out together during the trip … it is not a forbidden word.”

The country of 51 million people includes about 650,000 Catholics, of whom about 150,000 were expected to travel to the commercial capital for the papal visit. Trains have been hired to take Christians living in northern Kachin state on the two-day journey.

Among the crowd at the airport, one man, who asked not to be named, said he hoped Francis would not wade into the crisis.

“He’s not a politician,” he said. “He doesn’t come here to physically get involved in this thing … At the moment we are trying to build our democratic country. There should not be so much pressure on us. It’s not fair,” he said.

Another Catholic at the terminal said the issue should not be ignored.

“I think he should speak about it. Because he is a leader of the Catholics as well as he has some moral status. I hope he will speak about it. He will bring peace to us,” said Raj Robin, who had just arrived back from a trip to India.

Full diplomatic ties were established between the Vatican and Myanmar in May during a visit by Aung San Suu Kyi, a winner of the Nobel peace prize whose global image has been tarnished by the bloodshed.

Following his visit to Myanmar, Francis will travel to Bangladesh to meet Rohingya refugees.


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