Francis began his six-day South Asia tour on Monday, closely watched on how he would address the recent mass-flight of 620,000 Rohingya Muslims from Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s Rakhine state into Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
His trip, which continues in Myanmar until Thursday — to be followed by two nights in Bangladesh — was planned before the United Nations and the US said that Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya bore the hallmarks of “ethnic cleansing.”
No mention, urge local Catholics
Catholics, who account for only 660,000 (1.2 percent) of Myanmar’s population of 53 million, had publicly urged Francis to avoid the term “Rohyingya,” because it was shunned by many locals.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke did not say whether the pontiff had used the term, but said Francis and General Min Aung Hlaing had jointly spoken “of the great responsibility of the authorities of the country in this moment of transition.”
Hlaing, meanwhile, wrote in a post on Facebook that he had told Francis that “Myanmar has no religious discrimination at all.”
They met at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon, the nation’s largest city and former capital.
A deal on repatriation of Rohingya refugees sheltering in southern Bangladesh was signed by Myanmar and Bangladeshi officials days before the pope’s arrival, but according to the UN it is still unsafe for them to go home.
Myanmar’s military has denied persecuting Rohingya and instead said it responded in August, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts.
UN: Aid resumption ready
Simultaneously on Monday, the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) said it would resume aid deliveries to Rakhine, a region in northern Myanmar, aiming initially to assist 36,000 people.
Arriving in Yangon on Monday, the pope was greeted by around 30,000 followers who lined the route from its airport to the archbishop’s residence. Francis rode in a simple blue sedan.
On Tuesday, Francis meets Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose Nobel peace prize has been tarnished by her reticence on the Rohingya crisis.
He is also due to deliver a speech to officials and travel to Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw.
ipj/msh (dpa, Reuters, AP)