YANGON (REUTERS, AFP) – Pope Francis landed in Yangon on Monday (Nov 27), the start of a delicate visit for the leader of the Roman Catholic church to majority-Buddhist Myanmar, which is facing global condemnation over its treatment of Rohingya Muslims.
The 80-year-old pope, the first to travel to Myanmar, received Senior General Min Aung Hlaing at the archbishop’s residence in Yangon, where the pontiff will stay during his visit.
The UN and US accuse the army which the general controls of “ethnic cleansing” in a campaign that has driven more than 620,000 Rohingya from Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state into neighbouring Bangladesh since August.
The military crackdown on the reviled Rohingya looms large over the pope’s four-day trip. He has called the Rohingya his “brothers and sisters” in repeated entreaties to ease their plight.
During a 15-minute meeting the pontiff and the army chief spoke of the “great responsibility of the country’s authorities in this moment of transition”, the Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said.
Earlier, ethnic minorities in traditional dress welcomed Pope Francis at Yangon airport, and children presented him with flowers as he stepped off his plane.
He waved through an open window at dozens of children waving Vatican and Myanmar flags and T-shirts with the motto of the trip – "love and peace” - as he set off in a light blue Toyota car for St Mary’s Cathedral in the heart of the city.
Only about 700,000 of Myanmar’s 51 million people are Roman Catholic. Thousands of them travelled by train and bus to Yangon, and they joined crowds at several roadside points along the way from the airport to catch a glimpse of the pope.
“We come here to see the Holy Father. It happens once in hundreds of years,” said Win Min Set, a community leader who brought a group of 1,800 Catholics from southern and western states of the country.
“He is very knowledgeable when it comes to political affairs. He will handle the issue smartly,” he said, referring to the sensitivity of the pope’s discussions about the Rohingya.
Large numbers of riot police were mobilised in the country’s main city but there were no signs of any protests.
The trip is so delicate that some papal advisers have warned him against even saying the word “Rohingya”, lest he set off a diplomatic incident that could turn the Buddhist-majority country’s military and government against minority Christians.
The Rohingya exodus from Rakhine state to Bangladesh’s southern tip began at the end of August, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and the Myanmar army launched a counter-offensive.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week called the military operation “ethnic cleansing” and threatened targeted sanctions for “horrendous atrocities”.
Myanmar’s government has denied most of the accusations made against it, and the army says its own investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by troops.
Myanmar does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens nor as members of a distinct ethnic group with their own identity, and it even rejects the term “Rohingya” and its use.
Many people in Myanmar instead refer to members of the Muslim minority in Rakhine state as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
‘SOMEONE SHOULD HAVE TALKED HIM OUT OF IT’
Pope Francis is expected to meet a group of Rohingya refugees in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, on the second leg of his trip.
More than 150,000 people have registered for a mass that Pope Francis will say in Yangon on Wednesday, according to Catholic Myanmar Church spokesman Mariano Soe Naing.
Vatican sources say some in the Holy See believe the trip was decided too hastily after full diplomatic ties were established in May during a visit by civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Ms Suu Kyi’s reputation as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been tarnished because she has expressed doubts about the reports of rights abuses against the Rohingya and failed to condemn the military.
“I have great admiration for the pope and his abilities, but someone should have talked him out of making this trip,” said Father Thomas Reese, a prominent American author and analyst at Religion News Service.
The pope has already used the word Rohingya in two appeals from the Vatican this year.
Asked if he would say it in Myanmar, Mr Burke said Pope Francis was taking the advice he had been given seriously, but added: “We will find out together during the trip... it is not a forbidden word”.
A hardline Buddhist monk group previously known as Ma Ba Tha said it welcomed the pope’s visit but warned, without elaborating, of “a response” if he spoke openly about the Rohingya.
“I hope he doesn’t touch on sensitive issues that Myanmar people couldn’t accept,” said Tawparka, a spokesman for the influential group, who goes by a single name. “There’s no problem if he talks about Islam, but it’s unacceptable if he speaks about Rohingya and extreme terrorists.”