YANGON • Pope Francis has held talks with Myanmar's military chief at the start of a delicate visit to a majority-Buddhist country that the United States has accused of "ethnic cleansing" against its Muslim Rohingya people.
The leader of the Roman Catholic church will also visit Bangladesh, where more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled to escape what Amnesty International has dubbed "crimes against humanity".
Myanmar's army has denied accusations of murder, rape, torture and forced displacement that have been made against it.
The Pope's first meeting in Yangon yesterday was with military commander Min Aung Hlaing in St Mary's Cathedral at the heart of the South-east Asian nation's largest city.
"They discussed the great responsibility of the authorities of the country in this time of transition," Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said after the 15 minutes of talks, which were followed by a gift exchange.
Pope Francis presented the general with a commemorative medal of his visit, and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing gave the Pope a harp in the shape of a boat and an ornate rice bowl, Mr Burke said.
Earlier, members of ethnic minority groups in traditional dress welcomed the Pope 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 who had 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.
We come here to see the Holy Father. It happens once in hundreds of years. He is very knowledgeable when it comes to political affairs. He will handle the issue smartly.
MR WIN MIN SET, a community leader who took a group of 1,800 Catholics from the country's south and west to Yangon, on the Pope's discussions about the Rohingya.
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 Mr Win Min Set, a community leader who brought a group of 1,800 Catholics from the south and west 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 Yangon but there were no signs of any protests. The trip is so delicate that papal advisers have warned him against even saying the word "Rohingya", lest he set off a diplomatic incident that could turn the 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.